Anna van der Breggen has always loved new challenges, new experiences, new opportunities. Or, to put it another way, she gets bored quite quickly.
“I knew I would never be a cyclist who continued until I was 40 because I like to do new things,” said the 30-year-old, who recently announced that Tokyo 2020 will be her final competition as a professional cyclist.
“I really like doing new races, and that is difficult if you do the sport for many years. It’s the same with winning a race. I am so motivated if I have never won a race, but if I win something for the second time, it feels different.”
There are not many things Van der Breggen has not won. The 2016 Olympic road race champion added the world title to her collection in 2018 and, to date, has notched up 12 one-day classics, three of them monument wins – the most prestigious races on the calendar.
The recent lockdown imposed in the Netherlands as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced her to pause. For someone used to living life at 40kmph-plus, the situation has had its positives.
“On a personal level, I have really enjoyed a period without big goals, without pressure. It has felt quieter,” Van der Breggen said. “But after a couple of months of that, now I am thinking, OK this was nice, but I have started missing the races to work towards.”
The prolonged time at home allowed – or forced, depending on your point of view – Van der Breggen to take stock of where she was and where she wanted to go.
“The last [few] years I have been thinking about it [retirement],” the Boels-Dolmans team rider said. “Why do I feel this? How long do I want to continue? What do I want to do when I quit cycling?”
The day-to-day drive to train and race had somewhat dimmed, but there was one remaining goal, which continued to burn brightly. And it eventually forced her hand, delivering some relief.
“Everything I do for the next year will be the last time, and that naturally comes with very high levels of motivation to do really well. I feel kind of relieved because it felt good to make the choice for myself, and now everyone knows,” said Van der Breggen, who will start a new coaching role with Boels-Dolmans after the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
With the weight off her shoulders, the Dutch star has found lockdown training relatively simple to navigate.
“I don’t need competition to get better,” she revealed. “The best thing is to find motivation in training. I try and improve in training and not with the goal of, ‘In one week, I have this big race’, but something different. Like if I do core stability and after three weeks I can do more than I could in the beginning, then that’s an improvement.
“I am much more focused on those little things these days than thinking about racing.”
A recent e-race did bring the adrenaline flowing back – something she had “missed” – but there has always been life beyond the bike for Van der Breggen.
At the age of 21, the aspiring athlete visited Ghana to do an internship as part of her nursing studies. The experience not only challenged her perceptions, but also awoke an interest she maintains today. She is currently an ambassador for Compassion, a child sponsorship organisation dedicated to the long-term development of children living in poverty all over the world, and in 2018 she spent the off-season in Uganda with her new husband, visiting bakeries designed to provide vulnerable people with employment.
While lockdown has limited her scope in recent months, Van der Breggen has, unsurprisingly, not spent much time on the sofa. As well as finally learning to bake bread – a long-held aim – she has planted and started to harvest a vegetable garden.
“It’s going to taste a lot better [than what she usually buys from the supermarket],” she said, having sown everything from spinach to carrots, rocket and courgettes. “Well, it took quite a lot of time, so I hope it does.”
One thing seems certain: life will continue to be non-stop for Van der Breggen once she hangs up her racing Lycra. But before she gets to all that, it is time to focus on winning a fifth Olympic women’s road race for the Netherlands in Tokyo next year.
While the same result as last time out would do very nicely, she will be quite happy to secure it in less dramatic circumstances. Compatriot Annemiek van Vleuten had looked set to grab the gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, having broken away with USA rider Mara Abbott. But she suffered a nasty crash on the final descent, leaving Abbott to be caught by a trio of riders eventually headed by Van der Breggen.
“I am never nervous in a race, but I was then. It was so exciting; we wanted to catch her [Abbott], but then I knew if we did catch her we would need to sprint, and sprinting has never been my strong point,” Van der Breggen said. “You just don’t want to make a mistake because you are like ‘this is the moment’.”
“I know I am going to win [when she re-watches it] but, argh, it’s really close.”