Words by Nick Bull | Photo by Bram Berkien
Anna Henderson may only be 22, and in her first full season of top-level racing, but she’s already fully aware about what it means to respect races.
After her breakaway attempt at Flèche Wallonne came to an end on the Côte d’Ereffe, a little over 20 kilometres from the finish, not even the race’s nasty finale and her impending debut at Liège-Bastogne-Liège was going to stop the British rider from packing, let alone doing something frowned upon even more by fans of the sport.
“The Mur de Huy does not lie,” she said. “I’m going to admit it: I nearly had to walk up the climb the second time round. I was that done, but my pride stopped me from getting off my bike. To put it in perspective, a group caught me at the bottom of the Mur and they put two minutes into me by the top. That’s how slowly I went up it!”
Despite her final kilometre struggles, it was a ride that generated great pride for Henderson. She said: “Making it as far as I did was really cool. I was intrigued to see how I’d cope on the climbs – they just keep on coming in that race. Getting in the breakaway was a real experience, getting to within 20 kilometres of the finish even more so.”
Having only experienced 10 racing days last year, a season that ended after the world championships owing to a positive COVID diagnosis, Henderson’s 2021 to date suggests how highly-rated she is by Team Jumbo-Visma’s management as they take on their debut season. The Briton raced Het Nieuwsblad, Le Samyn, Nokere Koerse, Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders and then the two Belgian races that feature in Ardennes week. She placed 20th at Omloop and 24th at the Ronde, her best results in this block.
“I keep surprising myself in races,” she said. “Every time I’ve managed to follow the front group I’ve thought ‘oh, OK, I’ve got some good shape here!’. Flanders was incredible, although I felt like I’d been hit by a bus the next day. I was hoping to get a little bit further than the Kwaremont, but it wasn’t bad for a first attempt. What you experience on the climbs there is just another level of hard. You suffer throughout. It seems like everybody pushes themselves to suffer a few percent more at Flanders than, say, at Nieuwsblad.” A short pause is then followed up: “But I’m definitely looking forward to it again next year!
“I think the Classics are definitely where my strengths lie so I’ve enjoyed the first part of this season so much. The team have given me the opportunity to play different roles and expand my knowledge of top-level racing. I think I’d be foolish not to pursue targeting these races again in 2022.”
It feels quite remarkable that Henderson is only 22, given how established she was on the British racing scene. A former national circuit race champion, Henderson won four rounds across two editions of the Tour Series (including two solo, one from a bunch sprint) in 2018 and 2019. However, signs that she was far more than an excellent criterium rider were visible before this spring. She placed second behind Canyon SRAM’s Alice Barnes in the 2019 British road race championships in Norfolk, then finished in the same group as her current team-mate Marianne Vos, Lizzie Deignan, Kasia Niewiadoma and other big names in the gruelling world road race in Yorkshire three months later.
Henderson managed just six racing days – all in Australia – at the start of 2020 before her debut pro season with Team Sunweb was interrupted by the pandemic. Despite being regarded for her bike handling skills during her time racing domestically (visible in this clip here), she used the time to improve what she saw as her biggest weakness. “I really struggled with my descending at the start,” she admitted. “People tried telling me I’d be great at descending because I could corner well in the Tour Series.”
Her downhill struggles are largely attributable to Henderson’s cycling background: she only picked up the sport aged 17, having been a junior British skiing champion. (Avoiding any comparison to fellow Jumbo-Visma rider Primož Roglič here is advisable because, as Henderson says, “he was jumping, I was staying on the snow”.) Her first introduction to cycling came when she unsuccessfully applied to join British Cycling’s Academy Sprint Programme, before she switched her attention to road racing. Henderson said: “Because I came in late to cycling, nobody ever really taught me how to descend until recently. I had to put a lot of work in, particularly last year. That’s the beauty of the outdoors and cycling: it’s free. I didn’t need to go to a gym, swimming pool or training centre to work on my skills, so I didn’t miss out during lockdown. I think you get the same rush when you really nail a turn, that doesn’t change between the two sports. Technically, they’re both hard skills, there’s some crossover, but after a while I got there!”
Henderson says work on “short, technical descents” in and around the Chilterns, where she lives when she’s back in the UK, as well as training camps in Austria and Spain helped her significantly. Her work has already paid off: at last year’s La Course, she placed herself in the race’s breakaway group, one that formed coming off the Aspremont climb first time around. “As a team, we just wanted to be the first onto the descent, solely to stay safe,” she recalled. “Before I knew it, there were a few of us away. The fact it was La Course added a little bit of extra spice!” Her presence up front in the back end of Flèche was a similar story: “completely unplanned,” she admitted. “I was just following the wheels on a descent and we got a gap. It was cool to put pressure on the teams that missed it, the likes of SDWorx and Liv Racing. It was fun to play that game.”
Given how upbeat and positive Henderson has always been whenever I’ve spoken to her, that she says she has yet to feel overawed while racing this season is of little surprise. “I mean, I definitely knew I was on the Côte d’Ereffe at Flèche when the radio said ‘Anna is dropping, Anna is dropping’,” she joked. “When I’m racing, I don’t really think about what’s happening or where I am. There’s no pinching myself going on.” I believe this is what should be called the Vos effect; the spreading of an unwavering focus by an accomplished leader to all of those around her. Henderson has already played noted roles in her team-mate’s victory at Gent-Wevelgem, as well as Vos’ third-place finish at the GP Oetingen. “You can see the wealth of knowledge and experience she has,” said Henderson. “You ask her ‘how does this race go, what happens here, where I do need to be in the peloton and when?’ and then you realise that she’s won it in the past. It’s really amazing to be able to tap in to that. She’s really calm, really collected. I’d love to be in a position where I have that knowledge in a few years’ time.”
Come 2022, one thing Henderson should have to her name is an undergraduate degree in Sport and Exercise Science from the University of Birmingham. Impressively, she’s managing to split her time between this and her cycling career, something Henderson described as being “classic me”. She added: “Most of the time it’s been fine, but there have been a couple of moments when there’s a big race on a Sunday and then I’ve got a deadline on the Monday and I think ‘oh, this is going to be fun!’ . But taking five years to do a three-year course isn’t so bad in the end, right?” As Henderson’s ride up the Mur de Huy second time around at Fléche Wallonne showed, it’s all about making it to the finish line. How you get there isn’t nearly as important.