"The headache we could really do without" Anna Henderson on the challenges of Brexit

Based in Holland and riding for the newly established Jumbo Visma women's team, former downhill skier Anna Henderson talks to Rouleur about her unique journey in to cycling and the struggles of being a British athlete in a post-Brexit world

“I’m spending 66 days here, I know exactly when my 90 days reset. I’ve had to make a spreadsheet planning out my travel to make sure I have enough time to be in each country when I need to be.”

Following the UK’s exit from the European Union at the start of this year, British citizens are now only permitted 90 days visa-free travel within 180 days in Europe. The extensive planning now required for a race season abroad is a far cry from the freedom that Anna Henderson, a rider for Team Jumbo Visma, admits she took for granted when she was living in Holland whilst riding for Team Sunweb last year. 

The combination of Brexit and coronavirus has caused logistical nightmares for many British riders attempting to start their season in Europe. The challenge of getting across the border into France (and being able to stay there) is perhaps more daunting than the opening races themselves.

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“It’s just a headache that we could really do without,” Anna explains. “It’s all super difficult, I understand that people come from all over the world to Europe, but right now there doesn't seem to be a visa option for British riders. People seem to think we want some sort of exemption, but we don’t. We understand that Brexit has happened and we aren’t trying to deny it, but there’s just not an option there for athletes at the moment.”

The challenges are heightened for developing riders on smaller teams who don’t earn enough to apply for work permits. Whilst Anna is on one of the top tier teams in women’s cycling, she shares the concerns that organisations such as the Rayner Foundation have about younger riders who need to move to the continent and start learning their trade abroad.

Anna Henderson at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year, in one of her first outings with new team Jumbo-Visma

“It’s frustrating and sad. You know, you might get on a good team and that’s great, but then you’re like: I’ve got races in Holland and Belgium, how do I get there? Then you’re not classed as elite [to avoid Covid-related travel restrictions], so you might not get to travel or stay there long enough,” Anna says.

With the addition of the coronavirus crisis this year, Anna explains that riders want to do all they can to minimise travel and risk: “It’s safer for athletes and cyclists to make the jump to Europe and stay there, I’m going to have to travel backwards and forwards four or five times this season to not use up my 90 days, I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t have to.”

Anna has been actively campaigning for rule changes by circulating a petition on Twitter, asking for more visa options for athletes across the 27 EU member states. She has also been in contact with her local MP: “He said that he will contact the Sports Minister and put my case forward,” she explains “I just thought if I put it on Twitter and 100 riders do it, that’s 100 riders that the Sports Minister has to listen to.”

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The added stress of visa negotiations and travel organisation hasn’t hampered Anna’s opening weekend campaign, though. She rode to an impressive 20th place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and was 8th in Le Samyn a few days later.

“Omloop was a baptism of fire,” Anna says “but I’m pretty proud of my result in Le Samyn, it was full gas from the start and a massive bullfight into every sector.”

Anna admits that making the move from Sunweb to Jumbo Visma this year has given her added motivation, despite missing her team camp in Spain due to travel restrictions. Training in the UK for the whole winter has meant she has had to adapt her training slightly, with more time spent on Zwift and making the switch to her mountain bike on icy mornings.

“I was super apprehensive coming into the season,” Anna explains “I was thinking that everyone has been in Spain doing miles in the mountains, but I actually came to realise that three hours is three hours, regardless of where you are.”

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Her new team ensured she was included in meetings via video call and, although Anna admits that it was strange having to meet everyone for the first time at the race, the team have been both friendly and supportive. With riders like Marriane Vos to learn from, Anna hopes for a long and successful chapter with Jumbo Visma. It comes after a long journey that has led her to this point in the sport.

Swapping the skis for the saddle

Anna discovered cycling while recovering from a downhill skiing accident in 2015. “I had a horrible rehab with my leg not healing” Anna explains, “so in that time, I found the bike”. She joined the UK elite team ‘OnForm’ and had success riding domestically for them, this led to her selection for the Great Britain cycling team in later years.

Photo credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

Following a string of good results, the opportunity to ride for Sunweb last year was Anna’s breakthrough into the women’s WorldTour. “It was a strange year with Covid, but I managed to make the most of it,” Anna says.

Anna believes that her rapid journey through the cycling ranks is thanks to many of the skills she developed as a downhill skier. “Skiings a very intense and individual sport,” Anna explains “I learned to really manage myself to be at a high level of sport at a young age, which meant I overcame the mental barriers which come with racing.”

In addition to assisting Anna with her sporting mentality, her skiing career also laid good foundations to develop her technical ability when racing. “In skiing you are always thinking about which line to take and the way you distribute your weight into a turn is similar to cycling, when you go around a corner you get that same kind of rush,” Anna says.

Anna hopes to represent Great Britain at the World Championships this year (Photo credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

Believing she is suited to punchy, harder races, Anna has her eyes set on Nokere Koerse as her next big goal. She explains that she has been given a leadership role for this race and is hoping to be in good shape. In a few weeks, she will also recon the Paris-Roubaix course with her teammates.

“I’d also love to win something like the Amstel Gold race” Anna says. “It’s pretty hilly, so it would be a good challenge for me, it’s possibly my limit of climbing and I want to test that. I’d love to be like boom, I can get over those climbs”

Anna is aiming to represent Great Britain at the World Championships in Flanders later this year – while the official team selection hasn’t taken place, she has already optimistically pencilled it into her spreadsheet. With a wealth of talent among British female riders at the moment, she's aware that competition for a spot on the team is going to be tough. However, perhaps even tougher will be the stressful process of securing a visa to allow her to remain in Europe until then.

“You wake up thinking about it and you’re still counting your days, you think, I should try and sort this out tomorrow, but then the day is over. It’s like weaving through a complicated maze and not really getting anywhere."

Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix.com

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