‘A rollercoaster season’ - Shirin van Anrooij on shouldering pressure, the necessity of a women’s U23 calendar, and balancing road with cyclocross

The Dutch rider on how she’s ready to leave the U23 category to allow the next generation to shine and the direction of her career

You’d be hard pressed to find a more exciting talent for the future of women’s cycling than 21-year-old Dutch rider Shirin van Anrooij. Ever since she joined Trek-Segafredo in 2020 – then still a junior rider – the multi-disciplinary super talent has gone from strength to strength, seemingly taking WorldTour racing in her stride without any difficulty. And that’s only her road racing; Van Anrooij has been storming through the cyclocross scene over the last three years too, taking elite World Cup wins and the U23 World Championship title last winter. To put it simply, Lidl-Trek have secured a star in their ranks with Shirin van Anrooij.

With such talent across such a plethora of terrain and disciplines brings its challenges for Van Anrooij too, however. Her desire to race both road and cyclocross means a very busy calendar without much opportunity to take rest, and performing at such a high level at such a young age comes with pressure too. At the start of 2023, Van Anrooij took her first WorldTour win at Trofeo Binda with a stunning solo attack – a victory that cemented her position as a leader in the women’s peloton. It was a big moment in her career, but one she said led to some ups and downs later in her season too.

“Really, this year has been a bit of a rollercoaster,” Van Anrooij explains, speaking a few days after her last race of the road season, the European Championships. “It started really well with the Binda and Classics, but then I really made a big goal out of time trial Nationals and the Giro this year and I was not performing there and just not feeling like myself on the bike.”

She explains that after starting the season on such a high, it changed her approach to the rest of the year, and impacted how other riders looked at her, too.

Van Anrooij began her season with a solo win at Trofeo Binda (Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

“I did feel like, especially from outside, a lot of people were starting to expect more from me all of a sudden for Flanders and a lot of those races. People forgot that it was my first time ever racing those races,” she says. 

There were positives that Van Anrooij took from that Binda win too, however, namely that it gave her the self-belief she had been lacking on the road to feel like she truly belonged at the front of the women’s peloton.

“It was good to win Binda to really get the confidence that I needed to feel like okay, I can be up there,” she says.”I don't have to be afraid of all the good riders anymore, because I did show them that I could beat them. During the Classics, I could show that I was up there with the top 10.”

Where Van Anrooij pinpoints her season going downhill – by her own extremely high standards – is at the Giro Donne, a race where she had hoped to go for a good placing on the overall general classification. It was a big opportunity for the young rider, especially considering Lidl-Trek’s huge number of options for general classification leaders on their team, but Van Anrooij ended up being disappointed with her performance.

“That's something like to learn from towards next year and try to find a solution for,” she says. “Maybe I need to do a better altitude camp or change something else in my preparation for Grand Tours. I just did not feel good and I got dropped on all the long climbs. My confidence was ground down a bit.” 

A break from racing in the lead up to the World Championships to come to terms with what happened at the Giro gave Van Anrooij some time to reset, however, and she came back stronger than ever. Racing in the inaugural Tour l’Avenir Femmes against riders of her own age group put things in perspective for the 21-year-old – a clear example of why a women’s under-23 calendar is so necessary. Van Anrooij ended up winning the five-day race by over two minutes after a sensational solo attack on the queen stage.

“It was so different to be there on the start line as one of the real favourites but also then as one of the riders who had to make the race. I won’t deny that in a lot of the elite races it’s always riders like Annemiek van Vleuten, Elisa Longo Borghini or Demi Vollering who make the race – they’re so much stronger and decide what is going to happen,” Van Anrooij says. “It was a different style of racing but it was really just cool to discover what you can do against your own age group on long climbs.”

Where the Tour l’Avenir was proof of how important it is to give under-23 female riders the chance to compete in their own race, the World Championships, Van Anrooij says, was proof of how conflicting it is to include the under-23 competition within the elite races. This is how the UCI has run the U23 women’s World Championships over the past two years, and it will remain that way until 2025 – the first year that the U23 women will finally have their own race.

“I was racing for the Dutch team at the Worlds and I actually needed to make one promise and that was I was not going to focus on the under-23 title. I was actually not even allowed to think about it because I was just there as a domestique to help Demi [Vollering] or Lorena [Wiebes] to try and go for the elite title,” Van Anrooij explains. “It wasn’t in my mind until they told me from the side of the road I was in the group racing for the U23 title.

“Then it was really strange, because normally, you would just attack a lot or try and go for the win. I tried to attack but then the elite riders could also close it. It's just good that there will be a separate under-23 race in 2025.”

Van Anrooij racing in the women's road World Championships in Glasgow (Pauline Ballet/SWpix.com)

Van Anrooij left Glasgow with a silver medal in the under-23 category and I wondered if this makes her hungry to take the rainbow stripes next year, which will be the last opportunity she has before she is too old to be eligible for the competition. Her answer is understandable, yet still somewhat surprising.

“For me, it's now actually just about focusing on the elites. It was really nice to do races like Avenir and end it on a high with winning it, but I just want to focus more on the elite racing and see what I can do there. Next season is about making a big step to try and fight for a podium or win with the elite in some races,” Van Anrooij says.

She also points out that the majority of the riders fighting for the overall title at the Tour l’Avenir Femmes were riders who already have WorldTour contracts. While Van Anrooij believes that having a high calibre of riders there was a positive for bringing attention to the race, she thinks that riders like herself need to step back from the category in order to allow the next generation of talented riders to have their shots at going for victory.

“I think in the future it will be good that it's going to be more about the riders that are coming up, just like with the men's, but I think it needed some real attention this year with it being the first edition,” Van Anrooij adds.

Her victory at the Tour l’Avenir has certainly lit a spark in Van Anrooij as a top stage racer in the making, and she admits she enjoys the long climbs and multi-day races as much as the Classics, where she has arguably excelled more in the past.

“I'm still discovering it every year a bit more. I really love racing the Classics and I do think that if you also look at Vollering and other riders they are able to win those Classics and also win a Grand Tour,” Van Anrooij says. “I think for me, it's just about this winter trying to put more time into endurance and see if I can make a step in riding a Grand Tour better.”

If there’s one thing that will get in the way of Van Anrooij spending time building an endurance base this winter, however, it’s the ambitions she has on the cyclocross field. While she believes that the intensity of ‘cross racing allows her to have fast top end speed for the Classics, the races also take up a significant amount of time in the winter months that could be used for training camps in warmer climates. WIll this be an issue for Van Anrooij if she wants to transform into a Grand Tour rider in years to come?

Celebrating her U23 Cyclocross World Championship title earlier this year (Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com)

“This season, I have already decided to skip half October and a full November month of racing ‘cross,” she says. I'll race again in December but I am planning to have another big block of training in Spain as well. I think that maybe I will race less in cyclocross in years to come but I will never skip the Christmas period of racing because I like it so much. I also think that I need it to be good in the Classics.”

Van Anrooij is certainly sure about how she wants the rest of her career to look, and it’s true that there are a number of examples of riders who have successfully managed to balance road and ‘cross in recent years – think of Marianne Vos, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. The Dutch rider will head to America for the World Cup rounds before taking her off-season and then building up to those ‘cross races she loves in December. It’s clear from speaking to Van Anrooij that this simple love for riding is what drives the majority of her decisions in her career, and that’s what she believes she needs to hold on to in order to keep the success coming for years to come.

“For me, it would be pretty hard to just train the entire winter and not race because I'm just so used to racing,” Van Anrooij says.”That's just what I love to do.”

*Cover image by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images

Shop now