Anna van der Breggen finding new satisfaction away from personal success
The former rider says she rarely misses racing a year on since retiring and becoming a sport director with SD Worx.
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After more than a decade as one of the top riders in the peloton, Anna van der Breggen is finding a different kind of satisfaction and excitement behind the wheel of a team car.
Van der Breggen hung up her racing wheels after the road worlds in 2021 and moved into the sport director role a week later at the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Last year saw the Dutchwoman take on her first full season managing team tactics at races for SD Worx.
For much of her career, Van der Breggen shouldered the burden of delivering her team to victory. While she can help guide what the team should do at any given point, it’s ultimately up to others to get the job done and there’s only so much she can do from the car in the convoy behind the peloton.
“It’s a different kind of adrenaline, I think you’re really focused to do well but it’s not about my personal limits or my personal maximum,” Van der Breggen told VeloNews. “It’s being focused and trying to make the right decisions, but that’s all you can do in the car. That’s different than knowing if you are good enough when they attack full, and then you should follow. It’s something really nervous and exciting at the same time.”
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When Van der Breggen announced her decision to retire back in May 2020, it came as something of a surprise. She had just turned 30 and appeared to be in the prime of her career — she won her fourth Giro d’Italia Donne title in her final season of racing.
Over the subsequent 18 months, she regularly fielded questions about whether she was stepping away too soon but she always remained adamant that it was the right time. Over a year after she called it quits, Van der Breggen remains certain of her decision.
She does occasionally miss racing, but it is usually because she wants to help out the riders when they’re in difficulty or when she sees a moment that she could have made a difference when she was racing.
“At some moments, I miss racing when, for example, they miss somebody or there is a moment that I would have done something but then it’s not happening this year anymore,” she said. “I want to try to help them, which is not possible from the car course. Also team time trial, I want to be in them, but most of the time was okay.
“I really enjoyed being in the car and not having to do it anymore. The riders will go to the start, and we grab a cup of coffee, and then I go to the car. I like not being nervous anymore. Of course, you are nervous in a different way, but for me, it’s way less than when I was a rider.”
A good year
The 2021 season was always going to be a challenging one for SD Worx as the team lost its most successful rider in Van der Breggen, while she settled into her new role.
There’s no question that the team did take a step back in the absence of Van der Breggen, with few victories across the year than it had had for some time. However, it was still a big year at it took wins at many of the biggest races off the year and retained its position at the top of the UCI’s world rankings.
In her transition from rider to sport director, Van der Breggen is finding satisfaction in more than just winning.
“I think it was a really good year with ups and downs,” Van der Breggen told VeloNews. “We have some young riders and maybe we don’t see them getting results, but we do see them growing and making that next step. That’s really important for the team. For example, Anna Shackley or Niamh [Fisher-Black]. They did great and maybe their results are not yet victories, but for the future, that’s great.
“We had some really nice victories, but then mostly with Lotte [Kopecky], and Demi [Vollering]. These are the girls who are winning the big races. As a sports director for the first year, I was focused less on results. You try to do the best and then it’s up to the girls to make that win in the race. It’s all in the preparation and in the building up. I was less busy with winning. As a rider, I was always busy with winning but that has changed. If we have some races, which was good for some riders, but we didn’t win, it’s still a good race.”
As a rider who won so often, it could be hard to change the mindset to one where victory isn’t always the ultimate goal. However, Van der Breggen is relishing the chance to set different objectives and develop other riders.
“I liked it, actually,” she said. “Maybe that was also one of the reasons I quit. Only being busy with winning isn’t good enough anymore. Personally, I was a bit done with it and now you have all different goals and different expectations for a season. Also, in this new group, we don’t have the expectation that everybody’s going to win races because that’s not reality. If you improve in the small things, that’s also a good improvement.”
Van der Breggen now has a year behind the wheel of a team car and she’s driven a steep learning curve in that time. Now going into her second full season as a sport director, Van der Breggen is hoping to take what she learned and build on it, just like when she was a rider.
“Last year, actually, I had no clue and that was really nice because I like to do new things and to have new experiences,” Van der Breggen said. “That worked out really well and now, of course, you know what it takes. The challenge is to get it to the next level like to improve the things that I did last year and make it better. I really like this part, knowing what’s coming up and trying to improve, as a cyclist it’s something you always do. Now I have this feeling I can start doing it in the role of sports director.
“It’s the same for everybody in life, maybe. You learn new things and then you try to improve, or some people don’t but then you stay on the same level. In sport, we always try to improve. I don’t know everything about materials, logistics, tactics, and everything around cycling that we need to take care of. There is always a lot to think about and to improve and being creative is more important now as a sport director. You should be thinking ahead a lot, for many people, and many riders.”