Anna van der Breggen very nearly wasn’t a professional cyclist. In the years before 2012, when she signed her first contract, she was training to be a nurse. She did not have the mindset of an athlete; racing had only ever been for fun.
“If you see girls now, they’re so professional,” she says. “I remember when I was in my last year as a junior, my coach said: ‘Anna, it’s really time for you to get a heart-rate belt.’ I was like ‘why? Why do I need one?’”
She relied solely on her natural talent and though this took her some way, the step up to the elites was a baptism of fire: “Suddenly, there were so many women, you didn’t know anybody,” she says. “My friends quit. I needed to discover how it worked and how to do it. It was a period where cycling was pretty hard. I didn’t like it that much anymore.”
Luckily for the cycling world, Van der Breggen was convinced by her then sister-in-law and coach to continue her journey on the bicycle. “The winter before 2012 was the moment that I really realised I have to do more or I’ll quit cycling after my internship,” she says. “I needed to find out what I could do, because everybody was always telling me: you have talent. With the national federation, we did some VO2 max tests every year and the doctor was telling me you have talent but you are not using it.
“Somewhere in my mind, I was like, I should try it before I quit. That winter, together with my sister-in-law, we joined a new team and we wanted to do it well. We made our own training schedule and for the first time, I went out almost every day. We just wanted to see if it would work or not. I did my first races and thought: wow, I’ve improved so much.”
The peloton soon learned Anna van der Breggen’s name. In 2012, at the age of only 22, she was ninth in the Tour of Flanders, finished fifth in the World Road Championships and took stage wins in various lower-level UCI races. It was the beginning of a career which would end this autumn with the Dutchwoman hailed as one of the most successful female racers of all time.
Born in Zwolle, a city in north-eastern Netherlands, riding a bike was a rite of passage for all kids growing up. “It was just something you did,” she says. “Tuesdays and Thursdays were training and on Saturday there was a race. I had my friends there and if I was to come third in a race or tenth, nobody cared. And I liked it.”
As she speaks, I see a different Van der Breggen. She’s generous with her insight and words. Calm and collected, she finishes most sentences with a smile, her eyes looking at me warmly. Is this really the person who I’ve watched attack ruthlessly to win on the Mur de Huy seven times? Is it the rider who famously wouldn’t work with rival Annemiek van Vlueten in the 2020 Tour of Flanders? Where is the ruthlessness, the savage streak?
“I started racing because my brother was doing it. I have three brothers and two of them were riding at that point,” she continues. “I wanted to beat them.” It’s in that last sentence that I see it: the glint in her eye, the single-minded determination and raging competitiveness that I recognise so well from her exploits in the peloton. It seems like the Anna we’ve watched racing, hidden behind her Oakleys, is a different person to the one sitting in front of me. She recognises that switch in personality, too.
“It’s something different when it’s a race,” she says. “I run now and I know when I put on a number in a running race, even though it’s an amateur thing, I just want to go. I want to be the first one to cross the line. I’m still the same person, but it’s just if it is a race, I go for it.”
Her dogged resolve to be on the top step of the podium has surely been a crucial factor in the 31-year-old’s glittering decade-long career.
After everything she’s achieved, it’s impossible to imagine Van der Breggen anywhere but at the top of the sport. However, she came close to never writing the first chapter of her impressive story. Struggling at the back of the peloton, inexperienced and unhappy, she considered dedicating herself full-time to her nursing studies.
Van der Breggen’s hardships as she moved up into the elite category are only too common among young female cyclists. With a lack of racing for under-23 women on the road, the steep jump up to the professional level is intimidating and impossible for many. We see a huge number of athletes leaving the sport at a young age, never having explored their full potential.
However, she persevered and her results improved year on year, with the first big win coming at the 2015 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. “I remember we trained a lot on sprinting that year because it was my weakest point,” she says. “I got together with Ellen van Dijk during the break. She was allowed to ride with me, her team [Boels-Dolmans] was okay with it because my sprint wasn’t that good and neither was hers.
“I expected her to do some attacks, but she didn’t and I was happy she didn’t. Then I was like: yeah, I trained on this so much in the winter. I’m going to beat her in the sprint.”
In the same year, Van der Breggen’s acceleration helped her win the Flèche Wallonne for the first time. No other rider has won it since. She took a remarkable seven straight victories in the race, her smooth, powerful ascent of the Mur de Huy becoming a trademark as she rode away from her rivals with finesse, time after time.
“You really should feel how fast you can go and that’s why I always like to do it on the front, so I can pace myself. Really on the limit, but not over it,” she says, explaining her technique for the race’s decisive climb.
While, at first glance, her final win in the 2021 Flèche Wallonne may have seemed like simply another tick on her list of more than 60 races won, Van der Breggen reveals that it signified a changing of the guard in her SD Worx team. Her younger team-mate, Demi Vollering, insisted she would chase down the lone rider ahead to give Van der Breggen a shot at glory during her swansong season.
“I didn’t feel that good,” explains Van der Breggen. “I said [to Vollering] I will chase for you, I’ll close the gap. And she was just like: no. It was really the first time that she did that. Normally, she always listens to me. That’s why I didn’t argue.” Vollering’s assertiveness is something that Van der Breggen expects to help the 25-year-old Dutch rider as her career continues. “If you speak to young riders, they look shy in the beginning, but if you ask the right questions you realise they really want a lot. And if they want it, they can do it.”
The relationship between Van der Breggen and Vollering created an interesting narrative throughout the former world champion’s final year in the peloton. In both La Course and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Van der Breggen was working for her team-mate, riding on the front to give Vollering a strong lead-out and bring back the breakaway. It’s a testament to her character that, despite her experience, Van der Breggen has never seen herself above playing a supporting role for another rider.
“I can see that they are of a different mindset,” she explains, referencing the younger riders on her team. “They still have the goal of just doing well and even getting a top ten, it makes them happy. I know that feeling and I see it in their eyes. When they’re happy, it’s also making me happy. It’s so stupid because even when I win a race, I don’t feel as happy as they do with a top-ten place.”
This loss of excitement about winning has been a big factor in Van der Breggen’s decision to hang up her race wheels at the end of 2021. Victory isn’t the same as it was before: she’s done it all and explains that once that fire went out, she knew it was time for something new. “For me, it's like, I’ve been there and I want to move on. I need something different,” she says.
The desire for change is something Anna has felt in her career before, sometimes growing bored of the same race calendar and routine every year. To try to escape this feeling of monotony, she competed in the Cape Epic mountain bike race in 2019 with her team-mate at the time, Annika Langvad.
“I always did the same races on the road. I knew exactly where to go, what the hotel looked like, at that point, I felt like I didn't want to do the whole spring [season] again. I think I just needed a break,” says Van der Breggen. “I thought she [Langvad] was crazy. I’d raced mountain bikes before but not at this level. But she was insistent on it and she said: ‘we’ll practice, we will go to [a race in] Cyprus before, just to check if it’s possible.’ And then I thought: I don’t know if I can do it, but I would like to because it’s something different.” The pair came away as winners in South Africa.
It must have done her a world of good: the subsequent 2020 season was one of Van der Breggen’s best. She secured a rainbow jersey road and time-trial Worlds double and also won the Giro Rosa. So the announcement that year that she would retire in 2021 came as a surprise to many.
It was a choice that Anna knew was the right one, though, feeling in her heart that it was the right time: “I didn’t have that really big goal in my head or things I wanted to improve on. I needed this feeling inside that I wanted to reach something, and when it wasn’t there, it was different.”
Despite her move away from racing, the Dutch rider will remain a part of the cycling circus. She will share her wealth of knowledge with her former team-mates as a directeur sportif for world-leading team, SD Worx. The excitement she has for this new role is evident when she speaks about it, the glint in her eye returning. Her energy shifts as she moves on to discuss the future, visibly more interested in it than going over her past.
“If something comes up, I can go back in my mind, just to feel how it felt for me. Like, what are they experiencing? And what do they need at this point? And that’s not by saying: ‘oh, I always did it like this, so you need to do the same,’ but just understanding what they are feeling,” she explains.
“The new girls are from a different generation. They’re different from how I was acting when we were young,” she says. “Everybody has their own qualities, it’s nice to have experience like I do, but you also need different things. You might need somebody who they are sort of scared of, or look up to, you might also need somebody else, maybe who has a bit more of a sociable feeling.”
Van der Breggen expects she’ll be employing different managerial methods at different times, as she will be mentoring those she has raced against for the last decade, as well as newer, younger riders. “To my friends like Amy [Pieters] and Chantal [Van den Broek-Blaak] I will act differently. I’m not going to tell them how to do it, because I know they know how to do it. It’s just when they need help, I’m there,” she says.
I ask her which moment she would pick as the most special in her career, and she replies that it’s her first ever World Championships jersey in Innsbruck in 2018. She’d been second in both the time-trial and road race the year before, which only added more fuel to the fire when she made her solo move in Austria. It was an attack which gave her victory by a margin of more than three minutes: “That’s one of the best moments. Maybe not even the victory, but the moment I attacked, looked behind and I realised: maybe this is going to work.”
Van der Breggen acknowledges that those first-time wins are something she’ll never get back. Even though she has the physical strength and capabilities to continue racing for longer, she’d always be chasing that feeling of winning the first big race all over again without the same satisfaction.
Will she miss racing the inaugural Tour de France Femmes in 2022? “I didn’t really like the races where there are so many protocols and so much television attention,” she says. “It’s a big race and that’s nice: I’m happy it’s there and I’m really excited to go there as sports director. I don’t regret that I’m not riding. It’s not making me jealous.”
Van der Breggen’s love for the bike and all things that surround it, is still abundantly clear. She’s been competing since she was seven years old and it will forever be a crucial part of her identity. She will continue to ride, but for fun, without pressure. She will carry the carefree spirit she had when she trained as a child on weekdays in Zwolle all those years ago. Instead of looking down at her power numbers or heart-rate data, she will be able to look over the hedgerows and pedal ahead to pastures new, to change and challenges as a directeur sportif. As she ends her racing career, there are no regrets; she is ready to share all her lessons with those who want it as much as she did in the opening chapter of her fairytale career.
But there is still another whole book to be written. Nobody knows how it will go, and that’s exactly what Anna yearns for. “There’s something ahead of me I have never done before. It’s that exciting feeling like you have as a child when you go to Disney World. I like that feeling.”