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Legend: Ina Teutenberg

#IWD2021 • Words by Heidi Swift with images from Heidi Swift, Velodramatic/Specialized, Courtesy Elke Teutenberg

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Mettman, Germany, 1981. A scrappy 6-year-old tomboy climbs onto her too-big bicycle and rolls to the start line of a small local race. The field is full of boys. She wants to beat them but not because they’re boys and she’s a girl—she wants to beat everyone, all the time, forever, no matter what. She shows up to win, not just to survive. Even this young, in the first race of her life, she knows that. She can smell victory.

Instead, she crashes 500 meters into the race. She crashes so hard that her bike is destroyed and she can’t even finish. It’s an inauspicious start.

Ina-Yoko Teutenberg is really pissed off about crashing. So she does what any serious cyclist would do—she goes home and the following day gets her town bike and enters another race. Despite the heavy bike and the road rash, she beats all but two of the boys. The fire is lit. Teutenberg spends the next 32 years trying to beat every single person she lines up against.

The two-time Olympian’s career is one of the longest and most prolific in the history of the sport with a palmarès that goes on and on, including 21 stage wins at the Tour de L’Aude (the race record for most stages won), six stage wins in the Route de France, 11 stage wins at the Giro d’Italia Femminile, five victories in Philadelphia’s Liberty Classic, a bronze medal in the 2011 World Championships, and a career-making win at the 2009 Tour of Flanders. She was also part of the Specialized-lululemon team time trial squad that won the 2012 world TTT title—which she counts as one of her favorite victories. All told, Teutenberg racked up more than 200 victories during her 15 years as an elite racer.

But what may be even more compelling than Teutenberg’s staggering list of achievements is the mysterious and intangible spirit that she brought to the sport. She is a rider that everyone loves to watch, but not just because she’s committed to animating the race; she’s a natural leader, unapologetically outspoken, startlingly forthright, quick with a joke and surprisingly light-hearted. Her confidence, compassion and well-balanced sense of justice have made her one of the most respected riders in the peloton. An undeniable good nature underpins her no-bullshit demeanor. She might tell you you’re acting like an asshole, but it’s only because she has your best interest at heart. Teutenberg wants to make everyone around her better. She wants to make the sport better, make the racing better and make the riders better.

Last fall, the now 39-year-old Teutenberg announced her retirement, but not without some misgivings. After crashing in a mass pileup at the Dutch race Acht van Dwingeloo in early March, she was left her with a serious head injury that sidelined her for months. For two weeks after the crash she was unable to tolerate light. She slept 18 hours a day. She couldn’t handle any noise, couldn’t read and could only focus on one person at a time—which meant that coffee shops and other public spaces were unbearable. When she tried to get back on the bike, she was overcome with severe eye pain followed by crippling nausea that made her feel as if she would pass out. She couldn’t drive without feeling sick and developing an intense headache.

Basically, for several months over the summer she was trapped in what she describes as “a dark cave”—the bowels of depression—while navigating the complicated journey of recovery from a head injury that no one fully understood. Eventually, after several failed attempts at resuming a rigorous training regimen, she announced that she was officially ending her season. A few months later, she announced her retirement.

There is a tragic poetry to the kind of bookend that the 2013 crash created: a great champion whose career started with a crash also ends with one. “Maybe it was meant to happen this way,” she reflects, though her tone hints that she isn’t totally convinced, that she hasn’t totally accepted it. Long-time friend and owner of Highroad Sports, Bob Stapleton, spoke more plainly: “It’s just super disappointing. Jens [Voigt] who’s had some big crashes is going to do his final victory tour year, right? If there was ever an athlete who deserved to go out on top, it was really Ina. This is absolutely the most unfair and most unfortunate way to end. It’s a little premature and definitely not what she wanted or what anyone would want for her.”

Teutenberg refuses to dwell on her disappointment and is already planning a busy 2014. She’ll direct the Specialized-lululemon team in the early-season U.S. races, work at a progressive animal sanctuary in Southern Utah, and then join Canadian Olympic gold medalist (and national hero) Clara Hughes for part of her fundraising ride across Canada and back. Stapleton notes that if Teutenberg can handle the psychological impact of not being able to compete, she has the capacity to make an immeasurably positive impact on the sport as a director. “In terms of somebody working with athletes, I think she’s pretty hard to beat,” he said. “She’s beyond encyclopedic in terms of her knowledge base—any discipline, any type of course, any competitive dynamic. She’s incredibly well informed and experienced.”

While Teutenberg is intent on looking forward, she was willing to indulge me in a bit of reflection on her racing career. She’s reluctant to talk about her accomplishments with anything more than fast-and-dry factual accounts, but you can get her fired up if you go at it correctly. Her modesty is the genuine, Teutonic, pragmatic variety. She approaches life both as a struggle that must be conquered and a kind of fantastic experience that you really have to enjoy. “She’s really a contradiction,” Stapleton said, “She’s everything you would expect in terms of a hard-assed, self-disciplined, super-motivated, classically German athlete, but then she’s got this almost California hippy side to her.”

Currently living at San Luis Obispo, in central California, “Teute” (as her friends call her) spends a lot of time on the beach, loves to trail run and is pretty hopelessly in love with her dog, Sophie. She also swears a lot, loves beer, wears blue adidas Dragons and makes a damn fine Sunday-morning brunch date.

Keep Up
Teutenberg spent her childhood chasing her brothers, Sven and Lars, who are two and four years older than her, respectively. Her father raced as well, so the family spent nearly every weekend racing bikes. “It was fun. That’s just what we did, we just all went to bike races,” she said. “I was hyperactive anyway, so I did need the exercise. I would have driven my parents even more nuts.” The family pooled their race winnings to cover the inevitable expenses associated with racing: new tires, repairs, spare parts. Ina and her brothers cleaned and cared for their own equipment, and by the time she was 12 she could put a bike together on her own.

Because she was younger, Teutenberg never got to race with her brothers, but she trained with them almost daily and recalls being put into the ditch during sprinting practice on more than one occasion. “The people in the hospital in my town knew us and they would say, ‘Who is it today, Mrs. Teutenberg?’ when we walked in. Most of the time it was me.”

She credits Sven and Lars with turning her into the rider she is today. They practiced a no-mercy policy with their baby sister: “They would drop me on the downhill and then I would have to ride home by myself. They said, ‘If we can ride that fast downhill then you can ride that fast and if not then you have to go home by yourself.’ So I did. And then after a little while I didn’t have to go home by myself because they didn’t drop me anymore.”

During a trip to the local lake for winter ice-skating, Teutenberg fell and complained to her brothers about the pain in her wrist. They told her she was fine, to suck it up—so she did. It was only later that evening when she convinced her mother to drive her to the hospital that they discovered it was actually broken. ”I told those bastards it was hurting!” she recalled, laughing.

It’s impressive for any younger sibling to keep up with older brothers in sport, but Teutenberg’s brothers weren’t just any cyclists; both went on to ride professionally at a very high level. Lars was an accomplished track racer with a German national championship in the Madison under his belt. Sven enjoyed a long career in the ProTour with high-profile squads such as U.S. Postal, Gerolsteiner and Phonak, he completed the Tour de France in 2001 with Festina, and rode in the Vuelta five times. Not a bad set of wheels to cut your teeth on.

Besides influencing the gutsy, ferocious rider that Ina would become, Sven and Lars have also continued to support her career (Lars eventually became the technical director for HTC-Highroad for a number of years): “Even in the last couple of years they have still helped me so much. They’ve been there my whole career and they have always taken care of me.”

Into The Gutter
Teutenberg started racing full-time immediately after high school and joined the German army for two years, which allowed her to ride as part of a special sports program. She traveled and trained extensively in Australia and New Zealand, received funding from the German Olympic Committee and worked with the German Cycling Federation (BDR), where she ultimately butted heads with the leadership. Teutenberg raced for the dominant Saturn Cycling Team, from 2001 to 2003, where she and her teammates (the roster reads like a who’s-who list: Judith Arndt, Petra Rossner, Lyne Bessette, Kimberly Bruckner) rode together to some fairly legendary results.

On one such occasion during a windy stage of the 2002 Idaho Women’s Challenge, Teutenberg and four teammates attacked the peloton. “We had a rider up the road so she told us that the road was turning. We all went to the front and formed an echelon and just hit it when we came around that turn into the wind. I remember me and Judith and Petra and our whole team just shattering people—taking more into the gutter and more into the gutter until finally there was no one left and we had shattered the whole peloton.” The team kept the hammer down into the bottom of the long finishing hill and then released their climbers to do their thing. Teutenberg and the others promptly imploded, making the time cut for the day by only 30 seconds. “That wouldn’t have been good [to miss the cut],” Teutenberg laughed. “But it was worth it. That was an amazing day—something that will only happen once in your life. Every other DS was telling us they’d never seen anything like it before.”

Saturn folded at the end of 2003, but that unfortunate event eventually led to the real beginning of her most impressive string of successes. In 2005, Bob Stapleton brought her on as the first foreigner to join the newly international T-Mobile squad. “I got the chance to watch Ina for a few years and by 2005, bringing her on was kind of a no-brainer. I think we made the deal on the phone in about five minutes, and basically we’ve worked together ever since.”

In that inaugural season with T-Mobile, Teutenberg scored her first win at the legendary Liberty Classic in Philadelphia. It’s a victory that remains near to her heart both because she’d helped teammates win there for years and because, out of all of the races she’s entered over the course of her career, the Liberty Classic is her hands-down favorite.

The race, which was a World Cup event until 2001, has a long history of drawing in the world’s best. “The event is just so big. The town is behind us. Think of how many spectators are at the [Manayunk] Wall screaming. It gives you goose bumps. When you fly into Philly you go pick up your bike bag and even the people at the airport are excited about the race.”

Teutenberg had raced in Philly every year since 1998, usually in support of Rossner, who ultimately posted a record seven victories that included a five-win streak from 1998 to 2002. Rossner was a key mentor and good friend to Teutenberg during her early racing years: “I knew a lot about racing before I met Petra because I had raced my bike since I was a kid, so she didn’t really have to teach me a lot about the actual racing—it was more about handling pressure. She showed me how to do that and she led me to it so when it was time for her to retire and for me to take over I was able to do it.”

It was in 2005 that Rossner passed the torch. “The pressure suddenly was on me and I had to win Philly. I’d been part of winning teams for that race for so many years so I know how exciting that feels, but when you finally do it yourself and win that sprint down Benjamin Franklin [Parkway] it’s just like … oh my god, this is awesome.” In the years that followed, Teutenberg made a run at her former teammate and longtime friend’s victory record, racking up a total of five, the last of which she scored during her final full season in 2012.

Magic Legs
Some years are magical and for Teutenberg, the 2008-10 period fell into that category. In 2008, she racked up two stage wins at the Tour de l’Aude, three at the Route de France, three at the Tour of Holland, two at the Giro di Toscana, and also won four stages of the Giro Donne—a feat which she would match in 2010 when she shocked everyone by also winning the individual time trial. “I won the first few stages and had the pink jersey. So I was sure I was going to lose it in the time trial,” she said. Teutenberg was a formidable sprinter, one of the best in the business, but she wasn’t known as a TT specialist and she certainly wasn’t supposed to win that day in Italy. “I come across the line and see that I won and all I can think is, ‘You gotta be fucking shitting me.’”

Teutenberg scored a familiar haul of stage wins in major tours in 2009, but she also took her third victory in Philly, won the general classification at California’s Redlands Classic and San Dimas stage races, became the German national champion, and won three spring classics in Europe, including the Tour of Flanders—which some consider the most important victory of her career.

“I wasn’t really even on the list to race Flanders,” she said. “Judith was always our girl for that race and the years I’d raced it I had never really made it over the final climb in the front group. I’d ridden well at San Dimas and Redlands, and Judith was out with a broken collarbone, so they asked me to fly in and do it.” Expectations were low for Teutenberg, but, for whatever reason, she hit the start line with magic legs. “It was one of these races that went like the PlayStation—the hills were easy, I was in the top 10 all day. You always hope a race will go like that, but they never do. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.” Photos of the finish show a shocked Teutenberg crossing the line, mouth agape, arms clenched in an elated victory salute. “That is the most emotion you’ll ever get out of me in a photo,” she said. “I could not believe I’d just won Van Vlaanderen.”

The Ina Effect
Her 2009 winning streak contributed to making Columbia-Highroad the strongest team in the world that year with 46 total team victories, but throughout her career it was her leadership—even more than her racing—that really helped the teams around her rise to a new level. From Saturn to T-Mobile, and through all of the Highroad iterations, Teutenberg’s squads from 2001 to 2013 were consistently stacked with the best talent of the time, and it’s hard to dismiss the coincidence. “You’ve hit upon our big secret weapon in recruiting,” Stapleton admitted. “I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘I don’t want to ride with Ina.’ In fact, it’s quite the contrary. It’s like, ‘I’ll do anything to ride with Ina.’”

If the race was boring, Teutenberg would attack (she was as famous for instigating breakaways as she was for her sprint). If a rider was out of line, she would put them back in place, sometimes literally. She famously stiff-armed Kristin Armstrong in 2002 when the very green triathlete-turned-road-racer was riding dangerously near the Saturn squad. Armstrong, who eventually became Teutenberg’s teammate and then went on to become a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has been quoted as saying, “I feel special that Ina Teutenberg stiff-armed me …. She taught me tactics. She taught me patience. She taught me basically how to race my bike. She may not know it, but her impact was amazing.”

In the peloton, Teutenberg was fiercely respected. According to Stapleton, “She’s really the patron. She’s the boss. She would enforce safe racing, she would enforce fair conduct …. She could almost organize anything. She was a larger-than-life force. It’s really rare that you find the talent and the personality coming together in one package like that,” Stapleton said. “[Marianne] Vos is probably the best rider ever, ultimately, but I don’t think she’s had the same kind of social or psychological impact that Ina’s had on the peloton.”

Friend and former teammate Clara Hughes adds: “I definitely think she’s the last leader in the pack. There’s nobody in the sport that has that strength of character anymore. Nobody. And nobody will. Ina was the last one that everyone would listen to, no matter who you were. She’ll always be remembered for being a badass and being a tough ass, but also for being really fair all the time.”

Teutenberg’s game face is legendary and, in a sport that does not have a reputation for making people rich, her motivation is as pure as that day in 1981 when she rolled up to her first start line. “The point is the competition,” she said. “You go and win the race and you’re better than the others. You want to be better than the others. That’s it. If you put a number on my back, I just fucking go.”

From issue 28. Buy it here.