Anna van der Breggen has decided not to defend her title at the Giro Rosa, an event she has raced 10 times and won twice, in search of finding motivation in a sport that she has dominated in recent years. In an interview with Cyclingnews, the Olympic gold medallist said that she has found such motivation in the exciting new challenge of mountain biking, and that she is scheduled to compete at the next World Cup at Val di Sole, held from July 6-8 in Trentino, Italy.
"I'm doing something totally new," Van der Breggen said. "I wanted to do some mountain biking. In the beginning, I didn't do that well, and I didn't initially have a plan, but now I have decided to compete in the World Cup in Val di Sole."
Van der Breggen has dabbled in mountain biking over the years and began her season winning the Cyprus Sunshine Cup – a mixture of marathon racing and short track in the form of a stage race – in February. Putting her mountain bike aside in March, however, she turned her attention to road racing with Boels Dolmans, and went on to win Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders, and then Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Durango Emakumeen Sira.
Her illustrious palmarès also includes winning an Olympic gold medal in the road race and bronze in the time trial in Rio in 2016, and the Ardennes Classics triple crown of Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2017. And then, of course, there's the Giro Rosa, a race she won in 2015 and again last year.
When it comes to women's road cycling, Van der Breggen has proven her versatility in every discipline. She can sprint, time trial and climb, and has won stage races, one-day classics, and everything else in between.
Keeping a similar program year-in and year-out, however, has cost Van der Breggen some of the motivation it takes to continue winning, or at least wanting to win, and she decided that a drastic change of plan was needed.
"It's different, which I really like, and I've always liked to ride my mountain bike between training and racing on the road," Van der Breggen said. "It's really hard, and the races are like time trials, but longer and more difficult. I have never done anything like a mountain bike World Cup. It makes me excited, and I'm curious about it."
The idea of taking on a new challenge was planted after she won her second Giro Rosa title last July. She made it official when she announced on her website in mid-June that she would skip this year's Giro Rosa, and wrote that she would instead focus on a new path during the second half of the season.
"I had to think about it a lot," said Van der Breggen, whose new path meant trying out World Cup mountain biking. "I know that the Giro Rosa is an important race for the team, but for me, having done the race 10 times and won it twice, I felt that my motivation for that race was a bit less than it usually has been.
"If I felt that within myself, then I needed to change something, because the only way you can be good is when you're motivated – especially for a race like the Giro Rosa, where you need total motivation and proper training for it.
"If the motivation is not there then you should do something different. It is different for every rider, but for me, that's how I felt. I could feel that I needed to change something, I wanted to change something, and so I spoke to the team. We have a strong team and have many strong girls who can do the Giro, and it was good for me to try something different."
She said that her decision to skip the Giro Rosa was not a surprise for her Boels Dolmans teammates or her team's manager, Danny Stam, noting that she mentioned the idea of not competing in it very early on in the planning phase for the 2018 season.
"I was already thinking about it last year – that I had won it twice and maybe next year I would try something different," Van der Breggen said.
"At the beginning of the year, when we were figuring out my aims for the season, I thought about the Giro Rosa a lot. I like the race, the stages – especially this year with the Zoncolan, which is a nice climb. It would have been nice to do it, but for me, it's nicer to do something different.
"The team was good with it. We had a discussion about it early on so that we could continue on with creating our schedules."
As for mountain biking, Van der Breggen said that she has no expectations for the upcoming World Cup in Val di Sole, and although she is one of the top road racers in the world, she does not presume that she will be competitive with her rivals in mountain biking.
"I try to do some mountain bike training when I'm at home, but I don't have the routine like the other world-class mountain bikers, like Annika Langvad and Jolanda Neff. I know they have the skills and experience on the mountain bike. I just really want, and like, to do it, and my condition is fine, but when it comes to technical skills, I am not that good yet."
She went on to say that she is aware of the risks involved with mountain biking and potential crashes, but that she chose Val di Sole from the World Cup calendar because it has the least technical course in the series.
"It would be difficult for me to start with a technical course. First, I need to have some experience in it and practise," Van der Breggen said. "It doesn't come without risk. Crashing in mountain biking is easy if you do it wrong. I need to be careful, and I am, but Val di Sole is a good World Cup to begin with."
She also said that for now her goals for the discipline are less competitive compared to road racing, and that she is looking forward to experiencing something new and having fun.
"I have no expectations at all. I would love to see where it will go," Van der Breggen said. "It is something totally new and I feel like the biggest beginner again. It is quite a nice feeling."
All roads lead to the World Championships
Van der Breggen has cut back on some stage racing this year, particularly after removing the Giro Rosa from her schedule, and along with her mountain biking endeavours, she will compete in a series of one-day races, but her focus remains on the UCI Road World Championships held in Austria in September.
"It's the biggest goal for me," Van der Breggen said. "It's a nice race at the end of the season, and I am really motivated for it."
She recently returned home from a three-week training camp at altitude with the Dutch national team in Austria, where 10 riders from the women's team previewed the courses in Innsbruck.
The elite women's road race will start in Kufstein and head west to finish in Innsbruck-Rennweg, for a total of 156.7km. They will race a 90km loop followed by three shorter circuits of 23.9km each. The course has 2,413 metres of elevation gain.
"It's a hard course and in a beautiful location," Van der Breggen said. "It's also a different kind of course than we've seen before. There is a tough climb after 70km, and then we do three local laps, and those are also very hard with a lot of climbing. We have never had a World Championships with this much climbing. It was nice to see the course."
Van der Breggen has never won a world title, which is perhaps the only glaring void in her otherwise stellar resume. In 2015 in Richmond, she secured the silver medal in both events. Last year in Bergen, her compatriots Chantal Blaak won the road race and Annemiek van Vleuten won the time trial, while Van der Breggen was eighth in the road race and again took the silver medal in the time trial.
She told Cyclingnews in February that she is aiming to win a world title this year, and that the course in Innsbruck suits her perfectly. But the Dutch women's team is one of the strongest in the world, with a series of potential riders who could win, including Van Vleuten.
Asked how she and Van Vleuten cope with being teammates at an event like the World Championships where they are both capable of winning, Van der Breggen said that it's nothing new, but rather a situation that she regularly faces with both the Dutch national team and at Boels Dolmans.
"It's the same as it was last year in Bergen, and, of course, it is also similar on our Boels Dolmans team, where we always have strong girls, and more than one rider capable of doing well," Van der Breggen said.
"It is the only race that Annemiek and I will race together as teammates this year. We will have to figure out who is feeling good on the day and how the race develops. It's still very far away, so we'll see. We have to see how our form is, which can change as the season goes on, but I think it will be similar to last year."
Van der Breggen, who is currently leading the Women's WorldTour, noted her tentative schedule for the second half of the season. She will next race the Dutch road championships held from June 23 to July 1, followed by the Val di Sole World Cup from July 6-8 in Italy, the UEC Road Elite European Championships from August 5-12 in Great Britain and the Vargarda Women's WorldTour team time trial and road race on August 11 and 13.