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Demi Vollering on stepping out of Anna van der Breggen’s shadow: ‘This year everybody was looking at me’

The Dutch rider is taking up the reins at SD Worx as a true team leader.

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Demi Vollering had some very big shoes to fill this season after her star teammate Anna van der Breggen retired from racing in 2021 to become a sport director.

Van der Breggen had taken the young and inexperienced Vollering under her wing when she moved to SD Worx last season, helping her to some major milestone victories, such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège or her victory at La Course.

This year, there was more pressure on Vollering to perform without Van der Breggen there to take some of the pressure. Racing without her champion teammate proved harder than Vollering initially thought it would.

“In the beginning of the season, I was not really thinking about this. But if I look back now at, for example, the spring classics then I know also that that I struggled there more than I thought at that moment,” Vollering told VeloNews. “I think it was harder than I thought and the end, also because in the team it was different of course.

“I had the feeling that I needed to fill this gap from Anna and of course you cannot do that. I mean, before they always looked at Anna and I was somewhere behind her sneaking away, or I could do my own thing. And this year, everybody was looking at me. So, there was also a lot of difference.”

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Despite her struggles, Vollering did pull out some good results in the spring with podium finishes at Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. She also laid claim to a victory at Brabantse Pijl.

Things really began looking up for Vollering after the classics when the stage racing part of the season kicked into great. She dominated Itzulia Women and took a stage win and third overall at the Vuelta a Burgos a few days later.

It put her in the right place for her bid for the Tour de France Femme’s general classification, where she would ultimately finish second overall to Annemiek van Vleuten. As time went on, Vollering grew into her leadership role, and she began to flourish without Van der Breggen by her side on the bike.

“I showed this year that they always need to think about me in the race,” she said. “I can be really proud of my season. I think I was really consistent in all my races, and also my results. If there’s one thing that I would change now then it’s of course, the spring classics, where I really wanted to have that big win. I always had podium but never had big wins. That’s the only pity from the season.

“Still, I have a lot of podiums there, so I can be still really proud. If I see already this year, next to the year before, then I see already a lot of growth that I made as far as like in my form, but also as a cyclist, because this year was, of course, without Anna. So that was also a big change.

“In the beginning, I was not really thinking about that difference but if I look back now from last season then I know that, in the end, I really needed to get used to racing without Anna in team and having this new kind of team leader role for myself. That was something where I needed to get used to, but I think I did it good. It was a bit harder than I expected.”

Vollering hit what she described as the form of her life in the summer and she looked on course to wrap up a few more wins on the way to the worlds in Wollongong in September. However, it all began to unravel for her when she crashed out of the Tour of Scandinavia and suffered a concussion as a result.

She was sidelined for a few weeks after that, but she looked like she appeared to be headed in the right direction after returning at the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta to take third overall. However, coronavirus stopped her in her tracks again, and she had to pull out of the world championships on the morning of the road race.

Nevertheless, she took it all in her stride.

“I was not really seeing it as a setback. I mean, that are things that happen to you that you cannot do anything about it. I’ve tried to not be that busy with it,” she said. “I’ve just been so focused that I did not really realize that it was such a pity or something. I was always really focused on what’s next and what I can do to become better. Then it didn’t feel so much like a setback. In the end, if I see now back then, it’s a big shame that I crashed in the Tour of Norway and that I missed out on the worlds, but you cannot do anything about it. I was not too long in a sad mood.”

There was one small positive that came out of her worlds disappointment, with an outpouring of sympathy from her fellow riders. After four seasons in the peloton, it felt like she was now really part of the pack.

“I realized that with the worlds when I missed that, because of COVID, that I really loved racing. I also got a lot of messages after the worlds that they really missed me in the race and maybe it would be different racing, if I was there,” Vollering said. “That was good to hear. Because that was also kind of a compliment that people were really missing you out there.”