Now a six-time Finnish national champion on the road, Pia Sundstedt hit the heights as a young woman winning the Giro Trentino (twice) and the Giro Toscana along with a fistful of stage wins at the women’s Giro d’ Italia. She also scored a World Cup win in Montreal and a Fleche Wallonne podium among a host of stellar results. But there was a life outside cycling, too, as she left the bike behind to study and then take a job in the fashion industry.
Sundstedt celebrates victory at the World Cup GP Suisse in 2000.
The competitive fires still burned and Pia returned to action, off-road this time, where she racked up a hugely impressive palmares including the overall XCM World Cup, the European XCM title and the TransAlp in 2011. However, like many athletes, there is one big target looming in 2012 …
… just before Christmas, PEZ caught up with Pia at home in Germany’s Black Forest to find out how the race for Games selection was going.
PEZ: First of all, your activities aren’t limited to one discipline. You mix things up a lot in competition and training – road, cross-country, skiing …
Pia Sundstedt: When you’re a young athlete it is important to do a lot of different sports. Then you have a period as an athlete when you just focus on just one thing. I had that period for seven years when I was a road professional.
Now I’m getting old (laughs!) and I have to start to do a lot of different things again to improve because if I just go road cycling, I’m not getting better any more.
PEZ: You have a big target in London for next summer …
Pia Sundstedt: I was in Sydney almost twelve years ago, so this will be my last time at the Olympics. So I will try to be there … I will try.
PEZ: What is the qualification process and how does it impact you?
Pia Sundstedt: The ‘A’ criteria is the national ranking, which allows the first 23 nations to send competitors to the Games; then there is a ‘B’ ranking which allows for a rider from outside those countries to get a spot if she is in the top 100 in the world ranking. So this is my chance.
PEZ: What sort of support can the national federation give you?
Pia Sundstedt: Cycling is not a big sport in Finland. The Finnish federation is very small so they do not have a lot of money but is really doing their best. Their job is to support young athletes. They have to do the groundwork so that one day, from those young riders, there might be another Pia Sundstedt or another Sari Saarelainen.
They cannot always support me with money, but they support me everywhere they can. When I ask them to do some favours for me, they do it. I can really trust that everything is done. Therefore the Olympic committee is supporting me financially, so it is kind of a co-operation between the Olympic committee and the federation. Without this support it would be impossible for me to compete at this level.
PEZ: Take us back to your young career on the road …
Pia Sundstedt: I had a good career on the road, many victories … I don’t even remember them any more! I do remember the first World Cup race that I won in Montreal. That’s something I’ll never forget, and also the victory in the World Cup event in Switzerland.
2000 was a very good year for me. I was second in the World Cup final classification, but I worked very hard. Before that I had all kinds of injuries, a bit of bad luck. It was just something that I decided … that for 2000 I’m going to be the best in the World!
PEZ: Second in the World Cup is pretty close!
Pia Sundstedt: Yeah, almost!
PEZ: After a long career on the road, it was time for the real world!
Pia Sundstedt: I studied first. I finished my studies in two years, what people usually do in five years! It was Political Science, really easy!
PEZ: You recently appeared in a debate on TV with a politician, so you must still be passionate about the subject?
Pia Sundstedt: No, not really. It’s not my world, but I follow the political situation, with the economic crisis in Europe. I would never be a politician myself. A politician is a really mean person, I find. They have a debate and they’re really mean, then afterwards they’re best friends. They have to be good actors.
PEZ: What was your job after your road career?
Pia Sundstedt: I worked in Finland, in the textile business for the biggest private clothing company in Finland, and I worked in the HQ. I went to fairs in places like Hong Kong as the company was buying the clothes for the next season. It was an interesting job.
PEZ: How do things look for cycling in Finland …
Pia Sundstedt: It’s a really bad situation in Finland in women’s cycling at the moment, men’s cycling also, I’d say. I think we’ll only have Jussi Veikkanen in the World Tour, we have a few guys like Kimmo Kannanen riding in Belgium … it’s always one athlete here, one athlete there.
I don’t understand it when you look at how well the Danes are doing, the Swedes, the Norwegians. These are the other Scandinavian countries. We can’t blame the weather … the weather is sometimes shit, but it is also shit in Sweden, and they have good riders. There is a lot of work to do for cycling.
PEZ: How easy was it to transition from off-road back to the tarmac again?
Pia Sundstedt: It wasn’t that difficult. I’m mostly riding on the road when I’m training. I hardly ever ride the mountain bike, it’s just too intense and you’d just get tired of it. The marathon races are really, really hard – you go full-blast from the beginning for three, four, five hours. So I had the fitness level for riding on the road.
My only problem was to feel comfortable in the bunch. I’m not used to it any more … I’m riding in the forest with no other people around me! (Laughing) Suddenly there are one hundred other girls around me, and I don’t trust them. I trust myself and my skills, but if one of them makes a mistake, I’m crashing too.
In the woods it’s my own fault if I crash because then I didn’t know how to ride my bike!
The other problem was the attacking. I’m not used to that any more either. When I’m riding a marathon it’s like a long time trial. Changing the rhythm ten times in a race … I got tired of it. When I used to race in the 1990s, I could make twenty attacks without getting tired!
PEZ: But you attacked a lot in the national road race last summer …
Pia Sundstedt: I had to … it was completely flat! I wanted the UCI ranking points. I just wanted to win. I didn’t want to leave it to a sprint finish as I’m not a sprinter so I attacked a lot and eventually got the opposition down to seven riders, two riders, one and then just me.
PEZ: What did it feel like to be national champion again?
Pia Sundstedt: I don’t know … I did it only for the points to be honest. Of course it’s nice to have the jersey and show it off here in Europe again after so many years. There was a lot of media, especially as I’m not in Finland so often, but I prefer winning the European (XCM) championships to the road nationals.
PEZ: How will you structure your season in 2012?
Pia Sundstedt: I haven’t decided yet. I have to keep an eye on the UCI ranking and I don’t want to ride too many races early in the season. I prefer starting the season in April, May. I don’t need to start racing in February … I’m too old for that! I’ve done it so many years, I don’t need that any more! I prefer to go out cross-country skiing until March and then get on the bike.
In June and July, I’ll ride mostly marathons, then London hopefully, and after London, 100% marathons again.
PEZ: What is Freiburg like as a base?
Pia Sundstedt: It’s very central in Europe, it’s great for training. I can go cross-country skiing, and that’s something I need. I couldn’t ride my bike twelve months a year. It’s perfect here in the Black Forest, so beautiful. If you want to ride your bike, you can go to the flatter roads towards France, or up into the mountains.
I can go out in April and do four or five hours on the bike, then go out in the evening and train on my cross-country skis and see the sunset. We have everything here.
PEZ: One of your more extreme competitive experiences in 2011 was a road race in Syria! Can you tell us about it?
Pia Sundstedt: It was really exciting, actually a great experience. I went there with the national team because of the ranking points available in the race – I’m not in a team as such, so I can’t ride category one races. I was happy that it was afterwards I read more about Syria and saw things on TV, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone there.
I was scared and happy to get away from there. We were staying in the hotels, we were brought to and from the races. I didn’t meet any people there except for the organisers, the other riders and I was only there for three or four days.
The first day I was there, I was walking on the street and I took a picture and the police stopped. Afterwards, I just had the feeling that we were so controlled all the time. When we moved away from the hotel, it felt like someone was following us. There were no other foreigners in the country apart from the athletes.
PEZ: Your end-of-season was strong, especially at the Chrono des Nations …
Pia Sundstedt: I had built up the season like that … I was riding the marathons until September, then I had six weeks to get as many ranking points as possible to qualify for the Olympics.
I was very focussed, and maybe a bit surprised to go top five in the Chrono des Nations.
PEZ: What do you do away from the bike when you’re not riding or skiing?
Pia Sundstedt: At the moment, I’m writing a lot of blogs for different websites and magazines, and that takes quite a lot of time – for cycling magazines, and also for a Finnish news agency. Mostly sports magazines, no magazines about politics!
It was great to speak to a fascinating woman who is still as passionate about the bike now as she was when she started racing, and Pez wishes her the best of luck in her bid to ride in the Olympics.
Pia also modestly left out the formative sporting triumph that set her on her way – national champion sand castle builder on Hailuoto Island, aged four!
For more on Pia check out her blog and follow her on Twitter.