Words by Sadhbh O’Shea | Photo by SWpix.com
One of the most iconic images of the 2020 cycling season was Anna van der Breggen riding alone across a ridge in Imola. She was just over seven kilometres from her second road race world title and entering the history books. It was an image that summed up some of her biggest successes, alone and far ahead of those trying to catch her.
Two days earlier she had filled a rare gap in her palmarès by winning the time trial title. In earning her clean sweep, she would become only the second rider – male or female – to claim an elite victory in the two disciplines in the same year. Injuries to her two closest time trial competitors made the path to success a little less treacherous but Van der Breggen’s wins were no less hard earned or deserved.
On top of her world titles, she won the Giro Rosa, the Dutch road race title for the first time, the European time trial championships, and claimed her first victory in the rainbow stripes with a sixth Fleche Wallonne. With more than 70 professional victories to her name since she turned professional in 2012, Van der Breggen has become one of the most prolific riders in the modern peloton.
She may have three rainbow jerseys among her kit but the World Championships were the one of the longest standing hurdles for Van der Breggen. Driven by the desire to win the rainbow bands, she took a big risk in 2018. Relying on the trust and faith of her team, she asked to be removed from some of the biggest races on the calendar so that she could focus solely on her rainbow dream. Her decision is an example of the singlemindedness and drive that lies underneath the smiling exterior.
A polite and softly spoken person off the bike, Van der Breggen is a meticulous assassin on it. You’d have to be to have a palmarès like her. In 2015, her Rabo-Liv directeur sportif Koos Moerenhout described it as her “killer instinct”. Though her confidence may have wobbled early on in her career, Van der Breggen is assured of her capabilities.
It might seem strange to say after she won her sixth Fleche Wallonne title in September 2020, but Van der Breggen is driven by the new. In May, she told the Olympic.org website “I am so motivated if I have never won a race, but if I win something for the second time, it feels different.” The growing women’s calendar has given her plenty of opportunities to win new races but that desire for fresh experiences has led her to branch out into mountain biking and she won the Cape Epic with teammate Annika Langvad in 2019.
Born into a cycling family, Van der Breggen’s passion for the sport came early and she was taking part in races by the age of seven. Her first experience of competing with elite riders came when she was 17 at the short-lived GP Gerrie Knetemann in 2007 – a race that would prove a shock to the system and would briefly make her ponder quitting.
She did temporarily hang up her wheels as it became increasingly difficult to balance her nursing studies and racing. At 21, she travelled to Ghana for an internship as part of her studies, but she returned to Europe as keen as ever to see what she could do on the bike. Though she ultimately left nursing behind, her experience in Ghana has stuck with her through her professional years. She remains an ambassador for a Dutch charity that does work in Africa.
The following year, now with a nursing qualification under her belt, she signed her first professional contract with the Sengers team. She immediately made an impression on the peloton, finishing in the top 10 at the Tour of Flanders and the GP Plouay, and winning the under 23 European time trial title.
Van der Breggen quickly ascended the ranks, only halted briefly by a pelvis fracture at the end of 2014. Having won almost every race on the women’s calendar, she is due to hang up her racing wheels for good this time after the Tokyo Olympics next year. Following her retirement, she will step into a new role as a directeur sportif for the SD Worx team.
It is rare that athletes are able to retire at the top of their game and it takes a certain amount of strength to leave a sport knowing that you are capable of winning. It is a sign again of Van der Breggen’s desire for new experiences and to challenge herself in different ways.
This is one of a number of blogs specially commissioned for our 2020 review,
Racing in the Time of Covid, which is available to purchase here >