Cycling is really hard, but ballet is even harder’ – the Swedish runner who was once a ballerina
In Edgar Degas’ paintings of ballerinas, as The dance class (opens in a new tab), the effort of the juvenile ballerinas is clear to the viewer. The young dancers tend towards perfection, under the watchful eye of the ballet master. A girl tries out an ‘attitude’ for her exam, while her peers stretch and their mothers watch.
Ballet was a harsh discipline in 1874, which demanded a strict, highly restrictive lifestyle from its performers, and it remains one today, potentially more than that of professional cycling.
Art critic John Berger wrote that Degas was “obsessed with the art of classical ballet, because to him it said something about the human condition”. Berger wrote, “The dance offered him a display in which he could find, after much research, certain human secrets.”
Cycling is similar, in that it reveals more about the human condition than it immediately appears: riders are pushed to the limits of their abilities, of their bodies, to perform.
One person who has experienced the two high-pressure worlds of ballet and professional cycling is Swedish rider Nathalie Eklund.
Talk to weekly cycling before her first Tour of Flanders, the Massi-Tactic rider said: “Cycling is really difficult, but ballet is even more difficult.”
Ten years ago, Eklund performed on stage as a ballerina, as a student at a prestigious dance school in the Netherlands. Now, in 2022, she performs in a different kind of art, as her legs move to the rhythm of the peloton rather than the music.
“I started when I was 10,” the Swede explained of her dance history. “I went to the Royal Swedish Ballet School for 10 years, then moved to Rotterdam to start Codarts University, but after six months I decided to quit dancing. I had a difficult few years , because I was so into the dance.”
After leaving ballet, she trained in Naprapathy before taking up triathlon, then after a series of running injuries, she switched to cycling.
“I always want more and I don’t feel satisfied,” she said. “But if I look back from where I started, it’s been a pretty long journey for sure. Pretty quick.”
Already during her short cycling career, she won the Swedish national road race championships, as well as the national time trial title. In 2021, she raced with the Swedish national team at the World Championships, finishing 18th in the time trial. This is her first year with Massi-Tactic, which has seen her reach a new level.
At 30, his entry into the sport was late, even later than that of other riders like Primož Roglič, Michael Woods and Marlen Reusser, who all came to professional cycling in their late twenties.
She’s aiming high, though, something she just can’t help. Having come close to being a top ballet dancer, Eklund now wants to be a top cyclist.
“My biggest goal is to go to the Paris Olympics,” she said. “But I’ve always been a person who doesn’t start something just to do it, I want to reach the highest peak. I want to explore what I’m capable of in this sport and then see.”
It’s tricky for a Swede, due to the country’s lack of places in a race like the Olympics. “It’s super tough, you have to be in the top eight in the world,” Eklund said. It’s clearly a big target.
She quit ballet due to “mental illness,” and it’s no surprise that the world of cycling seems pretty benign to that of dancing.
“I didn’t see the fun of it anymore,” she explained. “To me, if you’re going to push yourself that far, both your body and your mind, you really have to think it’s fun.”
Cycling is perhaps the activity that fills the void left by ballet, although there is still much to be done, given that dancing has been a part of Eklund’s life for more than a decade.
“I don’t miss dancing, but I do miss the feelings of expressing myself,” she said. “I can’t really describe it, and I haven’t felt it any other way. Sometimes I feel it in a really good race, but I think I’ll feel it even more when the crowd is there.”
Cycling is like ballet in that you are part of an entire troupe, which is different from triathlon. “In cycling, compared to triathlon, I like that you race as a team,” she explained. “It’s one of the best things about cycling. You have different qualities and you help the team in different races. It’s not always one person who is the leader, I love that.”
Her first Tour of Flanders is one with the returning crowds, and she spoke to the media immediately after leaving the stage at the signing. “It’s surreal,” she said. “The crowd, for me, is a new thing, because I started running during the pandemic, and I’ve never run with the public before, it’s a totally different thing.”
Ballerinas are known for their flexibility and strength, and while the skills aren’t immediately transferable, there are things that help in both sports.
“Maybe it helps on the time trial bike, but I also think it’s not good to be too flexible,” Eklund said. “You have to have the nerve. I have the core strength but also the knees and the feet, I have to have stronger muscles around those joints than the others. I think that’s why I got myself injured while running, and in cycling I was lucky not to have so many injuries, so that’s good.”
French poet Charles Baudelaire once described dance as “poetry with arms and legs”. Cycling is more like an epic novel, with stories unfolding over hours, days and even years. Degas would certainly have work to paint such an active sport. Eklund hopes his story is just beginning on two wheels.