Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) is back to contest the most challenging stage race on the Women's WorldTour: Giro Rosa. She is a former two-time overall champion of the Italian Grand Tour but skipped the race last year to focus on winning the world title in Innsbruck. Speaking with Cyclingnews just a few days ahead of the opening team time trial in Cassano Spinola on July 5, Van der Breggen made no bones about the fact that she is motivated to try and win a third maglia rosa.
"If you can do it two times, you can also do it three times," she said in an interview over the phone. "In a long stage race like this, you need to feel good the whole time and recover well, so I think I will know pretty quickly how everyone is doing. The first stages will be important to see how strong everyone is, and from that point on, you can work further into the race."
Van der Breggen won her Giro Rosa titles in 2015 - ahead of Mara Abbott and Megan Guarnier - and in 2017 - ahead of Elisa Longo Borghini and Annemiek van Vleuten. Van Vleuten is the defending champion and won last year's overall title by an astonishing 4:12 over runner-up Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and 6:30 over teammate Amanda Spratt.
Van Vleuten, the individual time trial world champion, recently won the time trial title at the Dutch championships, beating her rivals Ellen van Dijk and Van der Breggen by over a minute-and-a-half along a 30km course. She's 100 per cent focused on the Giro Rosa, has spent several blocks of training at altitude in both Tenerife and Italy, and says she's in prime condition to win a second title in a row.
Despite already winning the race twice, however, Van der Breggen is aware of her pre-race rank as the second-best of the favourites (behind Van Vleuten), and she knows that she will have to fight hard to win a third title. But she's confident that she has the experience, because of her two previous titles, to be in contention. She also said that she's physically well-prepared and pointed to having a strong team to back up her objectives throughout the 10-day race.
"There are many important points to consider; having a strong team, for example, is important at some points, while some days you need to be able to do it yourself," Van der Breggen said, frankly. "You have to try to do the best you can, to recover well, and your teammates are important in making sure that you don't waste energy when you don't need to. Of course, my team will be important.
"Annemiek is the big favourite, and we could see that in the time trial at Nationals - that she is very strong at the moment. That's good, but there are more strong riders in the race this year. You have to prepare yourself as best as possible, everyone on our team has done that, so we will see what we can do together."
Boels Dolmans are the number-one ranked team in the world and have always shown their strength in numbers during one-day races and stage races. They will indeed field a strong team at the Giro Rosa that includes their newest addition Katie Hall, a pure climber from California. The team will also include Amy Pieters and Eva Buurman, along with new Canadian champion Karol-Ann Canuel and Chantal Blaak, who spent three weeks with Van der Breggen training at altitude in Park City, Utah, after the Tour of California in May.
Van der Breggen and Hall showed their dominant teamwork in winning the Tour of California. Van der Breggen won the opening stage and the overall title. Hall won the stage 2 summit finish on Mt Baldy, crossing the line together with Van der Breggen, who placed second on that day. Van der Breggen believes that her team will be a tough match against Mitchelton-Scott's team that includes Van Vleuten and Amanda Spratt.
"We had a great race in California, and we hope to do the same at the Giro Rosa," Van der Breggen said. "It would be great to do that again because the more riders a team has on the climbs, the better. Mitchelton-Scott will also have several riders who can climb at the front, too, so you just have to see how it goes. Hopefully, Katie and I can be there when it's really tough climbing, but you need to feel very good to do that, so we will see."
This year's Giro Rosa course is one of the toughest in the 30-year history of the race. It includes a summit finish on the Passo Gavia (stage 5) and another summit finish on the Montasio (stage 9), but in between, there are many other mountainous stages, including an uphill time trial to Teglio (stage 6).
[Editor's note: Organisers were forced to cancel summit finish on the Passo Gavia due to landslides and bad weather. Stage 5 has been re-routed to finish at the Lago di Cancano.]
"I haven't done any recon of the parcours," Van der Breggen said. "I haven't been to Italy. I need to go only by what I know on paper, and it looks like it will be really tough. It's nice to start with the team time trial, and I think from the first normal stage it will be all uphill. It will be really hard.
"I trained as best as possible. I tried to have good preparation, and the rest is up to how you feel during the Giro Rosa week and how you can recover. This Giro Rosa has some tough stages from the very beginning, and I hope to have some advantages because of that, but you never know beforehand. Training went well. I feel good, and hopefully, I will be good during the race."
Van der Breggen pointed to the Passo Gavia, that peaks at 2,600 altitude metres, as the highlight of the race [before learning that the climb up Passo Gavia had been cancelled ed.] but reminded that, in general, every stage of this year's parcours is challenging and will provide opportunities for a rider like her to build small time gaps on her rivals.
"Yes, the Passo Gavia will be the focal point," she said. "You never know, though, because if you have a bad day and a hard climb, it can be a key point also. It doesn't have to be on the biggest climb that the GC will be won. In this year's edition, the race isn't up to just one climb. Every stage is a hard stage. It's about being good every day until the end, recovering well, and hoping that you don't have a bad day in a bad moment."
Motivation also plays a crucial factor in an athlete's ability to win. Van der Breggen skipped the race last year, in part to focus on Worlds, but also to re-build her motivation in the sport of cycling. She said she had raced the Giro Rosa every year since being a junior-level rider, had won it twice and needed a change in her programme that would re-ignite her passion for racing.
Van der Breggen not only returns to the Giro Rosa as a two-time winner and the reigning world champion, but she also returns with her new-found motivation, and that can make all the difference between winning and losing.
"It's a nice race," she. "Last year I was focussed on the World Championships. It was nice to change my schedule, to do some mountain bike races, more one-day races, and just to do something totally different.
"But the Giro Rosa is a great race to do, and it's an important race in women's cycling because we don't have other races that are 10 days long. It's a special race to do. This year, it fits well with my programme and our team, and we're looking forward to suffering for 10 days.
"If you don't feel this kind of motivation, then you should not do this kind of stage race. We've worked hard to prepare for this Giro Rosa."