Anna van der Breggen stood on the podium with a look of relief and satisfaction as she pulled on the rainbow jersey after winning the elite women's road race at the 2018 UCI Road Worlds Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, on Saturday.
Mouthing the words to Dutch national anthem Wilhelmus van Nassouwe, she perked up and smiled when she noticed one particular section of fans wearing orange t-shirts with painted faces among the seas of spectators – three women who had travelled from Holland to see their childhood friend win her first world title.
"It was so special for me to see them because normally I don't have my people standing at the side of the road watching me race," Van der Breggen said. "For these World Championships, I knew that they were expecting a bit more from me.
"I went out for dinner on Thursday night with 14 people, and it was really special to have the feeling that they had all travelled here for me, and to watch and support me in this race. Of course, it makes it even more special to be able to win this race in front of my closest family and friends."
Van der Breggen's victory at the World Championships has been a long time coming. She had won every major event in professional women's cycling with gold medals, winners' trophies and title jerseys from the Olympic Games, Giro Rosa, Tour of Flanders, all three Ardennes Classics and Strade Bianche. The list is long.
The only glaring void in her palmarès was the World Championship title, and, after a decade of racing, the pressure had mounted, and she had begun to struggle with the idea that she may never be a world champion.
During her career, she had placed inside the top 10 at the Worlds road race and the time trial on numerous occasions. In 2015, in Richmond, USA, she secured the silver medal in both events. She lost the time trial by three seconds to New Zealand's Linda Villumsen, and then lost a small group sprint to Great Britain's Lizzie Deignan in the road race.
Last year in Bergen, Norway, her compatriot Chantal Blaak won the road race and their teammate Annemiek van Vleuten won the time trial. Van der Breggen was eighth in the road race and again took the silver medal in the time trial. And then on Tuesday in Innsbruck, she came away with another silver medal in the time trial behind gold medallist Van Vleuten.
All-in-all she had earned six silver medals and one bronze at the World Championships over the years.
"I had a lot of second places, and so the pressure was there to win the jersey," Van der Breggen said. "I made it a big goal, but also the people around me made it a goal, too.
"I felt the pressure becoming more and more when the championships came closer. It was not the easiest period in my cycling career to get on my bike and know that I had to be good on a particular day.
"You know you don't get that many chances with a circuit like this, and with that much climbing. It was quite a long period, but I was happy this morning [Saturday] because I knew that, no matter how it went, it would be over tonight, and I could relax again, and enjoy cycling.
"My feelings when I crossed the finish line were mostly relief; that it had finally worked out, and I'm thankful for that."
When the UCI announced the World Championship road race routes last year, Van der Breggen knew that this would be one of her best opportunities to win the title.
The women raced 156.2km, which started with an 84km loop from Kufstein to Innsbruck and included a steep 5km climb with 14 per cent pitches to Gnadenwald. They dropped down to the Innsbruck circuits for three laps of 23.8km, which also contained the climb to Igls, before a descent to the finish.
Van der Breggen planned training camps to Innsbruck to preview the course, and made specific changes to her racing schedule with a singular goal of being in the best shape of her life for the event.
She raced a full spring Classics campaign, but made a special request to her Boels Dolmans trade team to skip her title defences at the Giro Rosa and Tour of California, and to further reduce her number of race days so that she could be fresh in September. She included more one-day races and added mountain biking into her programme, and even competed in the Val di Sole MTB World Cup – all to build motivation by putting herself in new race situations.
"The Worlds are at the end of the year, and if you have a long season, then you can be tired, unmotivated," Van der Breggen said. "I tried to avoid that by doing different things, like mountain biking, and doing different races, and fewer races."
She had the full backing of Boels Dolmans and team manager Danny Stam to make these changes to her programme, even though the team had a reduced roster and they often found themselves struggling to fill spots during the season-long Women's WorldTour calendar.
"It is so very special, winning the world title with four different riders four years in a row," Stam told Cyclingnews, referring to the enviable achievement of the team having had Worlds road race winners in Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) in 2015, Amalie Dideriksen in 2016 and Blaak last year.
"We're very happy that Anna is our latest world champion because it's so deserved.
"Anna's allowed to do her own thing because she gives us plenty of successes in return," Stam continued. "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."
Van der Breggen is aware of the sacrifices that were made especially for her, and acknowledged her gratitude to the team for allowing her to pursue this goal – thankful, too, that it paid off with a world title in the end.
"They [Boels Dolmans] knew that it was a big goal for me, and, for the team, it wasn't an easy season because we didn't have that many riders, and at some points it was difficult to have enough girls for the races. And then I changed things so that I didn't do that many races," Van der Breggen said.
"It's not easy for a team when they know there is a good rider, and they could use her in a race, but they don't because she wants to prepare for the Worlds.
"I have had freedom in the team this year, and they thought about my schedule, too, to figure out how I could prepare the best for Innsbruck.
"It was the same with the mountain biking," she continued. "They gave me space to do it and to try it. That's incredible. I'm thankful that the team helped me so much."
Double Dutch leadership
Van der Breggen lined up at the start of the women's road race in Kufstein on Saturday as one of two outright favourites. Together with compatriot Van Vleuten, the Dutch team included defending champion Blaak, Lucinda Brand, Janneke Ensing, Amy Pieters and Ellen van Dijk.
The press reported tensions amongst the two lead riders, and questioned which of them the team would support in the road race, but Van der Breggen laid the controversy to rest in the post-race press conference, saying that she and Van Vleuten had always been co-leaders, and decided together to support one another in an overall goal for the nation.
"We had two leaders, and that was me and Annemiek," Van der Breggen said. "If you're with a strong country like this, it means your chance of winning is even greater.
"Sometimes you have to share things in your trade team, and it's the same for this national team, so we agreed to support each other, and we were totally focused.
"I think that because the media put pressure on Annemiek and me, we decided that we were going to do this race together, and not against each other," she continued. "We had the whole of the Dutch team to support us, and I was feeling confident with them around me, which was perfect."
Van Vleuten crashed early in the race and injured her knee, which then made Van der Breggen the sole leader of the Dutch team.
Van der Breggen told the press afterwards that Van Vleuten had immediately informed her of the crash and of her knee pain, and from that point she continued in the race to support Van der Breggen's chances of winning the title.
"I had an incredible team, and it's special when the Dutch riders say that they support you and they want to ride for you," Van der Breggen said.
Her Dutch teammates stood beside the podium celebrating their collective effort to keep the world title in the Netherlands. Van Vleuten spoke briefly to the press before being taken by stretcher to the hospital for examination, later revealing that she had a tibial eminence fracture in her knee.
"I'm very happy for Anna, and very disappointed for myself, but I knew that only one of us could win – not both of us," said Van Vleuten. "Only one of us could win, and Anna won. We did well as the Netherlands, so I'm proud."
Stepping down from the podium wearing her new rainbow jersey, Van der Breggen ran toward the crowds to celebrate her long-awaited victory with her childhood friends and close family, all loudly cheering her name.
"It's really special," Van der Breggen said. "I really had the feeling that I had won a lot, but this was the missing piece of the puzzle.
"I look down at the jersey, and it looks really strange. I'm so happy with it."
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