When Anna van der Breggen retired from the professional peloton in 2021, she did so as one of the greatest riders of her generation. Seven straight victories in La Flèche Wallonne, four overall titles in the Giro Rosa, three rainbow jerseys, two Liège-Bastogne-Lièges and a Tour of Flanders, and that’s before we even get onto the one-day races and Olympic title.
Ahead of her appearance at Rouleur Live, Richard Abraham spoke to the 31-year-old about retiring, becoming a sports director, the future of women’s cycling and why she is only just getting round to building a trophy cabinet.
Rouleur: First up, it's early days, but how’s retirement? Has it hit home yet?
Anna van der Breggen: Not yet, the black hole isn’t really there yet!
R: As part of your transition to sports directing, you were in the team car for the first women’s Paris-Roubaix, rather than racing. How was that experience?
A: That was special. And it felt pretty natural. Towards the end of this season I was both racing and working on the management side. In my mind the job really starts next year, but you can’t make that transition in one go. You need time to see how Danny [Stam, SDWorx manager] does things, to experience as much as possible. A race like Roubaix is top of the bill for car driving in hectic races.Image: Alex Broadway/SWpix
R: Were you allowed behind the wheel?
A: No! I drove the car on one stage of the Simac Ladies Tour [in August] because it was close to home and I had been invited to the race for a presentation about my retirement. I thought, why not go into the car! It was quiet race ending in a sprint, and most of the time on big roads, so a really good first race to learn how to drive in the convoy behind the race. I wouldn’t have been allowed to drive in Roubaix… and I didn’t want to. You need to be a good car driver in Roubaix, that got really hectic.
R: That’s right, we saw a viral video of the AG2r-Citroën car overshooting a corner and ending up in a ditch.
A: If I had been driving, that would have been me!
R: How have you found the transition to no longer being a pro athlete?
A: I think it will feel strange. But normally when you finish the season you have a month or more to eat the stuff you like, to relax, not to train, and it’s basically the same now. I think it will be different when the riders all start training again, when things get normal again and races start again.
R: So it’s a bit like the relief at start of the school summer holidays, but come January and training camps…
A: I feel relief because I can still ride every day, almost, but I don’t have to any more. I can ride with the team at training camp when I want. Maybe the weird part will be when the riders go full gas and I can’t do it anymore, and knowing that I used to be able to. That might be strange but I still have to experience it.Image: Alex Broadway/SWpix
R: Lots of retired riders need a break from riding when they quit, but it sounds like you haven’t had enough yet?
A: I’m not quitting because I don’t like to ride anymore; in the end I like riding my bike but without the pressure of having to do it, needing to train, needing to be good for the first race. It’s relaxing to ride the bike in a way I never did before. I still like to go outside otherwise I’ll get fat and stay inside all day!
R: That’s what happens to sports directors, sitting in the team car all day, surrounded by sugary food…
A: Exactly. I don’t want to be like that!
R: How did your retirement plans come about?
A: There are two things. Most of all I had a feeling that came sometimes and was gone again. When I had a goal in mind and I wanted to be really good it was easy to go out for training because I knew why I was doing it. But that motivation sometimes disappeared in races that were not important for me. It’s always special to win a race, that never disappears… but sometimes some teammates won a race unexpectedly, and I could see how happy they were and I saw myself back at the beginning of my career. I remembered when I came third at GP Plouay in 2013, my first World Cup podium. I mean, third in a race! But I was so incredibly happy with it. Sometimes I missed that feeling, where it means everything to you. And sometimes if a teammate had that motivation then that gave me more joy than trying to win myself. That was a sign. OK, what’s happening and what do I do with it?
R: Were you ever worried that cycling would become ‘just a job’? And become boring?
A: When it’s just a job, training gets really hard. I felt OK, I could do two more years of racing, that’s not a problem, and I would still win some races, maybe less than I did before. But it wasn’t how I wanted to be a cyclist. Or how I want to remember cycling for myself.
R: And I guess to be remembered as a rider too? Think of Mark Cavendish – in a way, it would have been perfect if he had retired in Paris at the end of the Tour de France, joint with Eddy Merckx on 34 stage wins.
A: Yeah I would say the same, if you could sign off with a year like that. But then, if he still loves to race, even when he’s perhaps not as good as he was, why do we have to decide when he retires? It’s a feeling from the inside. If you still enjoy every minute of it, then please do not stop cycling.
R: Did you always know you wanted to be a sports director?
A: First I thought I wouldn’t be in cycling when I quit, it would be nice to do something totally different [van der Breggen has a nursing degree- Ed.] But when the team asked me to be a DS, I realised I could stay in cycling without focussing on being good myself but focussing on all the girls of the team instead. Making them the best so that they can win races. I think that’s something I would love to do at this point in my life.
Van der Breggen at the Giro Donne 2021 (Image: Sean Hardy)
R: There’s an adrenalin in the team car, the racing feeling… maybe in a different flavour. Did you get a thrill from racing being behind it?
A: That’s difficult to explain. Is it the same? I don’t think so. It’s exciting but in a different way. The thing is you try to do well as a sports director but I still felt far away from the girls at that point. Yeah, you can talk, but that’s it. Yeah you are excited, but you can’t do much about it. As a rider, if it was a race which was my goal, then the focus and the feeling of the adrenalin when you cross the line was always way more than I experience now.
R: Are you going to miss that buzz?
A: Yes and no! I hated it sometimes. When you know you have to be good but you know that you won’t be, and people expected it. That was hard. I really enjoyed the fact that at the start of Roubaix I felt nothing. It’s not up to me any more. I’m happy to have experienced it many times and now it’s my job to let the girls experience the same. That’s exciting for me.
R: Have you allowed yourself to look back and reflect on your career?
A: Recently we had a sponsor ride with SDWorx and they made a highlights movie of all my big victories. I could remember every race. It was like coming back from holiday and making a photo album. I’m currently making somewhere for my trophies. When people asked me where my Olympic medals were, I always had to say that they were upstairs behind the closet. Those things weren’t so important for me when I was riding. But now, if I can look back sometimes, I think that would be nice.
R: Lots of riders are like that, never showing their trophies and jerseys. Is it something about always looking ahead to the next thing?
A: For me it was a case of, whenever I came home, I wanted to have some time without so much cycling. Imagine if you had things in the living room and you had people over. They would ask about them and you would end up talking about cycling again. For me, being home was about enjoying the other side of life. That will change now, I think.Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix
R: How do you look back on the changes in the sport over your career? It’s made huge progress in some ways, not so much in others. What would you like to see in another ten years?
A: I feel we are in the middle of something now which is really making big changes. But I’m also worried, because it’s going so fast and we need to do it in the right way. Just three or four years ago, we weren’t sure about women’s cycling. Some teams weren’t going very well. Some had no money. Broadcasts weren’t really happening. At that point we were thinking, in the future, women’s cycling? Maybe not.
Now we have a Tour de France Femmes (TDFF). The 2022 calendar will be full, with a lot of races, and many changes in the rules for teams. I’m already wondering how it will be in a year’s time? How will next year go? I hope we can manage! For us it’s the first time we’ll ride double programmes, which means you need at least 12 girls in the team. But we also have the minimum salary. We can no longer ask anyone to ride for the team for a jersey and a bike.
R: In taking big steps forward the sport might, like a person, lose its balance along the way…
A: It feels like some organisers always tried to be there and organise a race. Maybe they had to skip a year because they had no money, but they’re still there. We totally love to have the TDFF, you can feel it’s making a big difference, but we should not forget the organisers that have been there already. I hope we won’t forget those races and totally disappear to this new cycling.
R: As a rider, is it difficult to get your head around the idea that you won’t ever be as fast again!?
A: Not really. It’s quite nice to know that I don’t need to have that peak any more!. That became more difficult year after year. I sometimes asked myself, why do I need to prove time and time again that I can be the fastest on the Mur de Huy? I think I will only enjoy next year if we have a training camp and the riders drop me on the climbs. That’s fine, because it doesn’t matter any more! My goal now is to stay healthy and enjoy riding and that’s it! It’s a relief at this point.
R: When was that peak? When you could say: that was the best of me?
A: When I won the World Championships road race in Innsbruck [in 2018], that was an important race and period for me. But when you look at the watts I could push, this season around the Spanish races in May, it was the best, better than ever.
R: It seems a silly question, but do you have a training plan now?!
A: During that sponsor ride many people asked me, ‘how are you going to train now, because you need to train, as a cyclist!’ I will keep on riding. I’m part of a running club already. But I won’t make a training plan any more. I just like to move. If I want, I can do some running races, have some muscle pain, and who cares!? I will enjoy sports in a different way.
R: Amsterdam marathon, watch out!
A: Yeah, exactly! I’m not going this year but Chantal [van den Broek-Blaak] asked me if I wanted to do a marathon with her. So it’s on the list!
Anna van der Breggen will be speaking at Rouleur Live 2021, tickets are available here
Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix