Teniel Campbell hails from Trinidad, not the easiest place to become a pro cyclist. But this determined talent is on the edge of breaking big and inspiring the next generation of Trinidadians to follow her path. This Soca Warrior knows where she is headed.
Teniel Campbell is misleadingly tall. Padding around in her red and black national team tracksuit, she is sometimes mistaken for a high jumper. Or even a netball player. A six-foot-one professional cyclist from Trinidad and Tobago who excels on cobbled climbs and dreams of Strade Bianche glory? Come on, it sounds nearly as far-fetched a plot as the one about a Jamaican foursome chasing bobsleigh gold. But this is no joke. The long legs stretched out on the sofa in front of me have powered the pride of Caribbean cycling to several international victories and into the world’s top 30.
We sit and talk in a Yorkshire bed and breakfast before the 2019 World Championship road race. Surrounded by doilies, flowery furniture and tea sets, it’s a world away from her home and her beginnings. The 22-year-old’s laidback demanoeur hides a tough spirit; none of her competitors have had a journey like hers. “Circumstances make you who you are,” she says. “It wasn’t easy reaching here. I know the sacrifices that were made, I know the struggles I had to endure. So, I guess I wouldn’t change nothing that happened because I know it made the person I am today.”
Shaped like an upturned anvil, just off the South American mainland, Trinidad is the larger of the two islands. This nation of 1.4 million people is known for calypso and Carnival; for Brian Lara, VS Naipaul and Nicki Minaj. Its people have a knack for punching above their weight: when the national football team became the smallest to ever qualify for a World Cup, in 2006, there was a brief global love affair with the “Soca Warriors” and their loud, proud fans.
For Teniel, Trinidad and Tobago means family, industrial portions of roti and the great outdoors. She is a country girl, hailing from the quaintly-named village of Hardbargain in the south of the island. Growing up, there was a river ten steps from her house; she and the other kids would jump its narrow stretches or use bamboo sticks to get across the wider parts. Her life was spent outside in the tropical heat, climbing mango and plum trees or running into the bushes. “Eventually you get chased by a dog,” she says, with a high-pitched giggle. “Even pelting the bees nests was fun for us – who gets stung first?”
Other days saw cricket games with a bucket for a wicket. “Back then, I grew up around the guys. There wasn’t much females, only my older cousins. I guess that’s why I can be aggressive [when I want to be],” she says. If Teniel and her brother Akil, one year older, came home after the street lights had turned off, they would get in trouble. It sounds like a childhood from a different age, but it was barely ten years ago.
Her mother, Euphemia Huggins, was a top long jumper, competing in the World Championships in the late 1980s. “I still believe she has the national record. She’s actually in the national museum in Trinidad & Tobago; I need to be in there as well,” she says. Bring on the family bragging rights. Meanwhile, her father left for Miami when she was a baby. “He was a cyclist. This is how I believe I really got involved in the sport, I guess this was just Akil and me trying to be closer to him because we didn’t grow up around him,” she says.
The moment cycling got serious for her was the 2014 junior Caribbean championships in Surinam. She won – the first in an avalanche of national and Caribbean titles – and as the T&T anthem struck up on the podium, it felt different. With another year in the category, she wanted more medals and to see where her talent could take her.
There was a spell when Teniel quit the sport, suffering with knee problems. Some evenings, after dropping Akil home from training, coach Elisha Greene would beseech her to return to the saddle. She relented, but it was a juggling act: school was another outlet for her competitiveness and she doesn’t do things by halves. For years, she would go training at five in the morning, be at school between nine and four, then do another session in the early evening. Work hard, play hard. At one international meet, she sat in the stands, studying underneath the scoreboard before going out and winning her race.
Cycling is a sport perennially burning a hole in its competitors’ pockets. To stump up money for equipment, her family would host occasional barbecues, with people paying what they could before feasting on rice, chicken and salad. Other times, she was aided by local bike shops or helpers – her Amazonian stature came in handy for borrowing her male coach’s Cannondale. Campbell forgets none of this. “To succeed at the highest level of the sport is not only my celebration. It’s a celebration for everyone who helped me up in this journey. I know it’s not just about me. It’s about my family, my friends and the support that I got growing up,” she says.
Figuratively and literally, you can only go so far on a bicycle on a Caribbean island. If insufficient finance, equipment, willpower or talent doesn’t slow you down, then the infrastructure will. T&T has only 20 cycling clubs on the island, no UCI-accredited road races and a federation with unpaid volunteers. As you might expect, women’s cycling is not a big enterprise either: “If you have eight in a typical race in Trinidad, that’s a lot – a real big bunch!” In the last decade, track racing has taken off, with Pan-American silverware and Njisane Philip’s eyecatching fourth place in the 2012 Olympic sprint. But Philip, their biggest cycling star up till now, also regularly felt unsupported or thwarted by “bullshit and politics”. There were times he’d find the velodrome doors closed or didn’t receive the promised funding.
Campbell has experienced her own administrative hurdles, most glaringly before the 2017 Caribbean Championships in Martinique. “There were people from the federation saying they’re not gonna fund this trip; I had to fund myself. They didn’t even register me,” she says. Her cycling club manager, Desmond Roberts, had to help stump up money for the ticket. It was finalised last-minute: she was packing a bicycle at one in the morning before flying the same day. On the plane Roberts showed her two fingers – the number of gold medals she would be coming home with. He was right; Campbell dominated the road race and time-trial. Why did her own federation doubt her?
“It so happened that was my golden ticket for having a career in cycling now,” she says. Campbell and Roberts met UCI president David Lappartient there, who was suitably impressed. It set in motion an invite to spend a season at the World Cycling Centre (WCC) at the governing body’s headquarters in Switzerland, receiving a peerless athletic education: top-level training and racing, meals, equipment, accommodation and expenses provided. Alumni from this dream factory include Chris Froome, Victoria Pendleton, Ramunas Navardauskas and Daniel Teklehaimanot. If Teniel wanted to improve – and qualify for the next Olympics – she would have to spread her wings.
She seized the opportunity, not just for herself but for those who weren’t so fortunate. “So many people back home want this chance, so many people had false promises and hopes that never came true.” False promises? “Well, the heads of our organisation. They will ‘sell us dreams’ that certain things will happen. They tell us you’re gonna go here, there, everywhere, and out of nowhere, it’s like ‘no, you’re not going.’ I think that shatters so many possibilities for people back home. It started just killing their spirit. Now, I need to do something to really be good and try to help them and the others coming up.”
Switzerland was no Julie Andrews chocolate box idyll. Campbell flew into a snow-blanketed country, shivering in the minus-14 chill. In the first week, she had a puncture on her city bike and her chain broke. “I’m such a perfectionist. I didn’t call anyone because I didn’t want to bother them, because I didn’t know them, so I just walked home,” she says.
Back at the WCC quarters, a dormitory by Aigle train station, she was too shy to mingle with the other riders who would soon become her close friends. Meanwhile, on her Swiss debut, Campbell’s extremities burned with frostbite and she finished in the laughing group. (A year later, she finished second in the same race.) To call it all a culture shock is an understatement. “You can’t imagine that transition for me,” she says. “I was like ‘I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can survive.’” Coach Elisha Greene talked her round from returning home, reminding her of her goals. Campbell didn’t want to forget them: later, she put photographs of herself racing, a coloured drawing of the five Olympics rings and several A4 pages of motivation quotes on her bedroom wall. One reads: “Your life has a purpose. Your story is important. Your dreams matter. Your voice matters. You were born to make an impact.” These are her whys, the first things she sees when she wakes up.
Campbell describes herself as a stray in the bunch that first year, struggling to keep up. She learned so much from trial, error and observation: how to dress for the cold from the way team-mates layered up, how to surf the wave of a rotating peloton and how to give as good as she got: “I got pushed around a lot. Elbowed. They smack you in your butt too. They don’t care because everyone wants to win, everyone is aggressive. It’s not the highest level [of racing] yet, so everyone is still learning. My skill level was not so high, so I just used to roll with it.
“Now I do this a lot,” she says. “It’s a tough sport so you have to be a tough cookie, to be willing to take the hits and really fight, especially coming down for a sprint. So, I’ve gotten really good at that now; I believe this is why I can have top results. Because I know how to fight and I’m not scared of the aggressiveness or even crashing.”
Her WorldTour debut at the 2018 Tour of Norway was another level up. She messaged her coach Alejandro Tablas after the three-day sufferfest: “I need you to train me so hard that I can be as good as these girls and even better than them. I don’t like feeling defeated, like shit.”
There was an extra motivation too. “In Norway, when some of the riders saw me for the first time, they were like what the hell? Who is she? It’s not normal to see a black girl in the peloton. So they look at me a type of way.”
A glance at the start list underlines the problem: Campbell was one of three people of colour out of 121 bike racers. That’s professional cycling – overwhelmingly caucasian, rooted in convention and conformity, favourable to those from affluent backgrounds with accessible networks of friends, family, sponsors and contacts. Simply, the sport needs to diversify, to welcome other nationalities and ethnicities. For now, Campbell is being the change she wants to see.
The great Dutch champion Annemiek van Vleuten approached her on the final stage and they chatted for ten minutes. “And then somehow, that went a bit viral. Some people were like ‘she only saw you because you’re easy to be seen in the peloton because you’re tall, you’re dark-skinned.’ I was like… okay. I came back with one motive for 2019. To show everyone what she actually saw. [I thought] I’m gonna come back to Europe and whoop ass. Just stamp my name. I’m not here to try to survive in the peloton. I’m gonna be great.”
Something did change. Her FTP test numbers were on the cusp of world class. In some training sprints, she went toe-to-toe with the team’s Slovakian coach Adam Szabó – a teenage team-mate of Peter Sagan – and beat him, putting out over 1,200 watts. “I know in the races she was winning, she was pushing a little bit more,” Szabó says. “She already has the power and the motivation. The victories will come with more experience.”
In May, she won a stage at the Tour of Thailand – her first pro victory – and finished second on another. When before she had felt more inhibited by the pressure of leadership, self-belief flowed. At the Kreiz Breizh two-day race in Brittany, she won both stages and the overall. Pick of the lot was the race opener: with the finish at the top of a 500-metre climb, she caught everyone off guard by jumping at its foot. Several seconds ahead, she unleashed her signature victory celebration, the Wakanda Forever sign from the blockbuster film Black Panther – arms crossed over opposite shoulders, then released. “I was like, weapons are out. I’ve arrived, the beast has arrived,” she says. “I can’t wait to do that again. But I have a feeling when the wins really start coming, that won’t be my only salute. I think it’s just going to constantly change.”
Olympic qualification hinged on finishing inside the top 100 of the UCI rankings, and her continental championships in 2019 carried crucial points. But before August’s Pan-American Games in Peru, the universe seemed against her. Her train to the airport was rerouted, meaning she nearly missed her flight. Her bike arrived late, the time-trial start was delayed. She trusted her process and put on her go-to motivational tune, Bunji Garlin’s soca banger King’s Arrival (Here for the Crown), until a minute before setting off:
“This is my arrival, I’m here for the crown / There’ll be no survivors / I’m taking the town / The Viking leader, I’ve come to lock this down / And they’re gonna feel pain if they wanna jump up against the champion sound.”
Second place to Chloé Dygert-Owen, only losing 75 seconds over 18 kilometres, was no disgrace and was followed by road race silver behind the Caribbean’s other pioneer, Arlenis Sierra of Cuba. Qualification for Tokyo was never in doubt: Campbell concluded last season ranked 33rd, ensuring she will be the first English-speaking Caribbean woman to road race at the Olympics. Yet, that is intended to be a prestigious base camp on the arduous climb up.
“I really want to be one of the best cyclists in the world. Not only by winning the World Championships, but to get the Monuments and the huge, huge results,” she says. Campbell has the makings of a Classics and time-trial specialist; the Tour of Flanders and Strade Bianche are on her wishlist. “I want to dominate and be just as great – even better than – [my hero] Marianne Vos. I also like the track, so at some point I wanna go back there and break the world record in the individual pursuit.”
When Campbell returns to Trinidad each winter, everyone wants to train with the young woman living the dream. She is their national sports personality of the year, their star, their inspiration. The pace on rides can get tasty, with nobody wanting to get dropped by a girl, even one bound for Tokyo 2021. Seeing her impact drives Campbell to share her knowledge and redress the imbalance of resources. “I want to be so great to a point that I can bring this type of lifestyle back home to my country and to help the other generation. Because we have so much talent, but we just don’t have the right structure and support system in place for these kids. This is something I really want to do – I know I can, but I know it’s not an easy task.”
WORDS: ANDY MCGRATH
PHOTOS: ANTHONY LEUTENGEGGER / SEAN HARDY