To time peak fitness at the opportune moment is a science and an art that most athletes strive to perfect throughout their entire careers, with some hits and many misses along the way. Dutch rider Anna van der Breggen, however, seems to have it mastered. Last year she peaked at all the right moments to take home not one but two Olympic medals at the Rio Olympics in August before doing the same at the European championships the following month.
Entering the 2017 season as both the European and Olympic road race champion, all eyes were on the 27-year-old who was now riding for women’s cycling’s leading team, Boels-Dolmans.
Yet plagued with the flu and a lingering cold, Van der Breggen debuted her new team colours under less than ideal circumstances. As a result, she was on domestique duty, riding in support of the many other stars on the team.
But while dealing with this setback and racing herself back into form, Van der Breggen seemed happier, more confident and more relaxed than she’s been in years.
The lead-up to the Olympic Games last summer had been all consuming. The aftermath, a whirlwind of receptions and attention. Now that it has all sunk in, cycling is just pure joy.
“I am still enjoying [last season’s] achievements and the jersey every time I get on my bike. I kind of feel like the pressure is off. I have proven what I can do, and now I am just really enjoying [cycling] at the moment,” Van der Breggen told Ella CyclingTips in the lead-up to the Ardennes classics.
“The spring has been a bit disappointing but I can take confidence in knowing that once I am in form, I will be good again.”
And back in form she was! Just a few short weeks after kicking the cold, Van der Breggen soloed across the finish again and again and again. Arms stretched in the air, proudly showing off her blue-and-white European champion jersey, Van der Breggen and her Boels-Dolmans squad made history by winning all three Ardennes Classics in a row.
Back in the fall of 2016, the UCI announced that the 2017 Women’s WorldTour calendar would see the return of a women’s Amstel Gold Race – the first in 14 years – as well as a first-ever women’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Held in combination with La Flèche Wallonne Femmes, this meant that the women’s pro peloton would compete in its first full Ardennes Week, which is a series three prestigious classics style races in Holland and Belgium within an eight-day span.
The news was met with a lot excitement and anticipation, and as a two-time winner of Flèche Wallonne Femmes, Van der Breggen circled the dates on her calendar, highlighting them as her target.
Finding her form just in time, Van der Breggen kicked off the Ardennes Week with an impressive solo victory, crossing the line a full 55 seconds ahead of teammate Lizzie Deignan, Kasia Niewiadoma (WM3 Pro Cycling) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott).
As the week continued so did the déjà vu moments as it wasn’t just that Van der Breggen kept winning, but it was also the way she did it. The scenario of Van der Breggen and Deignan making the winning break, and Van der Breggen then making a solo effort to the finish played out in Boels-Dolmans’ favor an unprecedented three times in a row.
“I really wanted to show what I can do there … I was aiming to be good this week, but I never expected something like this,” said Van der Breggen after going three-for-three.
“It was an important week. I hoped to win one of [the classic] … but to win three of them. Wow!”
By winning the triple crown, Van der Breggen joins an elite few riders to have accomplished this feat. Only Philippe Gilbert and Davide Rebellion have done the same.
Joining a dream team
Happy athletes make successful athletes, the saying goes. And for Van der Breggen that surely rings true.
Olympic gold in the road race, Olympic bronze in the time trial, European road champion, runner-up in the European time trial championships, a new season, a new team, and a lot of expectations – one would think the pressure would be higher than ever for Van der Breggen, but she says it’s quite the opposite.
“Yes, I expected the pressure to be high as well but no, I don’t feel that way,” she told Ella CyclingTips. “I feel at home in this new team.”
After riding for Marianne Vos’ RaboLiv team for several years, Van der Breggen emerged as a star in her own right during the 2015 season when she won Omloop het Nieuwsblad, Flèche Wallonne, Elsy Jacobs, the Dutch national time trial championships, the Giro Rosa, La Course and no less than three medals at the UCI world championships in Richmond.
Rather than continuing on with the new iteration of the RaboLiv team, Van der Breggen signed with Boels-Dolmans for 2017 looking for change.
“In the end, I choose for myself. They were very enthusiastic and so was I, so the decision was made pretty quickly. It just felt right,” she said.
“It’s really fun that the women who were my big competitors before are now my teammates. Instead of playing the game against them I now get to play the game with them. That’s fun for me.”
And the fact that the roster was already filled with plenty of star power, proven team leaders and world champions was actually more of a draw than a concern, Van der Bregggen commented.
“I came from a top team already, so I was used to that. On a team where there is so much depth, I find it comforting to know that I don’t have to be in top shape every race. You have more cards to play and you make each other stronger,” she said. “The more strong riders on the team, the more fun and easier it is to play with team tactics.”
With that said, she was mindful of the risk and downsides of having an all-powerful team. As Boels-Dolmans showed last year, one dominating team made for less interesting racing for spectators, and a fewer opportunities for riders to prove themselves on the team.
“It’s not playing out to be that way this year. We haven’t been dominating in the spring and the level of women’s cycling is very high right now,” Van der Breggen said. “There is a lot of development across the sport right now. Just look at a team like Sunweb and how it’s risen to the top. It has made the season very interesting so far.”
The Race Everyone Saw
We may be well into a new season but the Rio Olympic road race of last summer is far from a done topic.
“You know the Games are a big deal, and you’re there experiencing it but it’s not until you’re there and then come back home again that you realise just how big. I never imagined just how big the impact would be,” Van der Breggen told Ella CyclingTips.
“Everyone I counter first shares with me how they experienced the [Olympic road] race. It’s like everyone – fan or not – watched that race. That it had been so exciting I didn’t even know until I watched the replay.”
And what did she see when she watched the replay?
“[While racing] I had had no idea what was happening behind us. So when I watched the race I realised how close the chasers had been behind us. In retrospect perhaps it was a good thing that we hadn’t known that. We already had been going full out but in the end, at the last kilometre, I was sitting on. Perhaps I would not have done that if I had known how close the chasers were,” she shared. “But [the race] definitely had all the elements so that people were on the edge of their seat the whole race.”
The One Missing Title
By now, Van der Breggen has won just about every major race there is to win – from women’s cycling’s longest stage race, the Giro Rosa, to Spring Classics and the Olympic road race. But among her national, European and Olympic titles, one title is noticeably missing.
“The World Championships? Yes, that one is on my list!” Van der Breggen admitted.
A force in road races as well as the time trial, Van der Breggen has come awfully close over the years with two silver and once bronze world championship medal already in her collection.
Given her impeccable peak performance timing, perhaps that gold medal could be within reach in Bergen, Norway, later this year.