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Great expectations: The rise of Demi Vollering

LIEGE BELGIUM APRIL 25 Demi Vollering of Netherlands and Team SD Worx celebrates at podium during the 5th Liege Bastogne Liege 2021 Womens Elite a 1409km race from Bastogne to Lige LBLwomen LBL UCIWWT on April 25 2021 in Liege Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images
Demi Vollering (SD Worx) wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2021 (Image credit: Getty Images)

On more than one occasion, Demi Vollering has been compared to her SD Worx teammate and double World Champion Anna van der Breggen, who will retire from an illustrious career at the end of 2021. 

The cycling world has great expectations for Vollering to become the future of the sport and the next big champion. Her victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, after a spectacular lead out by Van der Breggen, was the biggest win of her career, and it appeared to be symbolic of passing the torch from one generation to the next. 

In an interview with Cyclingnews, Vollering says she is honoured that people see similarities between herself and Van der Breggen, as someone who has become a sports icon and has had a marked effect on her development as an athlete. She has only the highest respect for Van der Breggen.

Still, Vollering feels no pressure to fill such big shoes after Van der Breggen retires, and she wants the cycling world to remember one thing - "I am not Anna. I am Demi."

"I don't feel pressure to be like Anna," Vollering says. "I like a bit of pressure because it can be good, but I am not exactly like Anna, and I don't want to be, because I am Demi. It's nice that I can learn so much from Anna because she has done so many great things. I only see this as a great opportunity and a chance to get the best out of it for myself."

Vollering, 24, started racing in 2015 but secured her first professional contract with Parkhotel Valkenburg in 2019. She has only been racing on the top-tier circuit for two seasons but has proven to be a rising talent in the sport. She has stood on the podium at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Festival Elsy Jacobs, Women's Tour, Ladies Tour of Norway, and won Giro dell'Emilia in her first season. She backed that up during the 2020 truncated season, securing podiums at Stemana Ciclista Valenciana, La Course and Flèche Wallonne. 

These performances caught the attention of both Van der Breggen and SD Worx (then Boels Dolmans) Director Danny Stam. Vollering said she received multiple offers to join top-tier teams last year, but she decided to mutually end her contract with Parkhotel Valkenburg early and sign a new deal with SD Worx for 2021 and 2022.

"I had a few offers from different teams, and I spoke with all of them. With Danny Stam and SD Worx, I already knew exactly what they wanted from me. Danny had a plan. He said, from the first moment, that he wanted to have me on his team. That gave me a special feeling, a really good feeling, to feel that you are wanted," Vollering said.

"We had a [in-person] meeting in Switzerland last year where he came with Anna [Van der Breggen] and Chantal [Van den Broek-Blaak] to speak with me, and that was nice. I knew Anna and Chantal already, but the conversation we had was interesting, I felt good, and I like to make choices with my feelings, which felt good from the beginning. Once I made the decision, I knew it was the good one, the right one."

Similarities

DENIA SPAIN JANUARY 06 Anna Van Der Breggen of The Netherlands and Demi Vollering of The Netherlands during the Team SD Worx 2021 Training Camp on Denia teamsdworx on January 06 2021 in Denia Spain Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

World Champion Anna van der Breggen rides alongside Demi Vollering during 2021 SD Worx training camp (Image credit: Getty Images)

Vollering is a solid one-day racer, a strong climber, and a fast sprinter. Her potential seems endless. Two years ago, she was 13th overall with three top 10s in stages at her first-ever Giro Rosa. She had other strong results in one-day and stage races, too, but the Giro Rosa has been the longest and most challenging event on the women's calendar. Her collective performances and versatility are what landed her a contract at SD Worx.

"They were clear that they think I looked like the next rider, who is a bit like Anna, and that was nice to hear," Vollering said of her discussion with Stam and Van der Breggen in Switzerland last year, before she had signed her contract.

"Anna also told me that she sees similarities between her and I, as a rider, and that was also nice to hear. Especially when Anna and Chantal stop racing, they will be on the team as directors, and so it was nice to know that they want to make me a better rider."

Van der Breggen's career progressed from top 10s in the junior women's road race at the World Championships at the start of her career to a fifth place in the elite women's event in 2012. That year, she also had many victories and top 10s at 2.2-level races like the Tour de Bretagne, Tour de Limousin, and Trophée d'Or Féminine. Her versatility also came through with a win in the under-23 time trial at the European Championships. Even as a young athlete, Van der Breggen showed the potential to do it all.

Fast forward to 2021, in what is her last season before retirement, and few athletes in cycling are as accomplished as Van der Breggen. She has built a successful career on her versatility as a rider: a gold medal in the road race and bronze medal in the time trial 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 seven-time consecutive winner of Flèche Wallonne (2015-2021), twice winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2017-2018), 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. Of course, it was her double victories in the time trial and the road race at the 2020 World Championships that will go down in history as one of her most spectacular moments.

"I am still young, and so I could still develop a lot more," Vollering said. "When Anna was my age, she was a rider like me, and she could climb but also had a good sprint, and I have these qualities, too. I haven't worked very much on my time trial, but I think that once I start training for it, it is something I could be good at, too."

Van der Breggen will take the reigns as the SD Worx director next season, and Vollering is grateful for the opportunity to continue to learn from her at the races, and that it's a natural transition.

Vollering says that even before she joined SD Worx, Van der Breggen had already given her advice and tips on becoming a better rider. She believes Van der Breggen's extensive experience will help all the riders improve in 2022.

"At Flèche Wallonne, last year, Anna came up to me after the race and said, 'you started too early', and that's funny because she started already teaching me," Vollering said. "It's a natural role for her to be a director. She is always there to help you understand and tell you if you did well, what you did not do well or what you can do better, and I think she will be a good coach for all of us."

Becoming a champion

Dutch cyclist Demi Vollering of Team SD Worx celebrates as she crosses the finish line to win the womens race of the LiegeBastogneLiege one day cycling race 141km from Liege to Liege on April 25 2021 Belgium OUT Photo by DIRK WAEM Belga AFP Belgium OUT Photo by DIRK WAEMBelgaAFP via Getty Images

Demi Vollering wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2021 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Vollering has checked off the biggest win of her career at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Still, her ambitions continue as she aims to develop herself as a prominent stage racer at the Giro Rosa.

"I want to go to the Giro Rosa and develop myself for the stage races," Vollering said. "I like stage races. In a stage race, I can recover fast and feel better each day, and I can grow in a stage race. 

"In 2019, it was my first year as a pro cyclist, and so I was able to learn so many things at the Giro Rosa. You get to know how your body works in a long stage race. I'm looking forward to this year's Giro Rosa to use the things that I learned a couple of years ago. I can also learn a lot from Anna and Chantal, especially during the stage races."

Vollering says she felt somewhat limited in the races while on the Parkhotel team because it was her responsibility to get results. She says the move to SD Worx has given her more freedom to grow as a rider and try new things in the one-day races and stage races because the team has so many champions and cards to play. She says it's a similar experience to racing with the Dutch National Team, with the likes of  Van der Breggen, Van den Broek-Blaak, Marianne Vos, Lucinda Brand, Annemiek van Vleuten, Ellen van Dijk and Amy Pieters.

"At Parkhotel, I was always the person with the good results and trying to save a little bit because it wasn't possible to try something for fear it wasn't going to work out. It's also the reason why I like racing with the Dutch National Team at races like the European Championships and World Championships. I don't need to race for good results for myself because there are so many strong teammates, and that has allowed me to attack and try to get away," Vollering says

"That wasn't possible at Parkhotel because if it didn't work out, I would be empty, and I wouldn't have been able to go for a good result. It's nice when you have riders who can cover your back so that if it doesn't work out, they can also try. At SD Worx, I can play a bit more, and that's useful for the future to learn more about myself."

Outside of her obligations at SD Worx, Vollering wants to compete at the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer and World Championships in Flanders in September.

Asked if she has aspirations to follow in Van der Breggen's footsteps and win races at Worlds, the Olympic Games, and the Giro Rosa, Vollering said, "I hope for all of them.

"I hope to become a World Champion and an Olympic Champion, and I'm looking ahead to the Giro Rosa and the women's Tour de France. I'm looking forward to all of it. Time will tell how far I go."