Anna van der Breggen is in high demand. Playing the role of the odds-on favourite of the Women's WorldTour means that organisers want her on their start lines and fans of the sport want to see her racing – and since winning the world title last September – wearing the rainbow jersey throughout this season widens her appeal.
It's a fact, however, that Van der Breggen can't line up at every race on the calendar. She has to pick targets that align with the interests of Boels Dolmans, while she also pursues some mountain biking, and so organising her calendar is an exercise of communication.
Van der Breggen hinted in February that she would skip the Tour of Flanders, a race she won last year, of which she confirmed to Cyclingnews on Wednesday. She said that she needs to recover after the gruelling effort required to win the Cape Epic mountain bike stage race alongside her teammate Annika Langvad. Their "adventure", as Van der Breggen called it, ended on March 24, less than two weeks ago.
But the critics in cycling might say that the world champion and defending champion of the Tour of Flanders should prioritise the biggest one-day race on the women's calendar over her new-found fun in mountain biking. They might also argue that her absence on the start line in Oudenaarde isn't good for her team Boels Dolmans.
However, each rider comes to agreements, contractual or otherwise, with her team and team manager ahead of the season. Van der Breggen has explained, and not for the first time, that she has the full blessing of her team to pursue a specific race plan, which fits with both her objectives and with those of Boels Dolmans.
"If I did not have good communication with my team then I wouldn't have been able to race the Cape Epic," Van der Breggen told Cyclingnews.
"Your team should be 100 per cent behind you, and I would never choose to make these changes to my schedule if my team weren't 100 per cent behind me. It would not feel good to me to do it. They have been really supportive in the races that I do, and that we do, because we have really good communication."
She made similar schedule-related decisions last season by not competing at the Giro Rosa, a race she won twice, and instead, she raced one-day events. She also added more mountain biking to the mix with a World Cup at Val di Sol in what she said was an effort to bring a new level of motivation to her career.
Boels Dolmans' manager Danny Stam approved the adjustments, including the freedom to mountain bike. The changes proved valuable in her end-of-season goal of winning the road race at the Innsbruck World Championships.
"Anna's allowed to do her own thing because she gives us plenty of successes in return," Stam told Cyclingnews in Innsbruck. "We set specific goals as a team and work towards them with our riders. That's what makes us so successful. At the moment, there is no other rider that can bring us as many successes as Anna can."
Anna van der Breggen and Annika Langvad compete in South Africa's Absa Cape Epic
Van der Breggen said missing Tour of Flanders is upsetting but she is not fully recovered from Cape Epic, and that would affect her ability to contribute to the team's overall performance. She will turn her attention to targets further ahead in April at the Healthy Ageing Tour and the Ardennes Classics.
"Tour of Flanders is such a cool race and I would love to do it again. It feels a bit strange to not race this year, but on the other hand, I'm happy that I made that decision before Cape Epic. I could feel that it would be tough on my body and I took this week just to recover and feel energised again," said Van der Breggen.
She reminded that Cape Epic included eight stages that were on average five hours each day, and that her form on the road was not where it needs to be for the Tour of Flanders.
She has only competed in two road races so far; Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche. In Italy, she worked for Langvad to secure second place on the podium behind solo winner Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott).
"I haven't done much road training and so I needed this time to prepare for the next races," she said. "Cape Epic was a slow and steady speed. Now I need to work on gaining speed by doing interval blocks to be prepared to race on the road again."
Boels Dolmans is the number one ranked team in the world, and Van der Breggan reminded that her team has no shortage of winners. She said that even if she raced Tour of Flanders on Sunday, she would not automatically be the team leader just because she is the world champion and the defending champion. She pointed to teammates such as Chantal Blaak, Amy Pieters and Jolien D'hoore as riders capable of winning in Oudenaarde. D'hoore is listed to race Flanders, but she has been recovering from a broken collarbone suffered in a crash at Drentse 8.
"I didn't want to go to Flanders with expectations being so high, and not feeling 100 per cent ready to race there. It feels strange and I'm sad that I can't do it, but I think it's a good decision," Van der Breggen said.
"I don't know if Jolien is doing the race, I hope so. It's in Belgium and she is the biggest Belgium rider, and so she would love to do it. Amy was second last year and Chantal is always good in that race. I would like to be there to help those riders, but other races are coming up, and so there will be time for that."
Flèche 5 is not a priority
Van der Breggen will line up at Flèche Wallonne as the defending champion, and having won it for the previous four seasons, could secure a record-equalling fifth victory - but achieving a record is not a priority for the Dutchwoman.
"Winning a race that many times would be special, but when we start a race, it's all about winning that race, and absolutely not about me or who is going to win," Van der Breggen said.
Van der Breggen will next race at the Healthy Ageing Tour (April 10-14), and she has put a target on the Ardennes Classics – Amstel Gold Race (April 21), Flèche Wallonne (April 24) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (April 28). She won the so-called 'Ardennes triple' in 2017.
"The main thing is that I feel good before the three races and then we will see how the races develop and how we are going to try to win them," Van der Breggen said.
"If we have a good team plan, then I'm happy with it, and hopefully we will be good. I would be happy if we won, and it doesn't really matter if it's me or a teammate. It feels really good to help a teammate to a victory like that."
Van der Breggen has won Flèche Wallonne between 2015-18, and securing a fifth would equal that of former multi-discipline world champion Marianne Vos.
Van der Breggen is not entirely interested in equalling that record, but she is keeping tabs on Vos, as a fierce competitor this spring. Vos won the Women's WorldTour round at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and has her sights set on winning Tour of Flanders and then also on the three Ardennes events.
"You can really see that Marianne is improving a lot this year, compared to last year," Van der Breggen said. "It's nice to see her coming back up to this level. She is on my list for contenders in the Ardennes Classics, so I will keep an eye on her."
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