The two-time world champion on the road Anna van der Breggen, who has combined her first year as a team leader in women’s cycling with studying the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute, talks about her new role in a rapidly developing sport where opportunities and new challenges go hand in hand
More women’s editions of men’s races, more broadcasting time on television and better salary arrangements are some of the developments that women’s cycling is currently experiencing. The sport is doing well, but due to the growth that women’s cycling is experiencing, challenges are arising. “There are a lot of changes right now and I hope they work, and that it continues to work well,” says Anna van der Breggen, who ended her cycling career in 2021 to continue as team leader of the same team, Team SD Worx.
Shortly after she switched roles, Anna van der Breggen studied the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam with a Telesport scholarship. In the first part of this interview, we spoke with Anna about coaching and her current role as a team leader in women’s cycling. In this second (and last) part of the interview, we continue to talk about coaching, and delve into the growth of women’s cycling and the challenges this entails: “With our team, sometimes we now have to participate in two events at the same time. We need more talent, who at the same time have more choices”, says Anna.
When ‘Paris-Roubaix Femmes’ was organized for the first time, you were in the support vehicle. How was that for you?
That was OK. It wasn’t a race I would have really looked forward to, with the cobblestones and the crashes, so it wasn’t difficult in that regard.
With new races like this, can we conclude that women’s cycling is on the rise?
Yes. Many changes have been made, especially in recent years. Until recently we had La Course, the Tour de France for women, which was one day during the Tour de France, but now we have an eight-day event after the men’s race. The stages are also all broadcast on TV, as it is with the men. And like this, several other competitions have been added to our agenda.
We now also participate sometimes in two events at the same time. That presents challenges with our current team. You also have a number of young girls in the team, who sometimes also want to ride a race that is of a lesser level, to have a good feeling and to learn other things. So it’s challenging.
Is the quality of women’s cycling increasing, creating room for more races?
It’s a combination. If it gets more on television, then there will be more attention for it and then there will be more people to come and see it, who will ask for more broadcasting time of women’s cycling. The UCI, the international federation, has now also arranged that the World Tour competitions—which are the largest competitions in our sport—must have a broadcast time of at least 45 minutes. If it is more on television, there will also be more sponsors. Then more money is made available for women’s cycling.
“More event organizers want women’s editions of races. That creates challenges, for example for the quality of the races”
You also see that there are many men’s teams, which now also have women’s teams, so that more and more event organizers want women’s editions of all races. That also creates challenges, for example for the quality you mentioned. Riders will of course not suddenly go faster, just because there are more races. There will also not suddenly be many more riders at the top, but it is certainly growing fast.
Is the number of young, talented female cyclists increasing?
I don’t have much insight into that because that would be at the clubs. But I hope so because we need more cyclists at the top. That’s a difference with the men’s peloton, which is much bigger. New female talent is very welcome with us. More sponsors are interested, there is more money involved, and we now also have a minimum wage. Women’s cycling is becoming more professional and bigger. It is certainly developing fast.
What is a next step in women’s cycling that you would welcome?
There are a lot of changes right now and I hope they work, and that it continues to work well. For example, because we now have the salary arrangements, you notice that this is challenging for some teams. Suppose a talent comes over from the juniors. We now have to immediately offer the minimum salary, while they are still very young, and that doesn’t always match very well with all the responsibilities involved. A lot of the time, they are only 18 and that means it’s quite a gamble for a team.
So in terms of training, it has become more difficult. If we had an intermediate step, with a category of promising talents, you could see who is developing well and who has enough talent to actually start a professional cycling career. That step is currently missing in women’s cycling. We have it in men’s cycling, but not in women’s cycling. Like this, there are more things that could be further improved.
“What is missing in women’s cyscling is a category of promising talents, where you could see who has enough talent to start a professional cycling career”
However, there is such a lack of female cyclists that the training teams —where they can focus on development and don’t have to pay the minimum salary— are having trouble finding cyclists to come there. There is room everywhere. These are risks that arise because things are developing so fast. That takes time, so that the teams can get used to it and get their budgets settled.
And also, what is the reason for a men’s team to start with a women’s team? If that only comes from the sponsors and it is something that comes along with the sponsorship, but in which there is no passion, then that also causes difficulties.
“If it only comes from the sponsors, but in which there is no passion, then that also causes difficulties”
So, there isn’t a training academy, but it would be a good development …
In elite cycling, you see that all those girls ride internationally. I think it would be good if there were a talent category, and that this were encouraged by the UCI.
“It is difficult to complete the budgets, because there are an enormous number of competitions”
With our team we are now trying to grow with all the developments. It is difficult to complete the budgets, because there are an enormous number of competitions. That means that at some point you have to do a double program, so two races at one time. And that means you need 12 riders at least. That’s almost our entire team. So you can imagine that if you have someone who is sick and someone who is injured, for example, you are no longer at the start with full teams. That means that we have to find more cyclists, which is difficult at the moment. But also that you need larger budgets, because you need twice as much material, double the transport, more hotels… In short, a double program is just twice as difficult.
Where do you make the choices then? How do you deal with that?
There is not much choice, because you need to be at all major competitions as a team. But getting that done is very difficult. So we are working on that, to expand in such a way that we can manage financially, that we have enough riders, enough material, the necessary transport and enough staff. And that is difficult, but also very nice, because it says a lot about the growth of women’s cycling.
I can imagine that role models —like yourself— have contributed to the growth of women’s cycling. How do you see that?
Yes, I think so too. In some sports you do it purely for the passion for the sport, and that’s it. But in women’s cycling you can now have a nice job with a salary. That is of course not the motivation when you are young, but that applies to those role models who are successful and are visible on television.
Have you experienced yourself that development as a cyclist, or is it very recent?
I started with cycling because it was just my sport, and I met my friends there. It didn’t mean much more to me. When I started to win competitions, it started to mean more to me and I started to grow and only at the end did I become convinced that I could make it my profession.
The rise in salaries has only been happening for the past two years. And it’s growing fast now too. When I was young, I cycled for —what was it— 200 euros a month, or so. And that was if you acquired the top athlete status from the NOC, the Dutch Olympic Committee… I had the A status salary. It was all pretty basic.
How do you look back on your successes?
I am very happy with the years that I was allowed to cycle professionally, and that it was also possible for me to dedicate my time to it. And that is why I now also think it is nice to continue in the sport, because of all these developments now. I think cycling is a beautiful sport.
So, you are in the right place…
Yes, although I don’t really know if I’m in the right place, because I haven’t tried many other things, of course. Yes, I am a qualified nurse, but that was not the right place for me. So, yes, in that sense the sports industry suits me well.
In your book ‘Anna, my life behind the podium’ you discuss the downside of top sport, such as the pressure you felt when everyone expected you to become world champion. Did you bring that up in the Master in Coaching, as something to work on?
No. It could have been a topic, because you yourself determine what you want to work on, but I preferred to look ahead, and not so much backwards at the things I had experienced in cycling.
Did you introduce topics from your team leadership, into the Master in Coaching?
Yes, but not so much specific situations or anything alike, but more about who I am. Of course, there are also situations that were discussed, but it is mainly about the subjects that play a role in your life. For example, for me it still feels strange that as a cyclist you are suddenly seen as a team leader. And that entails a certain responsibility, and how you deal with it. The feeling that you should always be available. Or if you’ve had a conversation with someone and you’re left with a feeling that you haven’t really made any progress, or that you haven’t gotten answers to the questions you had… So, why do you have those expectations anyway? And what did the person you talked to think about it? You come to that through the sessions we had and the things we covered, and then you link them to your own way of working.
Do you also look at other coaches differently now that you have completed the Master in Coaching?
Yes. And I think you learn from that, too. It’s like when you go to buy new shoes, you suddenly look at everyone’s shoes. It’s the same when you become a coach, or when you do the Master in Coaching [laughs].
You can learn a lot about coaching by observing and trying it out in practice, but often something looks very nice theoretically, but when you try to apply it, it doesn’t feel like something that suits you well. Ultimately, it’s about finding your own coaching style, staying true to yourself and coaching in a way that works for you.
Do you have a coach who is an example for you?
I have that with many coaches, in that I see things which make me think I would never do it that way or that I can learn from. For example, the football coaches on television, like Louis van Gaal, they are always very clear. I like how they stand up for the group, how they stand behind them and how they turn it into a team. I enjoy those interviews, that confidence. He has a plan and that’s it. Full stop.
“In the end, as an athlete, you realize immediately whether someone is really interested in you or not”
I also remember well what my national coach was like, who I had in cycling when I was a junior. He was just the opposite and never said very much. And then I compare that with Louis van Gaal and I think that he also gave me that confidence. He didn’t say much, but he always saw everything. So, you can do a lot of things verbally, but in the end, as an athlete, you’ll realize immediately whether someone is really interested in you or not.
You mention Van Gaal with a clear coaching plan for the team, but also the importance of each individual. Also in coaching cyclists, individual interests must always fit within the team, I assume?
Yes, but that also differs per situation. Our national cycling coach did not have to make a team out of it. He just had to ‘create’ good cyclists, so to speak, and pick out the talents as much as possible. The individual is important here, each one determines the goals.
“The most important thing is that it’s about each individual person, the rider and the connection you have with her, and that is also how you gain respect”
That is very different from the way it is with our team, because you want to make a team out of that. Often, riders mainly look at themselves. And sometimes, as a coach, you have to make certain choices, for example that so-and-so may not be the strongest rider, but that she fits well into the team. So, how you act as a coach depends on the objective you have with the team.
As a coach, I have to deal with that context. The most important thing is that it’s about each individual person, the rider and the connection you have with her, and that is also how you gain respect. But there is more to it, and as a coach you are responsible for the choices and for the team selection, which means that sometimes you have to be the bogeyman and make difficult decisions.