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Anna van der Breggen speaks out against putting pressure on junior athletes to be thin

World Champion Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx)
World Champion Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) (Image credit: Getty Images)

Anna van der Breggen has spoken out against the pressures being placed on junior athletes to be thin after her compatriot, Senne Knaven, 18, revealed that she struggled with weight, food and diets because of these pressures in cycling in a post on Instagram Friday. 

In an interview with Cyclingnews, van der Breggen said the sport needs to protect young athletes from pressures to be thin because it's harmful to their physical and mental health and could have damaging effects on their future careers in the sport.

"Junior riders should not be trying to lose weight. They don’t know how much of an influence it will have on their bodies, not just on their weight, but on all of the systems in their bodies, and their mental health. Junior girls need to have the right people around them to protect them from these [pressures]," van der Breggen said.

"We really should make it an important topic to discuss with our young riders. It’s really good to see that [Senne] felt encouraged to write about it on Instagram because I think this is something that many girls think about. 

"Fuelling your body is the most important thing in cycling and it's important to be healthy."

Knaven currently races for the development programme NXTG Racing and a member of the junior national team out of the Netherlands. She expressed the struggle with what she called the 'norm' of attitudes and expectations in international cycling, and from her own federation, for junior athletes to lose weight.

“For the past few months I’ve not been feeling happy about myself, although it comes in waves," Knaven wrote in a post on Instagram.

"It almost looks like it’s a must to be skinny as a cyclist. I have (had) the struggle myself with weight and food. I think it’s nonsense for girls my age or younger to be even thinking about having to lose weight or starting a diet.

"I know you shouldn’t eat fat and [shit] food but that’s not even the problem. It’s more about the norm that people put on cyclists that they have to be skinny or lean. This norm puts a lot of girls in the situation of having to deal with an ED or just disorded eating. I don’t think girls my age or younger should be dealing with the thoughts that you can’t eat some foods or that you are ‘too fat’.

"I had the struggle myself, although I’m getting better at it but I used to binge a lot because I didn’t eat enough. After this I felt so bad that i just almost didn’t eat. This came in waves but it’s something that makes you so unhappy and I don’t think you should be feeling like this as a 17-18 year old when cycling is still just your hobby.

"What I notice as well is that since especially this year, you have to be skinny to be selected for euros and worlds. (Netherlands) It’s so nice of people to tell young girls that they have to lose weight otherwise they won’t be selected. 

"Thank you for reading this. I just think this is something that had to be pointed out and it’s not really a topic anyone likes to talk about. I just felt like I had to share this.”

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COLICO ITALY JULY 07 Anna Van Der Breggen of Netherlands and Team SD Worx Pink Leader Jersey and Teammates at start during the 32nd Giro dItalia Internazionale Femminile 2021 Stage 6 a 155km stage from Colico to Colico GiroDonne UCIWWT on July 07 2021 in Colico Italy Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

Anna van der Breggen with her SD Worx team at the Giro d'Italia Donne (Image credit: Getty Images)

Van der Breggen will retired at the end of this season and become a director for the Women's WorldTeam SD Worx in 2022. She is a former registered nurse and has taken classes in nutrition. She aims to guide the young riders on her team in a healthy development toward their cycling goals.

"I’m not in the group of young girls, outside of our team [SD Worx], but that’s something that we pay attention to because their bodies are still developing and they are very young," van der Breggen said.

"If they are talented and they like the sport, they need to be able to do it for ten years or longer. The focus should be on eating enough for the training that they do, and learning about the foods that their bodies need; veggies, fruits, minerals, and it’s important for them not to be on diets or feeling like they need to reach a certain weight.

"Weight should not be a factor for junior girls. They are probably riding every day and that is a lot already for these young girls. They should be learning about the healthy foods that their bodies need, what’s useful for your body. The human body naturally says when it’s hungry or not hungry, and young riders should not feel pressures to go on the weight scales in the morning, and think, 'I can’t eat.’ 

"This is not something that they should be thinking about. Maybe when they are older, [athletes] can decide to work with a nutritionist, but at the junior age, there should not be pressures put on them [to be thin]."

Van der Breggen said that people in positions of authority over junior riders such as coaches and sports directors should be educating themselves about the healthy approaches to guiding young athletes.

"The most scary thing is that these pressure are put on them by others. If you are leading a group of young girls or if you are a sports director or within the national team, everyone should be teaching these young girls the right things. 

"The scary thing is that some people don’t realize that this is such a big factor in the minds of young girls. If the wrong thing is said, it can have so much impact on these girls," van der Breggen said. 

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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.