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When Sunweb rider Lucinda Brand was the first to cross the finish line at Het Nieuwsblad at the start of the season, her hand went up in the air, thumb and pinky pointing out in the Shaka sign. Teammate Coryn Rivera would make the same symbol after winning Trofeo Binda, and again on the podium after her historic victory at the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Commonly seen in the surfer culture, the Shaka is originally an Hawaiian greeting that conveys the concept of solidarity, friendship, compassion and ‘hang loose’. Concepts that are alive and well among the riders of Team Sunweb, which is quickly becoming the team to beat in the women’s World WorldTour this spring.
A happy team is a productive one, the saying goes, and Team Sunweb has plenty to smile about. Two months into the road season, the black and white squad formerly known as Liv-Plantur has already won four big races and appeared on the podium at three other occasions as well.
Sure, on paper Sunweb was always going to be strong with riders like powerhouse Ellen van Dijk, sprinters Coryn Rivera, Floortje Mackaij and Leah Kirchmann, and the all-rounder Lucinda Brand on the roster. But even so, their spring campaign has been above expectations.
“Everyone is giving 200% every race, and rides completely selflessly for the team. It’s pretty special to see how quickly we learned to work together,” commented Brand, one of the team’s new recruits. “I feel very at home in the new team. We settled in easily and we’ve got a great group of riders who complement each other well and click on- and off- the bike.”
After four years with Rabo-Liv, Brand is stepping out of the shadows of past team leaders and into opportunities of her own at Sunweb. And she’s certainly not wasting them. Since debuting her new team colours at the Dutch National Cyclocross Championships in January – where she walked away with the silver medal – the 27-year-old has emerged as one of the team’s lead playmakers with a win at Het Nieuwsblad, a podium at Ronde van Drenthe and memorable performances at Strade Bianche and the cyclocross world championships.
Whether going for the win, making a gutsy attack or turning herself inside out for a teammate, the two-time Dutch national road race champion has consistently been at the front of every race, making new fans along the way and proving her place among the world’s best.
Meet Team Sunweb’s playmaker Lucinda Brand
We caught up with Brand on the eve before Tour of Flanders – one of the hardest one-day races on the calendar and a Monument of cycling – where she (along with two of her Sunweb teammates) would line up as a worthy, albeit ‘unlikely’ race favourite.
“You know, if you look back at my club days and who I was riding with, there were quite a few of them of whom people would say ‘oh they’ll go far’ but I was never one of them!” Brand shared with a laugh, while we casually sipped cappuccinos in the lobby of a freeway hotel. “Till this day people at the club find that hilarious.”
She can laugh about it too, though. After all, she was brought up as a cyclist but when it comes to being an athlete, she was a bit of a late bloomer.
What she was missing?
“Everything!” Brand chortled. “I enjoyed racing and all, but I never really tried hard or did anything to better my performance. I just didn’t care much for training. As a result, I was never the best. It wasn’t until I started riding at the elite level – and training –that I started developing.”
An early start
Growing up in a family where both parents, her uncle and brother all raced, the bike came early.
“It really is in my blood from all sides,” Brand said. “There was no escaping it.”
And so at the tender age of 8 – the youngest age category for racing in The Netherlands – Brand started pinning on numbers. A consistent junior career followed and while she may not have been the best, she did show potential and turned professional in 2009 with team Leontien.nl.
Usually riding in support of team leaders like Emma Pooley, Kirsten Wild and, later, Marianne Vos, Brand snagged the occasional result here and there, but it was her stunning solo win at the 2013 Dutch National Road Championships that put her on the map.
In the Dutch tri-colour jersey she started earning her place among the world’s best, winning the GP de Plouay world cup race and the Energiewacht Tour that following year. Steadily growing, 2015 would see her win two stages in the Giro Rosa, take second at the Sparkassen Giro, win the Dutch national road race title for a second time, and help teammate Anna van der Breggen win the silver medal at the road world championships in Richmond.
In 2016, she was an integral part of Rabo-Liv’s successes, but at the end of the season she was looking for something new.
Finding new challenges in cyclocross
That something came in the form of a team transfer and a carefully planned cyclocross season.
With road being her primary focus, Brand had done some cyclocross as cross training during winters in the past but for the 2016-17 season, she set out to take cyclocross more seriously, skipping the road world championships in favour of rest before a second season.
“As the cyclocross season went on, things just kept getting better,” Brand said. “Simply because it became more routine. In the beginning things are just so different, it’s not like you’re jumping off your bike in road racing for example so those small things need to become routine and that only happens if you do it a lot. At the end of the season, you really could notice how much progress I had made and that had its benefits.”
These ‘benefits’ of course were results. Brand netted at least seven podiums, including a slew of second place finishes at world-class events like the Superprestige Gieten, Hoogerheide world cup race, Dutch national championships and the European championships.
And when the pinnacle event of the winter came around – the UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Luxembourg – Brand was right at the front, contesting for the podium alongside Marianne Vos and Sanne Cant until she hit the frozen ground.
“I was quite enthusiastic and I just took too great a risk in that section. It was a real bummer because, in a fall like that, you waste energy, lose your rhythm and have to make a bike change – all preventable things,” said Brand. “Surprisingly I did not hurt myself at all. Afterwards I got a lot of comments, and I guess it looked pretty severe but well, it was quite slick out there!”
Outsprinted at the line for third place by Katerina Nash, Brand’s disappointment was apparent as she hit her handlebar with frustration.
“In that moment of course you’re disappointed with a fourth place. Everyone dreams of a medal at the world championships and when you’re that close… but if I look back on my cross season, overall, I’m really happy with my performances. If you had put me on that course in Bieles back in October then I certainly wouldn’t have done as well, which shows how much progression I have made in a very short span of time,” Brand said.
Better yet, her fitness carried over into the early spring races, allowing her to kick off the season with her new team in the best way possible.
“I wanted to see what I could do if I were given the opportunity to be team lead more often. Sunweb is giving me the opportunity, but I had never imaged I would start my time with the new team off like this,” said Brand.
“There was no pressure from the team, but I wanted to show what I can do. I really wanted that for myself. I was a bit scared that I would see a dip in my fitness after cross but it didn’t happen. Instead, I think it brought the best out of me.”
“I do know fear”
What makes Brand such a fun racer to watch are her gutsy solos and excellent technical skills. She sure knows how to suffer and she’s got a reputation of being among the best bike handlers and descenders in the peloton.
“I remember that moment!” exclaimed Brand, smiling. “I kind of wish there had been a camera on my face because I was smiling all the way down.”
Brand noted that her descending prowess is rooted in technique and experience, instead of lack of fear.
“Everyone always think I have no fear, but that’s not true. I do know fear. But I do think that in the moment, I am able to turn things off. The awareness that something was risky or scary comes after I have dealt with it. There are a lot of moments where I am like, ‘Phew! Glad I pulled that off’. My fear comes after! But I think that comes from subconsciously knowing you can handle it,” she explained.
These handling skills were gained through a childhood of chasing her dad and brother around, as well as tailored technical clinics.
“It helps having grown up on the bike and training with my dad and brother. They would never wait for me after corners, for example, and since I wasn’t as strong, I was better off staying on their wheel instead of getting dropped. Same goes for chasing my brother on downhills. So in a playful way, my technical skills were developed from an early age,” Brand said.
“But to further them, at Rabobank, we had specific training with downhill expert Oscar Saiz which really helped me. Everyone got a lot faster downhill and – unfortunately for the rest – so did I. I always think about my technique on a downhill. Every downhill is training for me and I really enjoy it.”
“My first rule is to always stay on your side of the road; look at what the moto is doing if you don’t know what’s ahead; and take your space when cornering,” said Brand. “My mantra is outside, inside, outside – come in wide, cut the apex and come out wide. Also, keep pressure on your outside wheel; use your front brake for scrubbing speed; and never ever brake in the corner. Brake before the corner.”
Eyes on Bergen
We’ll surely get to see those skills in action for many races to come this season. After a little bit of a break during the Ardennes, Brand will turn her attention to the summer when she hopes to vie for a third Dutch national title, perhaps take another stage win at the Giro Rosa, and be an important part in Sunweb’s team time trial squad at the UCI Road World Championships in Bergen, Norway.
Brand has no hard goals for the remainder of season, but, secretly eyes the Bergen road course.
“Even making the national selection is tough coming from a strong country like The Netherlands,” said Brand. “But if I’m allowed to dream, then I dream of being able to show what I can do there, in Norway.”
Quick Fire Round of Questions:
Ella: Cross or road?
Brand: “Oh no. That’s a really difficult decision… I would have to say cross. I have done less of it and so I still have so much to learn and it’s really just a big playground for me. It’s a tough decision because I really like the game on the road.”
Ella: Favourite road race?
Brand: “Strade Bianche and I really enjoy the Giro. The harder, the better.”
Ella: What men’s race would you like to do?
Brand: “Paris-Roubaix. I would also like to see the women’s Giro be ran at the same time as the men’s so a well-organised multistage event in France can be held for the women in July as well.”
Ella: Do you remember your first bike?
Brand: “It was a red hand-me-down from my brother. After me it circled though the club for a long time and many other riders have gotten their start on that bike.”
Ella: Who’s the better cyclist – you or your brother?
Brand: “My brother has more talent… and it annoys me to no end! He doesn’t train much but I can’t drop him. It’s annoying.”
Ella: Salespitch – why should people follow women’s cycling?
Brand: “Women’s cycling is accessible. The characters are great to follow. Racing and action starts at the gun.”
Ella: What’s your best tip for beginning riders?
Brand: “Get a bike that fits properly. It’s incredibly important in avoiding discomfort and getting the most joy out of cycling.”