Elisabeth Brandau, from „Night Ride“ to world class
At the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Albstadt, Elisabeth Brandau would have been a local hero and the 34-year-old would have been expected to do a lot. Two of her best results were achieved by the third of the European Championships at the World Cup in Albstadt. But that is not the only reason why Brandau is an interesting personality. In the interview for the 20 Heads for 2020 series, the versatile individualist lets us look deep into her athlete’s soul and gives us an idea of how important the role of the mental components in cross-country sports is.
Elisabeth Brandau has taken a special path in her sports career. Road racing, four years off from competition, then mountain biking. First marathon, then cross-country. The actual Olympic season 2020 was supposed to be the last year as a racer for the mother of two and to conclude an unconventional career with her first participation in the Olympics.
Elisabeth Brandau has not only embarked on a special career path as an athlete. An apprenticeship as a refrigeration plant mechanic in her parents’ company, professional experience in another company and at the same time master school. Later she completed additional training as a building energy consultant and after that graduated as a natural health professional. In the meantime she organizes a Brandau bike service together with her husband. All more or less during her active sports career.
In addition, from 2012 onwards always in self-organised formations, at races mostly with the support of her husband Marco and friends. A huge workload the woman from Schönaich is doing, one that also sets the limits for competitive sports. Nevertheless, the power woman has in parts reached the top of the world.
Elisabeth Brandau, as a mother of two and a professional cyclist, how are you doing in these difficult times of the Corona pandemic?
It is actually quite difficult because the normal course of events is completely disorganized. The sporting goals are missing, the children are at home and the handicraft and bike service was booming. Somehow I try not to lose focus, but I also have to think about my whole family (parental business).
Probably difficult then to have a good training, but are you currently trying to do so at all?
For me it has always been critical to clear my head for training anyway. I’m the type who always thinks a lot. And now even more so. I train as long as it´s good for all aspects and whatever is necessary at the moment. As long as there are no competitions I am relaxed and there is still time until September, even though I have heard that others are training on a larger scale. But I hope that the emergency childcare will work out now and that the children will have a better everyday life, so that I will have more quality time, too. In an independent family this is not easy for them either. Max (the older son) said today, “other moms don’t work nights either.”
At the moment you don’t know what’s coming up in the season anyway.
I hope that we will have something solid when the UCI announces another calendar by May 15th. If there are races this season, I will be able to cope with it. I always managed to do it somehow. I suppose that the Olympic qualification will be changed again as well.
The Nations Ranking, which decides the number of Olympic starting positions per country, would have run until the end of May. Because of the Corona crisis, the World Cycling Federation stopped collecting points at the beginning of March, which would have given the German female bikers two starting positions. But after the Olympics were postponed to 2021, this will probably be reconsidered.
This season you were actually looking at the end of your career. Does that mean you’re going to continue for another year?
If the 2021 Olympics take place, I will. Without the Olympics, probably not. However, I’m curious to see how the qualifying criteria will change. It’s all still pretty fuzzy. The anti-doping controls are also permeable at the moment, some are allowed to train outside, like we here in Germany, others like Pauline Ferrand Prevot (reigning World Champion) in France were not allowed to do so for a long time. This is not really fair.
All in all this is…
…a big challenge for everybody.
You can look back on the 2019 season, which was very successful in the first half and marked by problems in the second half, which are still ongoing.
It started in Lenzerheide. At first it was more of a mental thing. But since then I have had difficulties in the very intensive areas of stress. Then there was the tailbone fracture I got while training for the Worlds.
Up to that point you had achieved the best results of your career. At the World Cup in Les Gets a third place at the short track, a third place in cross-country and two weeks later bronze at the European Championships in Brno.
Yes, it was a hard program last summer and I was just mentally too exhausted. Even though I reached my best results between the World Cups in Val di Sole and Lenzerheide, physically speaking, in Switzerland I was done.
In Lenzerheide, not only a disappointing 49th place was recorded, but also a sporting low two days earlier. At the short track on Friday evening Elisabeth Brandau rode further and further forwards after a bad start, took the lead and crossed the finish line first. However, one lap too early. If things go well in the race, she doesn’t notice anything, says Brandau. If you take the best values she read on her computer two days before, she was probably in a very good mood. That’s how this faux pas came about. Brandau more or less fell off her bike at the finish line and before she realized what was going on, almost all her competitors rode past her. In the end, she was 21st, and Jolanda Neff, first in the world ranking lists, comforted her. “Too bad for you, you were the strongest.”
Lets take a leap, far back to the beginning of your career. We would like to trace a little bit how you became the best female German mountain biker.
Please describe your path into cycling.
I have always loved cycling and my father sponsored the ‘Rund um Schönaich’ race.
The street classic in your home town, which always takes place on Easter Monday.
Exactly. In the game holidays my brother, who is almost two years younger, took part in the cycling competitions and I thought, I can do what he does, too and so I joined. I won with the boys, I think. In any case, the club (RSC Schönaich) probably recognized that I have talent.
How old were you then?
That was in 1998, when I was twelve years old. But I guess I’ve always had something to do with wheels. In third grade I once won a painting competition for painting two bikes. The topic was: what do you like to do best with your friend. In the middle of 1999 I got my first license and leased a racing bike from the club. Before that I rode my dad’s bike. I rode small races and luckily the national coaches were Udo Kollross and Wolfgang Ruser. They picked me out of there. Both of them live not far from my home and so I had my first training courses.
That was the beginning of your cycling career.
I can still vividly remember the courses with Udo and Wolfgang. That was super tough, but also the best thing that could have happened to me. The training I went through there made a lot of things easier for me. There was already power behind it.
Then you took off relatively quickly, right?
The first season I dislocated my elbow right away. But in 2000, in my first year, I rode the German Junior Road Championship in Unna (more precisely: in Fröndenberg), when I was 14 years old. In the same year, I had my first national team appearance at the Italy-Germany international comparison in Alpirsbach. There was Bianca Knöpfle (today Purath) with me, Sabine Rupp,…wait a minute.
At this point Elisabeth Brandau starts to take folders from the shelf. Grandpa has documented everything neatly. Results, reports, photos…The first folder was made in 1999. In 2000 she rode 22 races, she quotes from the archive. Alpirsbach was in August and in September there was a race in Bergamo. She continues to browse through the folders.
In 2001 I won the TMP Youth Tour in Waltershausen, ahead of Bianca Knöpfle…phew,…I didn’t even remember. When you look at the pictures, you crack up (laughs). I had got my own new bike, a Lance Armstrong bike. I was so happy. What I remember is: one day before the tour I was in the outdoor swimming pool with friends. I got a scolding, but I was totally relaxed at the start. Then I fought a lot of duels with Bianca.
In 2003, Bianca Knöpfle became junior world champion in time trial.
Yes, exactly. In road racing I rode away with the Russian Valentina Gavrilova. Then it was said that the German team closed the hole. I was super pissed off then, also with me. When I think about what Bianca then showed at the Worlds, I was a bit envious. Bianca was also in a better sporting and family position. My family supported me as much as they could, but it was still not a cycling family. They didn’t have the know-how for competitive sports.
And which place did you make in road racing?
I came in after my breakaway attempt in the field. Sabine Fischer won the bronze medal.
2003 was also your last year as a road racer.
Yes, the World Championship was my last race.
Did that have anything to do with this World Championship?
Also. And with school. I started an apprenticeship at home (refrigeration plant mechanic) at the end of 2002, because I thought it would be easier than with the A levels. I already had problems riding in the field anyway and that would have been even more difficult with the women. I also didn’t like working according to a training plan and filling out a training documentation. I just rode my bike and got faster with every race.
Did it come as a surprise to the coaches that you quit?
Jochen Dornbusch (then women’s road coach) asked me two years later if I wanted to get back in. Wolfgang (Ruser) already said to me this year: you know, Lisa, you never rode badly because you didn’t train enough. Only when you have trained too much (laughs).
So your career was suddenly over. Did you put the bike in the corner?
It was an act of defiance. I kept riding my bike. The first time I really missed racing was in 2008 when I watched Olympia. I worked in Mannheim for several weeks and made many tours there via MTB-News contacts. We also watched Olympia and Tour de France. Or when Claudia (Häusler) won the Giro d’Italia in 2009. I was often better than her in the junior classes and I thought about where the trip would have gone. But by the time I quit, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t have a different view of things and would have needed someone to take me by the hand…but whether I would have let that happen to me (laughs), I don’t know.
It was probably not only an act of defiance, it also added up a lot, didn’t it?
Yeah. My self-esteem wasn’t that great, and I took a lot personally. Maybe it wasn’t the self-confidence but rather my over-ambitiousness that broke me. I was always unatisfied, no matter what. On the one hand, it pushed me, but on the other hand, it broke me.
So you continued cycling, but no more races.
Nope. I just rode the 200-kilometer cycling tours. I never had a problem with endurance. We met with friends at 6 a.m. in the morning and started riding.
And at some point someone said, “Why don’t you come mountain biking“?
I wanted to take part in a 24-hour race in Munich and didn’t have a mountain bike.
You’ve never participated in an MTB race before either?
I did once, in August 2003, when I was on holiday alone in our hut in Savognin (Switzerland) for the first time. There I rode the Swiss Cup. The day before I rented a mountain bike from the bike rental and rode with my road pedals. In a T-shirt (laughs), because I rented the bike for free and was supposed to advertise for the bike shop.
And how was the experience?
I still have a scar from it today because I always fell in the same curve. In the last lap I made the curve. I was so happy about that that I fell in the next turn (laughs). That was my first mountain bike race. I tore my ligament before the 24-hour race. I think I slipped on the roof at the construction site. First I cancelled the race, but four or five days before I looked again to see if there was a free place somewhere. Then I rode in one of those Swiss old gentlemen´s teams.
With torn ligaments?
Yeah, I had one of those splints on. I wasn’t that bad then and I met other people. Via the forum MTB-News, I came to mountain biking. We always did Night Ride and once I almost ran over an old schoolmate in the forest. When we continued riding together, I thought I knew him from somewhere, but I didn’t know from where anymore. But neither did he. At some point we figured out that Axel Strohm was from my old parallel class, but he continued until his A-levels. We often rode together then. I can’t remember exactly, but somehow I ended up doing the marathon in St. Ingbert in 2007.
Where the German Marathon Championships were held at that time.
But I rode in hobby races and won. I would have been seventh in the women’s licence race. There I got to know the team Best-Bike-Parts of Lukas Kubis and they persuaded me to get a license. From then on I trained with Sportamed’s training plan. I went with them to a training camp in Turkey, did the marathon in Manavgat and in 2008 I became German Marathon Champion.
The marathon title was won by Elisabeth Brandau, then 22 years old, at the end of September in Singen. However, she had already celebrated a handful of victories during her premiere season as a mountain biker and had finished 13th at the Marathon World Championships in July.
What did you work back then?
I worked as a refrigeration plant engineer at Rütgers in Freiberg am Neckar and attended the master school at the same time. My teacher was very proud that I became German champion, I had to take a picture with him (laughs). During the master school I walked a lot, because that was only in winter, in the Harz region. I had a colleague at school who ran marathons. I remember that after one week I could hardly run anymore. In summer he had to go cycling with me in return. Apart from that I put my running shoes in the car and on top of the tools mostly the bike came with me, too. I was away on a job for the service. That’s why I was away for several days at a time. After work my colleagues went for a beer and I went cycling. Or in the morning I went jogging before work started.
But you have already invested a lot in cycling. Was it foreseeable that it would become a career?
No, not at all. No, it wasn’t a thought at the time, I just enjoyed it. I got the bike from Lukas, we met, went away with the camper, had a barbecue, drank beer, I was the only girl and we did a marathon the next day.
As a license rider?
Yeah. The license was just so I had insurance. At least that’s what they told me. I wasn’t just racing anymore. They were my friends. I’m not in touch with my classmates anymore. I’m not a person for a cup of coffee, I’m trying to work towards something, educate myself. Maybe I think too much, read too much. But I can’t just sit on my bike. So I just occupy myself with health or performance diagnostics or other things.
What was the critical point when it became all about racing again?
Hmm, the point? Frank Brückner (then national MTB coach) came and said he would accept me into the national team.
But for that you had to do cross-country racing.
I was invited to the performance test and Frank told me that I think I had the best data, better than Sabine’s (Spitz, 2008 Olympic champion). I would have to focus on cross-country, so that I could ride in the Olympics. That was something like that, if I remember correctly. At least then I was in the national team and had to ride the World Cup in Madrid (2009) the following year. Where I was last (smiles).
Not quite, you were 53rd at your World Cup debut, six were still behind you.
Even though the track was not that difficult. Yeah, well, you know. I thought, what more do they want from me? I couldn’t do anything.
You mean, technically?
I couldn’t use my skills. In Champéry (Switzerland) I was black and blue after the race (because of many crashes). That didn’t bother me, but marathons have always suited me better. However, I was also bruised after my first marathon in St. Ingbert. I could not go to the construction site the next day.
So the first cross-country races were anything but successful.
I think the handicap was the Olympic thing. Being on the national team reminded me of the old days. Doing marathons was more of an escape, for balance. But that’s not the case anymore because the successes were already there. When I do something new, people still leave me alone. But with every success there is more pressure on me. Instead of easier, it gets more and more complicated for me. That’s my weakness. I don’t know why.
How well it can go when she herself and nobody else, too expects anything from her can be seen by a race in Banyoles, Spain, in 2018: Elisabeth Brandau lacked the money to plan it bigger, but she also lacked the points after being pregnant for the second time the year before. So she took a cheap plane, bought a tent in the local hardware store, spent the night at the beach, did the race – and won. Before world-class competition.
She is always very critical of herself. One could also say: too critical.
But it is unmistakable that she – despite all setbacks – has pushed her performance curve ever upwards since her first World Cup in Madrid at the age of 23. Two pregnancies caused two waves in the balance, but seven years later she achieved her first top ten result in Albstadt, two years later she stood on the World Cup podium for the first time in the same position as fifth, in 2018 she became German Champion in cross-country for the first time and ten years after her premiere she came third at the World Cup in Les Gets and won her first international medal at the European Championships.
Actually, these are enough reasons to swing into the saddle with a shaken sense of self-confidence. Especially since the competition now also has respect for the 34-year-old. “When Lisa is in front, nobody dares to pass her,” said former World Champion Jolanda Neff after the short track in Nove Mesto.
If we take a look ahead, despite the considerable successes, the 2019 results still got better. Why did it work so well at Les Gets?
The way we approached it in Les Gets, with the German Cyclists Association, the holiday apartment we had there, the track, I was relaxed. The track wasn’t so difficult, nobody said you couldn’t do it. I chose the hardtail because it was better for the short track. In the cross-country race I rode free. If you get stuck at one point in the course and you have to pass it five more times, then you shut down. This has become even worse for me with age. I find it hard to take risks.
The caution might have something to do with the kids, right?
I think so. I don’t know how others do it. For me, cycling should remain a hobby, then the pressure would go away. But the problem is: the coaches don´t like it that much if you look like a hobby cyclist, and not like a professional one. That is the biggest conflict for me. When I free myself from that, I ride my bike best. I don’t know if there are other athletes who face the same obcstacle. I read the book by Felix Gottwald (former Austrian combined athlete). Felix also said at some point that „I coach myself and listen to myself“. However, I lack the self-confidence for that and I think I would also miss the assessment from the outside, which is especially important with my ambition.
And still you’ve already experienced that you’re successful with that?
After my second pregnancy, I trained for eight weeks, an average of seven to eight hours, and then finished fifth in the Cross-Country World Championships. Of course I might have had a pregnancy bonus, but I just didn’t have any pressure, I didn’t have to. Nobody asked me what I was doing.
When you compare your two careers, on the road and on the mountain bike, how do you see it from today’s perspective?
On the road I never had to think about any roots or rocks (laugh), I just had to ride. I probably could have done more on the road with my talent. On the other hand, moving in the field and tactics were never my thing. I would have been tempted to ride in a professional road team that is well organized.
And what is the positive side of mountain biking?
You are closer to the spectators and it is all about your individual performance. That’s my thing. I would hate to be a water carrier on the road. I think I’m a team player, but I need my freedom, too. What’s a problem for me in mountain biking is the additional burden of collecting points for the nations ranking, so that you fight for the starting positions. This also means a lot of travelling. I think that’s a system error – but I don´t have a better solution. The shortracks are also an additional burden even though it is a very good added value for the World Cup.
How do you see the cancellation of the home World Championship after you have always been so successful in Albstadt?
It is a great pity. I am quite sad that it hadn´t been postponed to October. Albstadt has always been a place of success for me. Already in 2003 at the German Mountain Championships in Albstadt when I won ahead of Hanka Kupfernagel.
Short profile: Elisabeth Brandau
Married: to Marco Brandau, two sons (five and three years old)
Home town: Schönaich
Road: German Mountain Champion 2002 and 2003, German Vice Champion 2001, Worlds participation 2002 and 2003 (all U19), Winner TMP Junior Tour 2001
Cyclo-Cross: German Champion 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020, Worlds fifth 2018
Cross-Country: European Championship third 2019, European Championship fifth 2018, World Cup third Les Gets, XCO and XCC (Short Track) Les Gets 2019, World Cup fifth Albstadt XCO 2018, German Champion 2018, 2019, victories Bundesliga Classic in Heubach (and Münsingen (2011)
Marathon: Worlds fourth 2010, Worlds fifth 2011, Marathon-Worlds-sixth 2012, German Champion Marathon 2008, 2011, 2012
Eliminator: German Champion 2012
Photos: Armin Küstenbrück, Traian Olinici