Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) describes her 2017 Ardennes triple as special but says that it is not her goal to repeat the achievement this year. The triptych of one-day Classics will begin with the Amstel Gold Race this Sunday, with Liege-Bastogne-Liege closing it out a week later, while Fleche Wallonne is sandwiched between the two.
Last year, Van der Breggen claimed debut victories at the Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, plus her third straight Fleche Wallonne title, in what was the first full women's Ardennes week. The Dutch rider says that it would be almost impossible to do what she did 12 months ago.
"It's special to have won all three races. When I think about last year it's cool," Van der Breggen told Cyclingnews on Monday. "I don't think that I should have it as a standard for this year because then it's going to be really tough for me. I think that it isn't possible and it's also not my goal to have that again.
"Maybe it can happen, but the chances of it are really small. I'm looking forward to it, and I'm looking forward to having that shape again. If you feel good, and you have nice racing, maybe you don't win the races but it can still be great to race there. We will see what comes out."
Van der Breggen's approach towards this year's Ardennes week has been markedly different compared to her last effort.
In 2017, she had to delay the start of the season due to illness. With several other Boels Dolmans riders also out sick, Van der Breggen's Amstel victory was only their second success at WorldTour level. This year, the team has been dominating proceedings with three WorldTour successes already. Van der Breggen has two herself, at Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders, while Amy Pieters claimed victory at the Ronde van Drenthe.
Their success, Van der Breggen says, takes the pressure off ahead of the coming races.
"Last year, I think that we had some pressure on this week and I think that it's less this year, which is good. These races are going to be hard and that's challenging, but it's nice at the same time. I think we will start this upcoming week well," she said.
Still enjoying Flanders and missing Deignan
Of her two big victories this season, Van der Breggen's solo effort at the Tour of Flanders last week was the most impressive. She attacked alone with 17 kilometres to go at Strade Bianche. At the Tour of Flanders she took the initiative with 27 km to go, crossing the line more than a minute ahead of teammate Amy Pieters.
"I think I'm still enjoying that victory. It's not something that you have with every victory but this one I still enjoy it," said Van der Breggen.
"Before Flanders, of course, I knew that it was a beautiful race and it is big but it's like you only realise that when you're racing it and when you're there. I felt really good that day. We also really enjoyed the race and how it went. Winning that race is really special and I didn't realise it that much before the race."
Even without considering her performance last year, Van der Breggen's ride into Oudenaarde just over a week ago marks her out as the major favourite, particularly with such a strong Boels Dolmans team behind her. Their strength was apparent last week when they dominated the week-long Healthy Ageing Tour on home ground, with Pieters leading a team 1-2-3-4 in the overall standings.
However, Van der Breggen and Boels Dolmans will be missing one key rider with Lizzie Deignan taking the season out due to her pregnancy. Deignan was a hugely important part of Van der Breggen's success at the Ardennes last year and ensured that the team locked out the top two spots on the rostrum in all three races.
"I think it will be really different because Lizzie is a strong rider and if she's there then it is good and we can play on more riders," Van der Breggen told Cyclingnews.
"It's a pity that she's not there but she has a good reason, which is also really nice. She's not there and we have to do it with the team that we have and that's fine. We've seen a lot of improvement in our team and if we look to the team so far, we can see it is going well."
No California and expanding calendar
After the Ardennes Classics, Van der Breggen will remain in Europe to compete at the Emakumeen Bira after the team confirmed that they would not return to the Tour of California this season. Van der Breggen was the second consecutive Boels Dolmans rider to win the race after Megan Guarnier won it in 2016. However, a calendar clash and a shortage of riders forced them to pull the plug on one of the races.
"Our team is not the biggest team and we have to make choices about that. California changed a bit and it has one day less. I went there last year and loved that race because it was so well organised, and I was a bit disappointed that it was one day less already, and for us to come from Europe it is quite a lot of travel and then you also have the altitude so it needs quite a good preparation to be good in that race.
"It's a difficult choice and I hope that in the future we can do it again and the race grows again. If you see the men's race, it is beautiful and they have some really hard stages. Hopefully, it can be a bit like that."
The women's calendar has seen a raft of races making it into the WorldTour, some new and some old. The Ardennes week is a prime example of that with Liege-Bastogne-Liege being ridden for the first time by the women, while the Amstel Gold Race was the revival of an event that only managed three editions on its first attempt.
Van der Breggen thinks that is it great to have all these new races but says that it is crucial not to expand the calendar too quickly for fear that historical events will disappear.
"I think with that you can really see that we are developing and our calendar is getting really beautiful. It's going really fast," she said.
"We don't have a Roubaix yet but many people are asking why we don't have one and that's something that people weren't asking five years ago. It's going pretty well but I hope it isn't going to fast so that races like the Healthy Ageing Tour will also be there and still exist if we are expanding the WorldTour calendar."
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Born in Ireland to a cycling family and later moved to the Isle of Man, so there was no surprise when I got into the sport. Studied sports journalism at university before going on to do a Masters in sports broadcast. After university I spent three months interning at Eurosport, where I covered the Tour de France. In 2012 I started at Procycling Magazine, before becoming the deputy editor of Procycling Week. I then joined Cyclingnews, in December 2013.