In August 2019, riders from the Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team stood on the startline of the Grand Prix de Plouay with an uncertain future ahead of them. The sun beat down on the roads of western France as the team’s star rider, Anna van der Breggen, soloed to a convincing victory. It should have been pure, unadulterated joy when she crossed the finish line, but the team’s celebrations were laced with hesitancy. A sense of doubt hung in the air.
Just a few days earlier, the UCI had announced that eight women’s teams had applied for the first ever WorldTeam licences. Of those on this list, however, there was one notable omission: Boels-Dolmans, the world’s number one ranked team at the time.
The news swiftly followed that the team’s title sponsors had opted to end their support at the end of 2020. With the UCI stipulating that squads would need a four-year financial commitment from sponsors to be a WorldTeam, the Dutch outfit were unable to apply.
It was a big blow for management who were left searching for €2.5 million to keep them in the peloton. The team’s future hung in the balance. While some may have panicked or given up hope, Danny Stam, Boels-Dolmans’ long-standing sports director, approached the situation with pragmatism. Rather than resorting to emotional pleas to save the team, Stam and his management created a handbook entitled “The best is yet to come”.
In it, he shared an inspiring outlook on the future of women’s cycling, selling sponsorship of his team as an attractive proposition for prospective buyers. “Women’s cycling is one of the few global sports where you can currently still acquire the absolute best in the world for this amount of money,” the document read.
Image: Sean Hardy
Despite it being a growing trend in women’s cycling, Stam didn’t see a solution in partnering with a men’s outfit to save his team. “If you think about the Trek-Segafredo team, you think about the men's team. You don't think directly about the women's team. With Jumbo-Visma it's the same. This doesn’t happen when you think of us,” he says.
Stam’s pitch attracted the attention of Belgian company SD Worx, a payroll and human resources provider, who agreed they would be title sponsors of the team from 2021 onwards. Stam had brought the team back from the brink through shrewd and business-like thinking. “We made a plan. That's why we announced it early that Boels and Dolmans would quit, so other brands could think, hey, that's actually a good opportunity,” he explains. His team, under its new title, is still ranked number one in the world.
Since Stam has been at the helm, it’s been a rapid rise to the top for the Dutch squad. “The moment when I first went to the team in 2013, I saw that they were not working professionally,” he says. An ex-rider himself, Stam was aware of the set-ups in elite men’s outfits. “I tried to copy that and tried to build it up. We needed to say goodbye to a lot of staff because I didn't think they were working professionally enough. That's how we slowly improved.”
SD WORX: SEVEN YEARS OF SUPREMACY
The team’s dominance began in late 2015 when Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) won the Women’s World Cup and became their first world road race champion. In 2016, the team was ranked number one in the world, securing 38 wins – 24 more than the team in second place. Deignan had them covered in the Classics, winning Strade Bianche and Ronde van Vlaanderen that season, while their gifted American climber Megan Guarnier took victory in the Giro Rosa.
Even with riders like Guarnier and Deignan departing in the following two seasons, Boels-Dolmans kept their number one spot. A trio of Dutch riders came to the fore: Anna van der Breggen, Amy Pieters and Chantal Blaak. They were a force to be reckoned with in any race, doling out WorldTour wins between them: Van der Breggen won four in 2018, Blaak three and Pieters two. Despite fewer victories for the team in 2019 – a small disappointment by their sky-high standards – their strength-in-depth and consistency still left them at the top of the team ranking that year for a third year in a row.
Out of contention in 2020 due to not being a WorldTeam, the Dutch outfit stormed back to the top of the ranking last year as the reformed SD Worx. With a younger roster, they secured 18 wins, six of which came from 25-year-old Demi Vollering, a punchy climber who is a shining example of the team’s ability to spot potential and develop it.
“I think we set the level and all the teams wanted to join us at that level,” says Stam. “You could see that they wanted to catch up, so they got more professional, with their training and their food.”
The team’s longest-serving rider is Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, signed by Stam when she returned to Europe in 2015 after a stint racing for American teams. “Danny saw me coming back from America with a good head and motivation and wanted me in the team. I wanted to become one of the best riders in the world, so I went for it,” says Van den Broek-Blaak.
Image: Sean Hardy
The 32-year-old Dutch woman has since won a World Championship, Amstel Gold Race, Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders. She is firmly regarded as one of the best riders in the women’s peloton.
Originally planning to retire in 2020, Van den Broek-Blaak has instead signed a new contract until 2024, largely due to the team’s promise of support if she wishes to put her career on pause for maternity leave in the next few years. “If they had a problem with it, I don’t think I would have continued my career,” she explains.
It is Team SD Worx’s focus on creating well-balanced riders who are happy both on and off the bike that has made them a popular choice among the women’s peloton. Many dream of being offered a contract by Stam. For Niamh Fisher-Black, a 21-year-old hailing from New Zealand, this dream came true.
After a promising season with the now defunct Équipe Paule Ka, Fisher-Black was signed by Team SD Worx at the end of 2020. “I never really imagined that I would be on this team, but somehow it came about and I'm not sure how. I can only be grateful and happy,” the Kiwi rider explains.
Like Van den Broek-Blaak, Fisher-Black cites the team’s focus on rider welfare as a key reason for its success. “The most important thing for me was to find a stable environment and I definitely found that last year with this team,” she says. “I’m a young rider from New Zealand living all the way on the other side of the world. I needed to find a family in the team and I did. They check up on me all the time when I’m back in Girona on my own.”
Image: Sean Hardy
This familial bond between the riders is something that Team SD Worx builds in the run-up to the season each year. Multiple training camps with go-karting and problem-solving challenges ensure that riders get to know each other well. Stam firmly believes that this will aid the team during crucial moments in races.
“Communication is key. I think all the girls know that it's give and take. We have an atmosphere where they know that if someone works for you today, someone else will be working for you another day,” he says.
We've got options
It’s fair to say this approach has been a roaring success. Each race, the Dutch squad stands on the startline with a team of riders who could each win in their own right. This gives them strength in numbers, with multiple options to play in the final stages of a big race. If one shoots up the road, they can commit fully to the attack, secure in the knowledge that team-mates are in the group behind, ready to disrupt the chase and take up responsibility if the move comes back.
“It's nice if you have more options because you can play better in races. It's all about trust and respecting each other,” says Van den Broek-Blaak. The Dutch rider took a solo victory in Strade Bianche last year employing these tactics. In a break with Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini, Van den Broek-Blaak simply sat on the wheel of her companion, refusing to contribute to the workload, aware that she had three team-mates in the group behind. It provided the springboard for her final, blistering attack with two kilometres to go which left Longo Borghini chasing fruitlessly.
But a team made up of the best female cyclists in the world inevitably comes with some big ambitions and egos. It’s Stam’s ability to carefully manage this to ensure the team is focussed on a collective win.
At Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year, for example, Anna Van der Breggen’s world champion jersey was resplendent at the front of the peloton, but not because she was going to win the race herself. Instead, she was working to secure the victory for her team-mate, Demi Vollering.
Not just about the legs
“We’ve always worked with a lot of winners,” explains Stam. “But I think the secret in the team is not that we have the strongest riders, it's that we fit together. Sometimes, I’d prefer to work with a less strong rider who fits perfectly into the team.”
This is something which is at the forefront of the sports director’s mind when it comes to recruiting new talent. “Even in the hotels at races, I’m watching people. I look at them at their dinner table, and think ‘how do they behave? How do they speak to the rest of the staff, or the rest of the group?’ You can see quickly if they will fit into the team or not,” he says.
It's how he found riders like Fisher-Black, the best young rider in the Women’s WorldTour last year, and Blanka Vas, the Hungarian prodigy who excels across multiple disciplines – finishing in fourth place in both the women's mountain bike cross-country event at the Tokyo Olympics and at the Road World Championships in 2021. The professionalism and reputation of Team SD Worx attracts the riders, so that when Stam spots someone he sees with potential, his offer of a contract is rarely rejected.
But spotting talent is only the beginning. The work truly starts as the team moulds these promising athletes to become the best in the world in their sport. Riders develop at a noticeably rapid rate when they put on the colours of SD Worx.
Take Demi Vollering, for example: without a race win in 2020 but with victories in La Course, the Women’s Tour and Liège-Bastogne-Liège as part of the team in 2021. Fisher-Black won the youth classification in four WorldTour stage races last year with the team, after not coming close the year before while riding for Équipe Paule Ka. It’s not just fresh-faced prospects firing on all cylinders either: 36-year-old Ashleigh Moolman Pasio had arguably the best season of her career, winning a stage at the Giro Rosa on the way to second overall, as well as finishing runner-up at the Tour of Norway.
What’s the secret to accelerating progression so quickly? Riders like Fisher-Black are working closely with experienced champions from the moment they join the 13-strong squad, learning, understanding and watching. “Being on a team with so many big names was more daunting than anything at first,” says Fisher-Black. “It was a scary first camp last year. You're surrounded by all these hugely successful riders every day, they don't have to tell me certain things that I need to improve or fix. Just being around them and seeing what they're doing, I'm learning the most basic things.”
Eleven years Fisher-Black’s senior, Van den Broek-Blaak is a rider who steps into the role of mentoring younger riders. “I can make decisions if we need to and take the lead. It's because of my age and personality in the group. I feel very comfortable with all the girls and all the staff, I'm not scared to say something when I need to,” she explains.
This dynamic doesn’t only attract young riders, either. 30-year-old Swiss champion Marlen Reusser was one of the outstanding performers of 2021 – she won a silver medal at the Olympic Games and at the World Championships a few months later, both in the individual time-trial discipline. Reusser is happy to admit that she had a plethora of offers from other teams after her results, but she reached out to SD Worx personally and asked for a contract.
“I really needed to join a team where I could learn something,” says Reusser. “I knew that the team I was on at the time wouldn’t give me the education I am longing for.”
A latecomer to the sport, Reusser’s first racing experience came during a mixed-relay triathlon when she was studying medicine at university. She opted for the bike section of the race because she was born with ankle problems, making cycling one of the few sports she’s able to comfortably compete in. Her times on Strava segments (finishing in the top five on one Alpine pass in Switzerland among 1500 male riders) gave Reusser the confidence to apply for a racing license from the Swiss cycling federation, while still working as a doctor. Reusser only dedicated herself full-time to cycling in 2019.
Reusser’s raw talent and power is clear. But, by her own admission, she lacks race craft, tactical nous and confidence in the bunch. “After my first proper race in 2017, I was crying because I was so frightened. I was shocked. I didn’t understand: how can you touch each other in the race? I’d never seen that,” she explains.
Four years on, Reusser has made big improvements, but there is still work to be done. “You can see in the races that Team SD Worx has a strategy. You see how they work together and you know they are being briefed and debriefed and it’s creating a good quality in the team.”
Stam shares Reusser’s outlook. “With Marlen, she's extremely strong and talented in terms of riding but, to be honest, she makes a lot of mistakes. If we can get that sorted out, and she can learn a little bit of a different way of racing, then we should have a lot of benefits from her,” he says.
The Van der Breggen effect
Reusser also notes that Anna van der Breggen starting a new role as an assistant sports director for Team SD Worx was a factor in signing the contract: “She’s raced me in the peloton before so she knows my weak points. It’s an advantage for me that she’ll be in the team car.”
Stam’s desire to keep Van der Breggen in a staff position when she retired formed part of his clear vision for the squad’s future. “With young riders, I’m further away because of my age,” the 49-year-old explains. “I was thinking: how do I close that gap? How do I find a person I trust who I can share everything with?
“When Anna retired, it answered my question. They can trust her, so they don't need to tell a guy if they feel uncomfortable in a certain situation,” he says.Van der Breggen’s rapport with the riders goes even further to secure the closeness of the squad for the upcoming year. It’s a bond they have needed to rely on more than ever recently. At the end of 2021, their team-mate, Dutch national champion Amy Pieters, had a serious crash on a training camp.Image: David Powell
In it together
A member of the team since 2017, Pieters is part of Team SD Worx’s core group. As we went to press at the end of February, she remained in a coma, two months after her crash, recovering from a head injury. Paying homage to Pieters and noting that she is always in their thoughts, her team-mates have her name stickered on to their top tubes.
An incident like that has made Team SD Worx rely on what has made them a special team for so long: their togetherness. “It has affected our preparation for the season and it still does,” explains Stam. “When something like this happens it brings you closer, but it's been a real struggle.”
The world-beating team must continue to prepare for the year ahead, despite the ongoing concern over Pieters’ condition. It will be in each other that they find the strength to do so. “We all want success for one another,” Chantal van den Broek-Blaak says. “That’s the thing with SD Worx: if one of our team-mates wins, we all win.”
This article was originally published in Issue 110 of Rouleur
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWPix