Words by Matilda Price | Photo by Anton Vos/CorVos/SWpix.com
The start of 2022 has ushered in several changes at SD Worx, some big, some subtle. One of cycling’s best-ever athletes has swapped the peloton for the team car, they’ve signed two of 2021’s most successful riders, and their young talent pool is looking stronger than ever. It may not be a total reinvention, but is this the start of a new era at SD Worx?
Van der Breggen’s departure
Undeniably the biggest change at SD Worx heading into the new year was Anna van der Breggen’s retirement from racing and move to sports directing. Multiple time world champion, four-time Giro winner and victorious in just about every one-day race on the calendar, Anna van der Breggen is undeniably one of the best cyclists of all time. Though SD Worx’s superiority has stemmed from having a whole host of strong riders – not just relying on one big name – it would still be fair to say that Van der Breggen has been the biggest star on the team in recent years. Her absence from the start line will be felt at SD Worx and throughout the peloton. But even though Van der Breggen won’t be racing anymore, her retirement is less a dramatic loss, and more an evolution as she steps into the team car as a sports director. It’s a change of role, but her influence will continue.
The main question to be asked of SD Worx in the post-Van der Breggen era is how will it affect their results? Some teams can really struggle when they lose their headline rider – think BikeExchange Jayco after Annemiek van Vleuten’s departure – but so far, there appears to be little risk of that happening at SD Worx. They took 25 wins in 2021, and it would be no surprise to see them match or better that in 2022, even without Van der Breggen in the bunch. Signing Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky, as well as the next best time triallist Marlen Reusser, SD Worx have ensured they’re losing absolutely no firepower going into 2022. With Kopecky sealing victory at Strade Bianche and taking the first WorldTour leader’s jersey of the season, so far SD Worx aren’t slowing down at all.
From Van der Breggen to Vollering
Part of the reason SD Worx will get by despite the Anna van der Breggen-shaped gap in their roster is that they have someone ready to fill it, in the form of Demi Vollering. Calling Vollering ‘the next Anna van der Breggen’ doesn’t really do justice to either rider: Van der Breggen is an inimitable talent, whilst Vollering’s developing career doesn’t need squeezing into any mould. But in terms of the strength and success they can bring to the team? Vollering is well on her way to matching her former teammate’s offering.
Vollering’s appointment as team leader hasn’t been a sudden sudden shift, thrown upon her at the start of 2022, but rather a planned and measured transition. The 2021 edition of La Course provided the perfect visual representation of this: you could almost see the metaphorical baton being passed as Anna van der Breggen put the hammer down on the finishing straight, not for herself but to lead Vollering to the win. Watching Van der Breggen work like that for others has been a relatively rare sight. She can lead out on a sprint stage, but when it comes to one day races, if she’s there, she’s there to win. It’s not that Van der Breggen isn’t a team player, the fact is she’s just almost always the best rider there for SD Worx. But this effort in Landerneau made the situation clear. Not only did the team have faith in Demi Vollering’s ability against the best in the world, but maybe more importantly, Anna van der Breggen did too.
Before the 2022 season, SD Worx made clear their lofty ambitions for Demi Vollering: she is set to lead the team at the inaugural Tour de France Femmes in July. Vollering has only won one stage race previously, the Women’s Tour in 2021, so it’s a testament to just how special her talent is that of all the riders on the team – many more experienced – the opportunity for leadership is going her way.
The new SD Worx generation
As well as bolstering their contingent of dependable, experienced and successful riders, SD Worx are also cultivating a talented crop of young riders. The team’s young quartet of Lonneke Uneken, Blanka Vas, Anna Shackley (pictured above) and Niamh Fisher-Black hardly need any introduction, so much so that it’s easy to forget they’re all between 20 and 22. In the past, SD Worx haven’t necessarily had a reputation as (or indeed desire to be) an effective development team for young riders. Most of their best riders have arrived well into their career and in the second half of their 20s, Amalie Dideriksen (now at Trek-Segafredo) perhaps an exception. Even Demi Vollering was 24 and two years into her pro career when she joined the team. But with Uneken, Vas, Shackley and Fisher-Black, the approach seems to be changing.
We may look at the SD Worx line up and think there is a clear hierarchy, where the younger riders would be nearer the bottom, but in reality that’s rarely how the team works. “It doesn’t matter who is winning, as long as it’s one of us,” said Uneken at the team’s launch day in February, and the racing seems to reflect that. Uneken took three wins in 2021, including a memorable win at the Simac Ladies Tour where she won from a small group that also included teammates Demi Vollering, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and Amy Pieters. An outsider might have pegged any of that trio for the win, but the team knew Uneken was their best chance. Whilst Uneken gained experience in the Classics and sprints, Anna Shackley and Niamh Fisher-Black slotted into SD Worx’s stage racing program. Fisher-Black’s efforts earned her the best young rider title in the Women’s WorldTour standings, winning the youth classification at the Giro, Tour of Norway and the Vuelta a Burgos along the way. Blanka Vas has hardly even raced for the team, yet is one of the most exciting young riders in the peloton after standout performances in mountain biking, cyclocross and September’s road world championships.
The key, it seems, is that these young riders are given the freedom to race, rather than just being expected to support a leader. “Danny [Stam, sports director] is always mentioning that if we get in a break, if we have the opportunity, we race for it,” Anna Shackley said on the subject. “And if you go for it, they’ll have you back.” SD Worx’s signature has long been a reliance on successful, established riders, but in 2022 their new talent is looking stronger than ever.
For all that may be changing at SD Worx, some things are also remaining reassuringly familiar in 2022. The team’s longest-serving riders, Christine Majerus and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, have come to characterise the team and aren’t going anywhere yet. Indeed, Van den Broek-Blaak has put off her retirement to stay in the squad until at least 2024. You only have to look back to 2019 to find an SD Worx lineup that looks significantly different from this year’s, and yet their commitment to a small core of riders instils a sense of continuity and identity that not all teams have. With long-term DS Danny Stam and Van der Breggen in the team car, the behind the scenes team is also sticking to what they know.
On paper, this year isn’t even close to the biggest change in line-up or set-up SD Worx has seen: at the start of 2021, half of the line-up was new signings, and the change in title sponsor made the team seem refreshed, but ultimately the approach to racing was similar. And yet this year, something in the essence of the team feels changed. Van der Breggen is employing her tactical expertise in a new DS career, Demi Vollering is well on her way to the top of the sport, and for the first time in possibly years, much of the team’s most exciting talent lies with its younger riders. It may not be the most dramatic of transformations, but this could be the start of the next phase at SD Worx as they look to build the next generation of world-beating riders.
Matilda Price is a freelance writer and digital producer based in the UK. She started writing whilst studying modern languages at university, and has since covered everything from the Tour Series to the Tour de France. These days, Matilda focuses most of her attention on the women’s sport, writing for Cyclingnews, the Women’s Cycling Weekly newsletter, and working on women’s cycling show The Bunnyhop.