Words by Amy Jones | Photo by SWpix.com
After her seventh consecutive win at La Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday, it’s safe to say that Anna van der Breggen is the undisputed ‘Queen of the Mur’.
The reigning World and Olympic champion has defended her title on the climb every year since 2015. Next year, however, she will be in the convoy as a director rather than in the peloton as a rider.
Van der Breggen has known since last year what her transition from life as a rider will look like. The team announced their intention to retain both she and her compatriot, Chantal van den Broek Blaak, as directeur sportifs after retirement. For many, transitioning out of the sport triggers something of an identity crisis and few receive support.
However, speaking on the eve of La Fleche Wallonne, van der Breggen said, “to already know that you will be a sports director next year gives a good feeling that it’s not like the black hole of ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do now.’ In your free time you can think about it already and prepare it a bit. So yeah, it’s a really nice thing.”
If she is able to pass on just a fraction of her prowess to the riders she directs, then team SD Worx look set to continue to rise in 2022 even with van de Breggen absent from the rider roster.
“I think it’s a really good way of still being in the sport,” she says. “The knowledge you have is not a waste. I can teach young girls the things they want to know from me. And that’s a really nice thing to do.”
The “young girls” have already shown their precocious strength during the Ardennes so far, with 24-year-old Demi Vollering taking second in Amstel Gold and providing a crucial ally for van der Breggen in the final of Fleche Wallonne. Likewise, both Anna Shackley and Niamh Fisher-Black — 19 and 20 years old respectively — put in enormous shifts at the front of the peloton in both races. Under van der Breggen’s guidance they — along with 21 year-old Dutch talent Lonneke Uneken and new signing Kata Blanka Vas — are destined to go far. “They are still young, they don’t have a lot of experience. But they’re learning a lot,” says van der Breggen.
For now, though, she is still very much a rider “It’s not affecting the way I approach the season because I’m still in my last season. So I’m a rider and I’m still enjoying it a lot,” she says. “I really made the decision that I don’t want to be a sports director already because I need to focus on riding very well, training well. But of course, it’s affecting things because I think already, in the way other young girls look to me, they know I will be their sports director next year.”
Although it might not be her primary focus just yet it is certainly on her radar, especially if teammate and fellow future DS van den Broek Blaak is around. “We talk about it also, if I’m with Chantal in the room, for example,” she says. “Yeah, of course, you talk about next year, and I’m looking forward, but it’s also still far away.”
Van der Breggen and van den Broek Blaak will be under the tutelage of SD Worx manager and director, Danny Stam, who has guided the team through huge success over the years. This season, van der Breggen has been paying careful attention to how Stam executes his job in preparation for her turn. “I am, of course, also looking and thinking about how it will be as a sports director,” she says. “So I think you look different to things, like maybe more to the role Danny has now. How do you have meetings? What do you need to have as a sports director? Of course you think about it.”
Before she swaps the saddle for the driver’s seat, however, there is still the small matter of the 2021 season to contend with, including the Olympics. “I am very aware of enjoying it now as a rider, because I still can, and next year that’s over. So that’s a new chapter,” she says. If van der Breggen’s racing so far is anything to go by, all signs are pointing to her ending on a high.