Plans can be broken.
SD Worx rider Chantal van den Broek-Blaak surprised a lot of people when she announced earlier this month that, not only would she not be retiring this spring, she would be racing until at least 2024.
Well, that was the plan but the Dutch former world champion has given up on planning. After tearing up her retirement schedule, van den Broek-Blaak is taking things as they come.
“I’m not going plan my life anymore. I will see how it’s going,” van den Broek-Blaak told VeloNews. “I still love my job, and it’s something that suits me. To make the decision to stop cycling, you need to be done with it, and the fire needs to be out of your body. I still have that fire and as long as I have this, that I will continue.”
Van den Broek-Blaak had been due to hang up her racing wheels after the spring classics and switch to become a sport director with the SD Worx team.
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She made the announcement in 2020 when her husband was struggling with his health, and she was feeling the fatigue of a career that had spanned over a decade. At the time, the world was in the clutches of the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic and it seemed like the perfect decision.
Things have changed in the wider world, but women’s cycling is also changing, and she didn’t want to miss it.
“In the moment I made a decision: I was done with cycling and that was because I needed a new challenge. All the races were the same and I’m an older rider who was already racing for 12 years, and the home situation was different,” she said.
“During the last few years, a lot of things changed. COVID changed, we could start racing, my husband recovered totally. Also, there are new races on the calendar, women’s cycling is growing so much at the moment, so nothing is the same anymore.”
The reversal of her decision to retire was a slow process – it wasn’t like switching a light on and off. She had made her initial decision with such certainty, and she would need time to unpick her feelings about cycling.
It took some of the off-season to do that, but she soon told SD Worx management what was on her mind.
“That first year, I was super sure I would stop and become a director and I was focusing on that,” she explained. “It started actually at the end of last year when the season was almost done. Then it started. Slowly, I started talking about it with my family with my friends. They had also noticed it.
“I start talking with the team about Tour de France and that was the decision was made very quickly because if I stopped in May or July, it doesn’t make a really big difference. At home, my husband started asking me ‘you actually don’t want to stop right?’ Then the wish of having babies one day also came up and that was all in the winter. It’s recent but I needed a holiday for that. I needed some time for myself to make the real decision.”
To go from near retirement to a new three-year contract is quite a big turnaround for van den Broek-Blaak but she’s happy with it. Indeed, she already had a contract with the team but it was for a different role.
“I feel comfortable in this team,” she said. “I came with a story to the team like we [van den Broek-Blaak and her husband] have a wish for children and pregnancy. It’s not nothing, if we are lucky to get pregnant, I also need to come back and have some support and the whole package. Then it’s easy, of course, to sign for three years. Actually, before I had also signed until 2024 but then as a director, so we just changed the contract.”
Aiming for Paris-Roubaix
By choosing not to retire just yet, it means that her teammate, and friend, Anna van der Breggen will be her DS and they won’t be working alongside each other in the role. The pair had attended the DS course at the UCI headquarters together last November, but they’ll have to wait a bit longer now before they can work the job together.
Telling van der Breggen of her decision was a hard thing to do, but van den Broek-Blaak is confident that her friend can excel at the job.
“I think she’s doing pretty well. I think she needs to learn, but that’s what she actually says. But I think she naturally already has so many skills that the answers will come,” van den Broek-Blaak said.
“It was hard for me to tell her because we are friends, and we had a really nice challenge ahead. But she reacted super nice. She said, ‘I actually totally understand, and I saw it coming.’ She was also super happy for me.”
Though it won’t signal the end of her career, the spring classics are still a major focal point for van den Broek-Blaak. She will start her season at Omloop Het Niewsblad before looking to defend her title at Strade Bianche and then go to Trofeo Alfredo Binda.
The run of the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race, and Paris-Roubaix are where her early ambitions lie in 2022. This season, the trio of races are in a slightly different order thanks to local French elections forcing Paris-Roubaix to move after Amstel but van den Broek-Blaak isn’t concerned about it.
“For a rider like me, it’s okay. Because my main goal is Roubaix, Amstel can be good preparation,” she said. You would have to plan it a little bit differently if you are focusing on the Ardennes. For Liège, for example, you might skip Roubaix. That is that’s the difference.”
SD Worx went into last year’s Paris-Roubaix as red-hot, but it didn’t go to plan and van den Broek-Blaak was the team’s best-placed rider in 10th place over two minutes behind winner Lizzie Deignan.
After the initial disappointment, it was a lesson learned for the team as it looks to go better the second time around.
“We talked about it, and we overthought it,” van den Broek-Blaak said. “You cannot do more than your best and we give it all and we made some mistakes, and we know what we did wrong. But in the end, it’s over, you cannot change anything anymore. So, we are we focus again on it, and we try to make the best out of it.
“We learned that it’s a race where everything can happen. We know this already from the men’s and in the woman’s nothing different. You cannot predict it. If you have a flat at the wrong moment, you’re out. The only thing you can do is prepare yourself as good as possible, and then go to the start line with some good legs, and then you see.”