It’s not often the world champion feels like “a new girl at school” on the bike. But that feeling of nervous-excitement is exactly what is motivating Anna van der Breggen ahead of the 2019 season.
She is a rider who has basically won it all. From Strade Bianche, Fleche Wallonne, Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, there is barely a big race left in the calendar the reigning Olympic champion has not conquered. And last year, she completed a “perfect” season with a 40km solo effort to win the World Championships on a brutally tough course in Innsbruck, Austria.
While racing in the rainbow stripes offers motivation aplenty to make 2019 a success, Van der Breggen also finds a mental and physical refresh off-road and has big plans for the season ahead, including racing the Cyprus Sunshine Cup Afxentia stage race, and the brutal Cape Epic alongside 2016 mountain bike cross-country world champion Annika Langvard in South Africa in March.
“When I go to race on the road, you do the same things every year. I don’t even do recces anymore! You know the circuits, the hotels. But in mountain bike everything is new and it feels so different, that’s a feeling I like,” she told Voxwomen.
“I have this opportunity to do this really tough, hard stage race. I have only just started really in mountain bike, but I am trying to be as good as possible – to race like this, I don’t know how to do it, so it will be one big adventure. And it is really special Annika is doing it with me – to have the world champion as your teacher is really special. It is nice for me to do something different.
“Mountain bike riding is great training for me as I’m not really an explosive rider on the road. In mountain biking, they train so hard, they are so strong, so tough. I have to recover really well after it, and it’s training I do not get on the road. It works really well.”
The 28-year-old’s road season starts at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche, before she heads to Cape Epic. And while she readily accepts matching the jaw-dropping success she had last season will be incredibly difficult to match, proudly racing in the rainbow jersey is simply a source of pleasure, not pressure.
“You think about something for such a long time, every training session, and in the moment you stand on the podium, you realise that jersey is yours. It felt so special and it still is. Everytime I look at my bike, at my kit, I train in the rainbow stripes, I am so proud,” Van der Breggen reflected.
“I am going to enjoy wearing that jersey. I have worked so hard for many years to get it and it is really special you get to ride in it for one year. 2019 is a year for me of enjoying being a cyclist and being part of a team who are really motivated.
“As cyclists, there is always pressure, there are always goals. One goal this year is to enjoy it all a bit more.”
Speaking to Van der Breggen before a race, you are struck by how relaxed she is. There are no obvious signs of jitters or nerves, no peaks and troughs in mood or stature. She is calm, poker-faced, and ready. She has a pragmatic and mature approach and attitude to racing befitting of a champion. The World Championships however were slightly different.
“I was nervous before the World Championships, more than other races,” she admitted.
“I knew the circuit was suitable for me and I had a good opportunity to win, to become world champion. That doesn’t come around often, you only have one chance. I was focused, excited, but the prospect is also a bit scary.
“But ultimately, all you can do is your best. If someone is faster or stronger than you, and you did your best, that’s all.”
A chatty and relaxed Van der Breggen was speaking from training camp in Spain, after an off-season which saw the four-time winner of Fleche Wallonne get married and enjoy her honeymoon.
And with four new riders to welcome into the Boels Dolmans family, the threat of new superteams Trek Segafredo and CCC, plus the likes of old enemies Mitchelton Scott and Team Sunweb, Van der Breggen is excited by how women’s cycling continues to grow.
“Girls are getting stronger and better, and we need that in women’s cycling. It is exciting in a new season to see how young girls are developing. Cecilie (Uttrup Ludwig) will always be a good climber and she’s developing now Ashleigh (Moolman Pasio) has moved to CCC. Ashleigh of course is one to watch in the Spring Classics, as well as Amanda (Spratt) and Annemiek (van Vleuten).
“In the sprint, Letizia Paternoster is a young rider to watch, and got the first win for Trek Segafredo. It is nice we have a new women’s team like that, good for women’s cycling and I’m curious to see how they go. They look really strong.”
And what of former teammate and Trek Segafredo rider Lizzie Deignan, back after having a baby last September?
“Lizzie is a really strong rider and I really enjoyed that period when we were teammates,” Van der Breggen said. “With the World Championships in Yorkshire, this is a very important season for her. It’s great that she tries again – it shows it’s not impossible, not limiting to have a child and come back on the highest level. I really have respect for that and hope she does well in her own country.
“The climbs are shorter and steeper in the Worlds this year, and that kind of racing suits a lot of riders. It will be hard to defend the jersey. I’ll see how the season goes, and then work towards them again.”
Relaxed and motivated, resplendent in the rainbow stripes, pressure is off for Van der Breggen in 2019. And that might just mean she is a bigger threat than ever before.