Crossing the Liege-Bastogne-Liege finish line in Ans, Anna van der Breggen has completed editing the new chapter of women's cycling history. The reigning Olympic and European champion concluded an incredibly successful week, taking victories in all three Ardennes classics and setting an incredibly high benchmark for the editions to come.
The Boels Dolmans rider prevailed on her team's home ground on the route of the Amstel Gold Race last Sunday, went on to take a third victory in La Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday and yesterday concluded spring racing with a solo victory in Ans. The first ever women's Ardennes triptyque will be remembered, however, not just due to van der Breggen's astonishing winning streak. Remarkably, the Olympic champion finished all three races ahead of her teammate Elizabeth Deignan and Polish champion Katarzyna Niewiadoma (WM3 Pro Cycling), while a reborn Amstel Gold Race saw the jury unable to call the sprint for third place and award it ex aequo to Niewiadoma and Annemiek Van Vleuten.
"I never expected to win this [the triptyque]. It was an important week and I hoped to win one of them. I think Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a beautiful race, so if I could win this one, I'd be really happy. But to win three of them it's just wow," Van der Breggen explained calmly in a post-race interview with a small group of journalists.
"I think it was a hard race. It has climbs but it doesn't get flat even for a moment. When you start climbing with 60 kilometres to go, then it's hard, and it doesn't stop. It's a great race to have on a calendar."
The Dutch rider stressed the significance of the Ardennes week for the team and echoed Deignan's comments after the Amstel Gold Race, when the Brit explained the approach last year's dominant team took at the start of the year.
"Three WorldTour races in one week – that's special. If you are in shape, you have three good races instead of one. If you're really good at the beginning of the spring, that's also great, but then it's difficult to keep the shape until this week. I think riders have to make a choice for this week," she said.
Sponsored by Dutch companies – Boels Rental and Dolmans Landscaping – the team made the Ardennes week a top priority, aiming specially for the Amstel Gold Race – run in the hills of Limburg where both companies are based. In these circumstances, matching the 14 victories taken in early 2016 was not even a part of the plan. With both leaders gearing up for April and injuries sidelining Megan Guarnier and Katarzyna Pawlowska, the team started the year in a less dominant fashion, yet not without success. It still managed four victories, including one in Ronde van Drenthe, where Amalie Dideriksen sprinted to her first victory in the rainbow jersey. Deignan also secured a podium in Strade Bianche and Chantal Blaak in Ronde van Vlaanderen, ensuring presence of team colours among top riders in key events of the spring.
With two major additions to the Women's WorldTour calendar, van der Breggen opted for a less conventional start of the season, paring with Margot Moschetti to win Costa Blanca MTB stage race and later participating in Cyprus Sunshine Cup.
"I wanted to do something different in the beginning of this season, so I tried mountain biking. It's not much behind it, I just like it," she recalled.
The Olympic champion returned to road racing mid-March and accumulated only 9 racing days in a build-up to the Ardennes campaign, putting the finishing touches to her preparations during Healthy Aging Tour in first week of April.
"I got sick after I did some mountain biking. So then the shape was a bit later than expected but it was not a problem because this week was still far away. I took my time to get in shape and ride the races I needed. I was happy, the weather was good in every race, that also helps a lot. I think I made it to this week in the right shape. And you know, you never can plan it so that you have it [at the precise moment], it's a always bit of gambling."
"Lizzie is in the wheel"
Taking three one-two victories in one week demonstrated the strength of the Dutch team and its ability not only to handle the pressure but also the capacity to take the responsibility of racing on a top level. With its leaders back on form, the team used the numbers to out-power the opponents and played on Van der Breggen's versatility and Deignan's ability to out-sprint all the major contenders in the final.
"Being together with Lizzie, that's a big advantage because everybody in the group knows if I attack, they have to close it and then Lizzie is in the wheel. When we are together, we can play the game. I saw I had a small gap on top of Saint Nicolas, so I went. [I thought] I can try; if they close it that's fine too because Lizzie is in the wheel and they have to work anyway. They didn't close it, so I'm really happy," Van der Breggen said.
The Dutchwoman withstood an attack from Niewiadoma, and with five-rider group falling to pieces on Cote de Saint Nicolas, she seized the opportunity atop, once again using the hesitation between her opponents to her advantage.
"It was such a stupid situation, actually. I was at the front, I got to the back, and then Ashleigh [Moolman-Pasio] was on her wheel. And she just didn't go really to her wheel and wanted me to go again. I was like, "hey c'mon, you are on the wheel, so do it." And then she stopped. Anna looked, got a gap and kept on going," Niewiadoma recalled.
The cooperation between two leaders was never in question, although the duo only teamed up this year with Van der Breggen joining from Rabo Liv outfit.
"She's my teammate, but just since this year, so you start learning each other also in racing. I knew what kind of rider she was, but as a teammate it's slightly different. We get along well together, I hope she's still happy with me after this week," she laughed.
Speaking after the race, Van der Breggen further praised the work and dedication of her teammates. "[Lizzie] knows her races are still coming up. We learn more and more of each other. You only see Lizzie and me most of the time but it's really the six girls who are there today, [they] did a lot of work for this victory."
Supported by Chantal Blaak, Karol-Ann Canuel, Christine Majerus and Megan Guarnier, the duo was able to deliver another one-two result. Yet, on the road to Ans, the task they faced involved not only dealing with a grueling route but also responding to more aggressive tactics from other teams in the field.
"Bigla again rode a very good race, Orica was always aggressive. You see some fighting spirit and that's really good, especially in a race like this. It is not falling down again on the final climb but it's really aggressive. It's a change, especially in the race which is that hard. You know the final is coming with 60 kilometres of the toughest climbs and they attack from kilometre zero. That means there is some fighting spirit and that they are not afraid," Van der Breggen admitted.
The Ardennes crown is yet another addition to 27-year-old's formidable palmares. With gold and bronze medals won in last year's Olympics, two individual World Championships medals, Giro Rosa victory and numerous top places in races across the calendar, she has grown into one of the most titled athlete in the women's peloton.
Asked whether the success started influencing the way she sets herself goals and looks at the racing, she responded in a familiar focused and goal-orientated fashion.
"One thing about me is, I look a couple weeks in front mostly, so I have no idea how I approach it next year or in the future. You can make plans for a certain week and there can be all sort of reasons why you do not reach it. I'm just going to enjoy that it worked out and then we'll see what's next," she explained.
For now, Van der Breggen is looking forward to a short break. She is set to appear at Tour de Yorkshire Women's Race (April 29) in support of her teammates and later make a debut in Amgen Tour of California (May 11-14).