To paraphrase an old adage, with great talent comes great expectation, and with that the pressure is higher than ever.
Anna van der Breggen is well aware of the fine line that can be the difference between success and failure. In 2016 she enjoyed by far her best season to date, becoming both Olympic champion and European champion, while her teammate Annemiek van Vleuten missed out on the former after a horrific crash just kilometres from victory.
With such big goals, Van der Breggen couldn’t afford for things to go awry, and the burden of her own hopes and expectations took their toll. Now, she says, her only goal is to enjoy racing as much as possible.
"I still like to do well and win races, that won’t change, but I want to enjoy what I do," she told Cyclingnews from a team training camp. "If I look back to the season last year, then I can only be proud, and that’s what you want to achieve when you are an athlete and a cyclist.
"I really enjoyed the Olympic year, but at the same time, I think it was a really hard year, and I didn’t enjoy it because of that… but now I just enjoy every day on the bike and when I think about that year and that period, I’m really happy and I don’t care if I don’t get podiums in the spring or if I do. I just like riding and racing with my new team. I think that is the most important."
While she has shrugged off the pressure and expectation that she put on herself, there will doubtless be some coming from the outside world. Thankfully for Van der Breggen, there will be plenty of world-class shoulders to share the pressure within her new Boels Dolmans team. After three seasons with the Rabo-Liv squad, the Dutchwoman decided to seek out pastures new. The decision was sparked in part due to the decision by Rabobank to put an end to their long-term sponsorship, but she says that she was already mulling on a potential shift.
"I wanted to change teams, then the year after the Olympics was a good time to do it. I wasn’t really searching, but we just had the news that the sponsor we had wasn’t continuing," said Van der Breggen. "I waited a little while to see how things would develop with the old team, but it took such a long time that I made the choice, so I knew for sure that I would have a team for next year and which one, so I could focus on the Olympics.
"I really miss the girls from Rabo-Liv sometimes, but I really like these girls. On a new team, when you ride a lot together then a new team will bond quickly. I’m looking forward to racing with them. I see my own team riding by, and it hurts a bit, but that’s cycling. They are still friends."
Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands) wins the European Championships road race. (Bettini Photo)
Trying something new
Moving to Boels Dolmans has also opened up some other possibilities for Van der Breggen, such as the two mountain bike races that she is competing in ahead of her road campaign. She has already ridden the Costa Blanca bike race last month, and she heads to the Cyprus Sunshine Cup later this week.
Costa Blanca was the first serious mountain bike race for Van der Breggen, although it was something that she had been considering for several seasons. Working with Boels Dolmans’ bike sponsor, Specialized, she was finally able to do it.
"You need a team to go with and people who know something about it," she explained. "This year I am with Specialized for the materials, and they have a mountain bike team so it was a good combination, and they really supported me in that. I think that, especially when you start something new, you really need that so that you can fully go for it."
Like many riders, Van der Breggen has used mountain biking as a training tool over the winter months and had taken part in a few small races, but it was a world away from anything she’d done before. Training for the events was a step into the unknown, and she learned that sometimes you just have to throw yourself in at the deep end. Despite her inexperience, Van der Breggen and her teammate, Margot Moschetti, dominated the Costa Blanca race and won it by more than half an hour.
"It’s mountain biking for me on another level than I’ve done before," she said, adding that, "I was absolutely surprised [that I won] because the training was pretty tough for me.
"Sometimes I was standing at the top of a climb, and I still had to go down, and I really thought I don’t know if I can go here on a bike but then if everyone else goes down on a bike then you have to do it. That’s something you need to learn that’s totally new. If you do it in a race, then it’s different and then if you try it a couple more times, then it becomes easier every day. Sometimes you have to get over it. If I had been alone there, then I wouldn’t have done it, but if you see other people doing it then you know that it is possible and it’s absolutely great if you do it. It’s different to on the road."
Van der Breggen’s road season will begin next week, on March 4, at the first round of the Women’s WorldTour, Strade Bianche.