Anna van der Breggen is about to embark on her final season as a professional cyclist in what will be a celebration of a sparkling decade-long career that has seen her become one of the most accomplished athletes in the sport.
She will close out her career with SD Worx while at the height of her game, wearing double rainbow jerseys after her historic feat of winning both the time trial and the road race at the 2020 World Championships in Imola.
In a phone interview with Cyclingnews from her team training camp in Spain, Van der Breggen is clear about two things that she wants to accomplish this year; she wants to enjoy her last season in the peloton and she wants to win more bike races.
"It’s my last season, and I realise that, so I will try to enjoy most of this season," said Van der Breggen, who will retire at the end of this year and become a sports director in 2022.
"Being the double world champion is special, and it's going to be a special year for me. It’s a luxury to be able to race my last year as a double world champion and I want to enjoy it. I want to be able to celebrate this and enjoy the sport while I still can."
There are few athletes in cycling that are as accomplished as Van der Breggen. She has built a successful career on her versatility as a rider with an impressive palmares: a gold medal in the road race and bronze medal in the time trail at the 2016 Olympic Games, road race world champion (2018), three-times the overall winner of the Giro Rosa (2015, 2017 and 2020), a record six-time consecutive winner of Flèche Wallonne (2015-2020), twice winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2017-18), and winner of Amstel Gold Race (2017) and the Tour of Flanders (2018), along with Dutch (2015 ITT, 2020 road race) and European Championship (2016 RR, 2020 ITT) titles.
It was her double victories in the time trial and the road race at the 2020 World Championships, a feat not accomplished since Jeannie Longo won both titles in 1995, that will go down in history as one of her most spectacular moments.
"When you are there, you don’t think about it being historical. It’s special to win both, because it is such an important race. People have asked which title is more important, but for me, I always say that if you have more chances than go for it, try to win both, because we don’t have so many chances to become world champion," Van der Breggen said.
"I never expected to win both but you always need to try to do it and to get the best out of yourself. Everyone trains a lot for it and wants to be at their best for the Worlds – it’s once in a lifetime. It’s historical to win them both and I realised that it's never going to happen again, and that made it special."
Cycling can be as much about strength, preparation and training as it is about luck or circumstances and mishaps, and the sport's critics have suggested that Van der Breggen's string of victories last September at the Giro Rosa and double wins at the World Championships came after the untimely and debilitating crashes experienced by other contenders Annemiek van Vleuten and Chloé Dygert.
Van Vleuten crashed and broke her wrist while in the overall lead at the Giro Rosa and was forced to abandon the race, and Van der Breggen went on to win her third overall title. After successful surgery to correct the wrist fracture, Van Vleuten started the road race at Imola Worlds as defending champion and assured the public and her national team that she was as strong as ever and ready to race. Van der Breggen went on to secure a solo win and her Dutch teammate Van Vleuten captured the silver medal.
Just two days earlier, in the time trial, the defending champion Dygert crashed during the race while on her return to the finish line and Van der Breggen went on to win the title. She covered the 31.7km route in a winning time of 40:20 to beat silver medallist Marlen Reusser (Switzerland) by 15 seconds and bronze medallist Ellen van Dijk (Netherlands) by 31 seconds.
They were two hard-fought victories at the World Championships and Van der Breggen is proud to have won both events.
"For the Giro Rosa, yes maybe, but at the World Championships, not at all," Van der Breggen said when asked if Van Vleuten's and Dygert's accidents played a part in the outcome of the last season's events. "Annemiek said herself that she was just as strong as normally and she had no pain, so I can say that I was the strongest that day, and I also felt like I was the strongest. For the World Championships, in both events, including Chloé crashing off course, there is always somebody who is having bad luck, and I’ve seen in so many races where someone made a mistake and people say [a rider] won because someone else made a mistake.
"If for my whole career, I cannot pretend that I didn’t win, because someone else made a mistake, then I think you had better quit cycling. There is always someone who makes a mistake. It’s about winning the race and also about not making mistakes at those races. Sometimes you can have bad luck in bad moments, that happens, but I really felt like I won these titles."
In addition to her Giro Rosa and double titles at Worlds, Van der Breggen said that her victories in the road race at Dutch National Championships and in the time trial at European Championships, were also important, and that she had won races she had never won before making last year memorable.
But even with that success, she said it was a strange season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and because the revised calendar from August through to the beginning of November was so short.
"It was different than usual and we did things that we normally wouldn’t do because of COVID. But that was the same for everyone because you simply could not train like you normally did or race the races that you normally did. From the moment that it was clear we could not race, I had a lot of time home," Van der Breggen said. "For the first time, and for my husband too, it was the first time that we could be home together for a long time, so in that sense it was a nice period. Of course, there was also a lot of worry about COVID, and for people who have businesses, or families who had members who were sick, and so it felt a bit strange to be on your bike at this time while others had worries."
This 2021 season will be something of a victory parade for Van der Breggen before she retires to become a director at SD Worx next year, but she still aims to win more bike races while she still has the chance. Her biggest target will be at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, where she will line up as the defending champion.
"It's like a parade [season], but more serious than that," Van der Breggen said. "I think we really need goals, for racing and training, if you don’t have goals than you better stay in your bed. Hopefully, the Olympic Games will continue and for me, that’s the big goal this season. I will try to do my best there. If I do everything I’ve learned these years and do it in training, and try to prepare myself as best as possible, than I cannot do more. Hopefully, it goes well and we will see what the result will be."
Van der Breggen also understands that the surge of COVID-19 around the world may cause more race cancellations and uncertainty, particularly at the start of this season. The difference this year, however, is that there will be fewer surprises, and riders and teams have had time to adjust to the range of health protocols.
"We need to keep it in mind that it can be the same as last season," she said. "It doesn’t really matter if you think about it or not, you have to deal with it, and that’s the same for everyone. We have a better understanding of how to do it, and it will not be a big surprise in the way that it was last year. We know where to test, and how the COVID rules work, and we will be less surprised when we learn that a race is cancelled. It’s a pity but it’s mostly about our health and the health of our families and around the world. It’s bigger than cycling and we need to deal with it, this year, too."
SD Worx have signed on as title sponsor of the team through 2024 and the team secured a WorldTeam licence for the next three seasons. The team have switched from their previous orange and black colours to a brand new purple and red palette that was revealed at the team's training camp in Spain last week.
"We don’t know what to expect," Van der Breggen said of the upcoming season. "It’s nice to change things with in a team and to improve more. The atmosphere is changing with new riders. We are getting to know each other, training together. We expect changes in the climbing races to have more riders in front and more cards to play. For the rest, the flat races will stay the same. We can expect some different [team] jerseys."
The 14-rider roster also includes returning riders Jolien D'hoore, Amy Pieters, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, Christine Majerus, Lonneke Uneken, and Karol-Ann Canuel. New signings include Demi Vollering, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, Elena Cecchini, Roxane Fournier, Nikola Noskova, Anna Shackley, and Niamh Fisher-Black.
"We have a new team that I am excited about and hopefully with races that are hard with a lot of climbing, it will be different for us," Van der Breggen said. "We have some young talent and our team took them in for multiple years to develop them into being good riders. Every team is searching for young talent to make them better and to allow them to learn from experienced riders, and from with in the organisation, to be a better cyclist in the future."
Retirement in 2021, director in 2022
Van der Breggen said she would not reconsider her retirement deadline at the end of this year, even though she is still racing at the top of her game and there is the potential for new races such as a women's Tour de France on the horizon.
"No," was her flat-out response when asked if she thought of staying in the sport for one more year to contest what could be the return of a women's Tour de France in 2022.
"There will always be something next and something new coming up," she said. "I hope it will always be like that because women’s cycling needs to develop. I have new goals after this year, it’s not that I'm just leaving cycling, I would like to help develop it more and more, but for me, my role as a cyclist is finished after this year.
"At the same time, I'm looking forward to retiring and to having different goals. To become a sports director is a big challenge for me. I'm pretty excited about that, too."
As Van der Breggen embarks on her final season as a professional cyclist, a victory lap to close out a exceptional career while wearing double rainbow jerseys, she also looks ahead to becoming the director at SD Worx in 2022.
"We will try to be as good as possible," Van der Breggen said of SD Worx's future. "We will try to build a team that is good for the riders that are on the team, for young riders, and experienced riders. We will try to be the best as a team and we will need to develop for it, and have the professional atmosphere to be able to develop this team. In the end, maybe they will win races or help somebody else on the team to win races, and that is always the goal."
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