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Van der Breggen takes aim at Tokyo Olympics gold medal defence

Anna van der Breggen Olympics Rio 2016
Van der Breggen celebrating her gold medal at Rio 2016 (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

It's 2020, an Olympic year, and for Anna van der Breggen that means a defence of the gold medal she won in the road race at Rio 2016. The Dutchwoman has enjoyed almost four years as one of only nine women who have taken road race gold since the discipline was introduced in Los Angeles in 1984.

Van der Breggen triumphed on her first participation in the Games, crossing the line first after an arduous 137km which saw teammate Annemiek Van Vleuten painfully crash out of contention on a treacherous descent down Vista Chinesa late on.

She won the sprint from an elite four-woman group at Copacabana Beach, consigning Emma Johansson (Sweden) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy) to bronze and silver.

This time around, in Tokyo, Van der Breggen should once again take the start as part of the strongest team in the race. To illustrate the point, five of the top six women in the 2019 UCI rankings hailed from the Netherlands, while world road race champion Van Vleuten and 2012 road race gold medallist Marianne Vos are among the names likely to make up part of the four-woman Dutch team in August

Speaking to Cyclingnews at Boels Dolmans' January training camp, based at a villa on the Costa Blanca, Van der Breggen reflected on her time as Olympic champion and looked ahead to her title defence in Tokyo.

"It's four years ago already now, and it's been a good four years. I really enjoyed being Olympic champion, and I still have one more year to do that," she said.

"It's great to be able to go to the Olympics again if I stay healthy and happy. For me, I think it's a great course. The chances that I win again are small, but they're small for everybody.

"It's an important race and I'll try to do the best preparation possible for both time trial [where she took bronze in Rio – Ed.] and road. Hopefully it's not another second place but we will see. But yeah, you do your best and I think everybody is doing that."

Regardless, there'll be no competition among the women in the powerful Dutch squad. This was demonstrated most recently at the Yorkshire Worlds, where Van Vleuten soloed to victory 106km from the line while Van der Breggen marked wheels in the chase group, before making her move for silver in the closing kilometres.

The main goal in Tokyo then, will be to take a third straight road race gold medal for their country, no matter which rider takes it.

"You're not a rival to each other. When you're from the same team you're not a rival," said Van der Breggen. "I think you saw already many times at the World Championships. Of course, only one can win, but you don't race against each other. It's nice to be in a strong team – if you make the selection."

Anna van der Breggen Boels Ladies Tour 2019

Van der Breggen leads her team at the 2019 Boels Ladies Tour (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Van der Breggen should be there, if everything goes to plan, and will no doubt be one of the favourites for the win again. Another inevitability will see the resumption of a long-running fan debate that always crops up as the Olympics loom into view.

Assigning degrees of importance to various races is a traditional fan pastime, with Olympic gold usually compared to the rainbow jersey or a Monument victory. Of course, a race held quadrennially is a different beast to the cycling history wrapped up in the Tour of Flanders.

But for riders, just participating in the Olympics – and in the process ascending from athlete to Olympian – is a singular experience in itself. They don't come around too often, after all, with small team sizes and variations in courses further limiting chances to compete. For Van der Breggen, it's no different.

"I think that we don't have to choose. You can try the Worlds and Olympics," she said. "If you win the Olympics then for you it's a special race, and if you never won the Worlds then the Olympics is the most special.

"The extra thing in the Olympics is that it's more sports. It's not just cycling, it's such a big athletic event all over the world, and that's something extra which isn't there in the Worlds.

"I also think it's getting more important now than it was a couple of years ago, but I think that if you have the chance to become Olympic champion then don't let it slip away. It's the same for the World Championships. You only have so many chances."

Reflecting on 2019

But the Olympic Games is still some time away yet. And with Van der Breggen not starting her 2020 campaign until late February – Omloop Het Nieuwblad is on the menu while the Vuelta a la Comunitat Valenciana Feminas is a possibility too – there's time to look back at a successful season – "a really good year" in her own words.

The 29-year-old racked up five victories throughout 2019, including her fifth consecutive La Flèche Wallonne win, overall victory at the now-defunct Tour of California, a summit finish at the Giro Rosa (where she ended up second overall), and a solo win at GP Plouay.

Van der Breggen kicked things off in South Africa in March, taking victory at the cross-country mountain bike race, Cape Epic, alongside then-teammate Annika Langvad. She beamed as she thought back to the race, an eight-day test that took her out of her comfort zone.

"That was, for me, really exciting because I didn't know what to expect. It was something really new, and one of the hardest things I ever did, but it was so worth it. I never experienced something like that.

Annika Langvad and Anna van der Breggen during stage 5 of the 2019 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race

Van der Breggen and Annika Langvad competing at Cape Epic in March (Image credit: Cape Epic)

"If you would tell me that I would be 30 hours on a mountain bike in one week I would've said 'no, I can't do that', because riding a mountain bike is already hard. Sometimes I got off my mountain bike and almost couldn't walk any more, and I would think 'there's no way I will finish this stage race'. If I think back to it, it's crazy but it's also a really cool experience to know your body can do that."

So, Van der Breggen is among the latest roadies to fall for the charms of the off-road scene, which is only becoming more and more en vogue for road racers year-on-year. In 2020, however, it's off the menu; with the goal of the Olympics on the horizon, another spell on the mountain bike would demand more commitment than she's willing to risk.

"I really like to do it. Once you've got the initial feeling of 'no, I can't do it' under control, it's such a great feeling. You have to get to know the bike and how to ride. Once you've done that, the feeling is – you've won't have that on a road bike. I really like having that new feeling.

"I really love cyclo-cross too, but those races are short and I think it suits the more explosive riders. I'm more like a marathon rider. I also like my rest in the winter period. It's great to do the training, get back on the couch, and watch it on the television. That's my best day when I'm at home."

After starting the year with those mountain bike exploits, Van der Breggen ended it by racking up more hardware at the World Championships, taking silver in both the road race and time trial – her fourth in the latter discipline. Two second places could be something of a frustrating end to the season, but Van der Breggen said she's satisfied with the process, and the efforts made.

"It's not bad, of course. I did the best I could. Annemiek was winning the Worlds, so for me there was not much left but to get second. In the time trial I did really good. I know how it feels to be second in the Worlds. It's not the best place but I could not do more so yes, I was satisfied with that."

Finding motivation in training

April sees Van der Breggen turn 30, and, after nearly a decade spent competing at the top level and a palmarès replete with wins at near-enough every major race in the sport, the motivation to compete is still there.

But what exactly keeps her going? She has been at the top for six years after all, while her Boels Dolmans team has topped the UCI rankings for the past four.

"I think you should always search for a goal which gets you motivated. Last year, Cape Epic was a really big one, and of course there were other races. But this year it's a special year with the Olympics, so it's not difficult to get motivated," she said.

"But that's not the only thing. I also enjoy training more and more. When I was younger I really hated it, so I didn't like to do it that much. At this point, it doesn't feel like work any more. I like those simple things now, so it's not difficult to find goals.

"I don't actually know why that has changed. I know more and more about it, and I also understand more that this isn't something I'll be doing until I'm 60 years old. So, I've reached the years that I need to enjoy this, and start another life after it. I think it also to do with getting older and thinking about that next step."

That next step is still some way off yet, though. There will be a lot more races to compete at, certainly plenty more wins along the way too. One race that won't be among them in the near future is the Tour of California, as the premier US race disappears from the calendar for 2020.

Van der Breggen was the most successful rider in the race's short, five-year history. She won the race in both 2017 and 2019, last year beating teammate Katie Hall to top spot in Pasadena by 29 seconds.

Boels Dolmans 2020

The Boels Dolmans 2020 squad (Image credit: Boels Dolmans)

Next season, just nine days of UCI racing in the USA remain, though international representation at the 2019 editions of the Colorado Classic, Chrono Kristin Armstrong and Joe Martin Stage Race was few and far between.

"It was a big step going there, and they were talking about getting bigger and bigger and then one year it's gone," Van der Breggen said of California. "This race was so great to do, and of course it's a big loss.

"I would love to see more races in America. I think it's such a great cycling country. They have so many good riders and don't have races any more, which is strange, of course.

"It's different to racing in Europe, too. The roads are different, the organisation is great, and it's really American – people are full of energy and really committed to it. But when you see the Tour of California disappearing suddenly like this, then sometimes I think we go three steps forward and one step back for women's cycling."

But despite the loss of California, there are still more UCI-classified women's races to go around than ever before – 225 days in 2019, up from 184 and 161 in the previous two. Van der Breggen and her tight-knit Boels Dolmans squad have more chances than ever to grab their wins, then.

The 12-woman team, which features a small staff of five, has seen minimal turnover during the off-season, with just one rider in and one out. It's something of a recurring theme, as the 2020 campaign will be the fourth together for a core of seven riders, including Van der Breggen. Why alter a winning formula, after all?

New secondary team leader Jack Seehafer, who joins from USA Cycling, has quickly identified in the comradely team a group of riders willing to give everyone a chance to win, even if working for a domestique means passing up a potential victory. It's this ethos that has seen Boels continue to thrive, said Van der Breggen.

"It's something I really like about this team. It's not about two or three people; it's about everyone. We have girls who probably won't win a race next year, but they have goals and we try in some races to help them, and if we don't win a race because of that then it doesn't matter.

"Everybody accepts that some can win more easily than others, and everybody wants to be a part of those races. I think it's a great thing that everybody can feel a part of the team. That also gives us the feeling that, if one of us wins a race then everybody wins it.

"I don't really have a specific race I want to win. Of course, Flèche is getting special, but for me it's more important that we have a team where everybody is motivated. We know that if it's like that then we'll win races. Sometimes, when your teammate wins the race it gives me a better feeling that winning my own, for example. The best is if you all can win one race, but that's a difficult thing, of course."

With a winning reputation, a selection of top riders, and an egalitarianism not always found among the top teams of professional cycling, Boels Dolmans looks set for another exceptional year. Van der Breggen will be front and centre once more, but don't be surprised if her biggest success – like in 2016 – doesn't come in trade team colours.