A 32-year-old rider with an established palmarès, few were surprised when Team SD Worx’s Chantal van den Broek-Blaak announced her retirement at the end of 2021. With a world championship jersey, wins in Amstel Gold Race, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Omloop het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche, there aren’t many races in which the Team SD Worx rider hasn’t stood on the top step of the podium. Should the Dutch woman have had a feeling of ‘completion’ when it comes to cycling, it would have been understandable.
What came as more of a surprise, though, was Broek-Blaak’s reversal of her retirement decision a few months ago. At the Team SD Worx press conference before the start of the season, she casually told the interviewer that she won’t be stopping racing, and has instead signed with the team until 2024.
Broek-Blaak’s reasoning for her change of heart is intriguing, and signifies a shift – and step forward – in attitudes in the cycling community towards starting a family while racing at the highest level. “I always had the feeling that you ride your bike when you're young and at one point you should just stop and then it's the time to start a family,” she admits. “I always have thought this and always had the feeling it was not allowed or it's not normal to try to come back after giving birth. It's not possible.”
Seeing riders like Lizzie Deignan and Laura Kenny taking maternity leave to have children and returning to race at the highest level has changed Broek-Blaak’s mindset entirely. “Cycling is developing and you see it in other sports. You actually see, it can work,” she says. “It should not be a reason to stop doing your job. Because in normal life, it's a normal thing.”
In an interview with Rouleur last year, Lizzie Deignan admitted that reactions from the wider cycling world when she announced her first pregnancy were largely negative. Speaking to Orla Chennaoui the British rider disclosed that it became a surprise for her to be congratulated. Instead, she almost felt like she had to apologise for what she was telling people. As I broach the subject with Broek-Blaak nearly four years later, and she gushes about the support her team has promised if she ever decides to take a break from racing to have a child, it's a relief to see that cycling has moved on.
“If the team could not have supported me, or it was a difficult situation, then I'm not sure if I would have continued, even though I still love to ride my bike,” she says. “They believe in me and they trust me to come back after my pregnancy if it happens. And if I don't, then it's also fine, that gives you a really nice feeling.”
While her team’s positive reaction has given Broek-Blaak peace of mind, it's still taken some adjustment for the Dutch rider to come to terms with continuing her racing career after she’d been so sure it would stop just a few months before. Dealing with unexpected issues at home, including what she describes as her husband’s “burnout”, has forced a change in the trajectory of the 32-year-old’s life, despite her being someone who thought she had everything planned out.
“For the last two years is I have been planning my life. I know now I am a rider and I have to do this race and this training camp. When I stop, I’ll become a director and we get pregnant, but this is not how it works. You can't plan your life,” she says. “Now I’ve experienced this with my husband, everything went different to what I expected. I’ve realised I just need to follow my heart and say: Hey, I still want to ride my bike.”
Though it was an innate enjoyment for both racing and training that formed a large part of Broek-Blaak’s decision to stay in the peloton for another two years, being part of a team with which she has a huge affinity was also a factor in her choice. “I've been in the team for such a long time and they know me very well. It feels like a family.” The Dutch rider has been part of Team SD Worx since 2015, working closely with team manager Danny Stam since she joined.
Even when Broek-Blaak had plans to retire, she was going to step into a Director Sportif role with the team, heading to the UCI headquarters in Aigle last year to complete the necessary qualifications. “I think it suits me and I think there's a good chance in the future that I will jump in the car and become a sports director, but for now, it just feels better to be on the bicycle,” she says.
Though it’s not a formal title, Broek-Blaak’s experience means she often falls into the role of an on-bike sports director in races, making decisions for the team and helping younger riders. “I do it naturally, I take the lead in training and I always have the feeling that I have to speak up,” she says. “Of course, if you win big races you show that you're able to be there for everybody, then it gives you more confidence. I think you don't need to win to become the leader, but it helps for yourself to speak out.”
The 32-year-old cites her 2017 World Championship win as the first moment that gave her the confidence to take a leadership role in the team. Broek-Blaak won solo in Norway that year, crossing the line close to 30 seconds ahead of the rider in second place. “I showed myself that I was able to become world champion and to stand out on a day like that. It gave me such good self-trust and made me have a stronger personality,” she says.
Broek-Blaak’s rise to that important win in Bergen wasn’t smooth sailing, however. She notes that as a U23 rider, she struggled with the pressure of being labelled the “next big Dutch talent”. After winning the U23 European Championships on the road and coming second in the Dutch national championships at just 19 years old, Broek-Blaak had been training and racing hard from a young age. “If you go full gas in your first years without so much knowledge then it becomes hard to continue,” she explains. “I came to a point in my career when I was doubting if I should ride my bike. I thought: what do I want with my life? Do I want to become a better cyclist?”
After some time racing with an American team which distanced her from the pressures of the European race scene, Broek-Blaak returned refreshed and stronger than ever. Going through this adversity as a young rider helps Broek-Blaak relate to some of her less-experienced teammates, making her well-equipped to advise them in their careers.
“Stay calm, that's always what I say, no panic,” she laughs. “It's just a bike race. If you stay calm, and you have good legs, then you can change the situation. If you freak out, it's super stressful for yourself and the team.”
Despite the role that Broek-Blaak has found herself in after so many years of racing with Team SD Worx, she still has ambitions for her own results. While she admits that she feels like her career is relatively complete when it comes to wins, her intrinsic drive as an athlete means she still wants to be in the fight at the front of races.
“My main goals are the three week block of Flanders, Amstel Gold and Roubaix. Those three races suit me very well and they come after each other so if I can make top form in those three races it will be perfect,” she says. “The Classics, you cannot predict them. You also need to take your opportunity when there is one.”
She notes, though, that Team SD Worx is an outfit where the riders have a mutual respect for one another, fighting for the collective victory. “If one rider from the team wins, we all win,” she says. While races like the Tour de France Femmes might not necessarily suit a rider like Broek-Blaak, who is more suited to flatter terrain, helping her teammates to a general classification win will be high on her list of priorities for this season.
Above all, for a rider who has been in the peloton and watched women’s cycling change and improve over the years, Broek-Blaak sees races like the Tour de France Femmes as a huge step forward for the wider sport. Out of respect and appreciation for the race, she wants to be on top form. “It’s going to be a big moment,” she says. “I want to show the world how good we are and what we are and what we are able to do.”