Anna van der Breggen’s unassuming rise to the top
With its most prolific rider sidelined with injuries, many of the stories surrounding Rabo Liv have been around the absence of Marianne Vos. So dominant last year, many wondered what would become of Rabo Liv this year and who would emerge as the team’s new leader.
With a stacked roster, there is ample talent in the Dutch squad including double world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. But she, too, was forced to take some time off the bike, and while the rainbow jersey has still managed some impressive results this season, it’s been the quiet yet consistent Anna van der Breggen who has emerged not only as the lead rider for Rabo Liv but as a top rider in the women’s peloton in general.
With some of the biggest victories to her name, Van der Breggen is a rider who can no longer go unmarked in the peloton and should no longer be unannounced in the media.
Yes, her name is a difficult one to pronounce for non-Dutch speakers, but it’s one worth learning. This season alone, she has won Omloop het Nieuwsblad, the prologue and stage four at the EnergieWacht Tour, Flèche Wallonne, Elsy Jacobs, the Dutch national time trial championships ahead of former time trial world champion Ellen Van Dijk, the Giro Rosa, and, just last weekend, La Course.
But to think of her as this young, new phenomenon would be wrong. What we’ve seen from Van der Breggen this year has been a long time coming. A cyclist since the tender age of seven, the 25-year-old has been riding in world-class events like the Giro Rosa for seven years.
“The first Giro I did, I only finished four stages. It was a bit too much for me then, but I did complete all the other ones. Remembering how I felt the first time I rode the Giro, I would have never imagined winning it,” said Van der Breggen. “In fact, I don’t think I ever expected the sport to take me this far. I have been doing it for so long now.”
A season 18 years in the making
Like many young girls, Van der Breggen’s start in cycling was influenced by her older brother.
“I started cycling when I was seven because my brother was part of a club and I would tag along sometimes to his training. You weren’t allowed to race in ‘real’ races until you were eight so I was definitely counting down the days till I was old enough,” Van der Breggen said.
What drew her to cycling, more than anything, was the social aspect. It was as much the camaraderie among her teammates as it was her competitive nature.
“It was very social. After the training or races, we’d toss our bike stuff aside and played games. But the competitiveness was always there, too. My friends got me to training rides and to the races but once I was at the race, I wanted to win,” Van der Breggen said. “I remember that before each race, my teammates and I would go and look at the trophies and that’s what you were going for then – the idea of taking home that trophy.”
She stuck with it and began racing more seriously as a junior, getting good results nationally and even on the international stage, finishing fifth in the 2007 Junior World Championship road race. Cycling was still just a hobby however and took a backseat during her studies.
“I combined cycling and my studies but eventually, it got to be a bit too much and my studies always were the priority,” said Van der Breggen.
As part of her nursing program, Van der Breggen was selected for an internship in Ghana, which she eagerly took.
“At that point I had been cycling for so long that I enjoyed taking a bit of a break from cycling. It was also an opportunity for me to explore whether I would miss it and what cycling meant to me,” she said.
As it turned out, she did miss it. Upon her return she was more motivated than ever before.
“I did not yet know that this would be a conscious career move, but I was motivated to see how far I could take my cycling. I joined a UCI team (Sengers Ladies Cycling Team) and trained very hard that winter,” she said.
2012: a breakthrough year
The 2012 season would become Van der Breggen’s breakthrough year.
She won the European time trial championships, three out of the four stages of the Tour de Bretagne and, most memorably, gave a breakout performance at the World Championships in Valkenburg where she rode in support of Marianne Vos while still finishing fifth herself. In Florence a year later, she again played a key role in Vos’ world championship win while finishing fourth.
People took note, and Anna Van der Breggen joined Rabo Liv for 2014 to ride alongside Marianne Vos.
The new “kopvrouw”
She has found her stride at Rabo Liv, and DS Koos Moerenhout thinks this is only the start.
“She’s an all-rounder and can be even better in the coming years, purely by gaining more experience in her new role as team leader,” said Moerenhout. “In previous years, Anna was already riding at a high level, but this past year, she has really been working on a ‘killer instinct’ to finish races better and seize opportunities. She has also devoted considerable attention to the time trial. We are seeing the results of her work now.”
That “killer instinct” –or the drive that made the eight-year-old Van der Breggen yearn for those trophies –can come as a surprise to people, says teammate Roxane Knetemann.
“Anna is very quiet and can appear nonchalant but she is actually extremely driven,” Knetemann said. “She takes cycling very seriously and works hard for it. You can see her drive and competitiveness even in games. She simply has to win. Always. If she doesn’t win, it’s fine, too. It just doesn’t happen very often – she makes sure of that.”
It seems that the talent and drive was there all along. Van der Breggen just needed an opportunity to prove herself and rise to the occasion. Vos’ absence provided just that.
“Anna has been riding really strong for a long time now. She rode super strong in Valkenburg and even stronger [at the World Championships] in Florence. She was a great helper for [Vos] and had things been differently, she may have even been able to win that race,” said Knetemann.
“It very special to be “kopvrouw” and be the one that the team works for,” said Van der Breggen. “But I am really sad Marianne has been sidelined this season because it’s very fun to race with and for Marianne.”
People are understandably quick to compare the two. Van der Breggen would prefer it if they didn’t.
“I’m not a rider like [Vos],” Van der Breggen said. “I can put down a good time trial, climb and do well in tough races but on flat course, I’m just an average cyclist. Marianne is such an incredible cyclist because she can do it all – she can win a mass sprint as well as ride away on a climb. If you are looking for a replacement of Vos, you won’t find it in me.”
And while Van der Breggen is quick to beg off the comparisons, her team has happily embraced their new leader with distinctly different qualities than Vos.
“It’s easy to ride for Anna. You give her a bidon now and again and bring her to the front when need be, and that’s that. She has become good at holding her own in the peloton,” said Kneteman.
“She is a different leader than Marianne Vos because you are not 100 percent sure that she is going to win. Anna is not as good a sprinter [as Vos] – though she is getting better – and that gets her in trouble every once in a while. We don’t fault her for it but with Marianne, you just know she is going to win and so, as a team, we won more often,” Knetemann explained. “With that said, the victory feels greater when, for example, Anna grabbed that pink jersey in the second to last stage and was able to keep it the next day. It makes it special.”
Winning the Giro Rosa was a dream come true but what else she dreams about, Van der Breggen wouldn’t really say.
“I find it hard to target very specific goals. Sure, the Olympics is something I’m eyeing, but I almost don’t dare to dream of winning that. I think it’ll be incredible just to go and have a good race. I don’t dare think much beyond that,” she said.
Others are less timid to give voice to her potential.
“If she makes another step forward, as she did this year, then I’m convinced that she’ll be a medal contender at the Olympics next year,” said Knetemann. “She hasn’t reached her peak yet and she’ll be holding her own going forward.”
But for Van der Breggen, more important than winning, is the joy she gets from being in the sport.
“I think it’s important in competitive cycling to go into each race wanting to be there. Of course you have to be focussed and put in your time to do well, but it has to bring you joy. When it’s fun, you learn more quickly and you’ll perform better,” she explained. “I think passion comes first. It’s what motivates you. It’s how you make it through the suffering and are able to continue doing it.”
Van der Breggen’s fun continues at the World Cup races in Germany and Sweden en route to the World Championships in Richmond where she’ll be targeting the time trial and road race. She’ll also be looking forward to a re-do of the team trial trial, which last year ended in a serious crash for Rabo Liv and a hip fracture for Van der Breggen.