The orange collective
There was murmuring on the buses, which were tucked away behind the main square in Innsbruck, a short pedal from the finish line of the 2018 World Championships.
That ride gave the riders time to digest what had happened. Whispers of shock at the strength of one team, and mild indignation of how they’d not just controlled but dominated the race with their double knockout blow of attacks. As this shock gave way to admiration, the whispers lapsed into chatter: “It was insane, I mean we are a smaller nation, so we couldn’t have been expected to chase. The tactics were missing from every other team but the Dutch; we were literally just following their moves. When that second attack went, wow, no one could follow. Before we knew it, the lead was a minute.”
The Dutch domination of the World Championships was a case of ‘all killer, no filler’. There was the unmissable spark of fiery orange leading the race out each time it hit the climb on the 23-km finishing circuit. A pantone that stands out on the limited colour palette of any World Championships, where the tutti-frutti of trade team jerseys are switched for the more understated attire of national teams. Those big buck-paying sponsors and corporations of WorldTour kit have to take a backseat here, accepting smaller branding and token gestures.
We were lucky enough to get exclusive access to the Dutch Elite Women’s team both before and after the race. Touted as favourites, we were keen to see how, or even if, the staff could mould this group of lone winners into a well-oiled, fully functioning team.
“The day after the time trial was certainly interesting,” comments Thorwald Veneberg, Dutch national coach, musing on the 1-2-3 that his riders had claimed in the women’s event. “The girls went from being direct competitors during the ITT, to having to change their mind-set so that they become a cohesive team. I gave them one day of breathing space, whilst I followed the men’s TT, then we sat down and laid out the plan for Saturday’s road race.” He speaks in a considered, measured way, and it’s easy to imagine how he approached the hotel room that held this premium group of Dutch cycling talent, which was certainly packed with pheromones and ambition.
“We certainly have a talented crop of riders here,” Veneberg continues, sipping his morning coffee before the day’s tactical briefing for the race. “I mean, if you considered us as a football team, we certainly have two clear strikers, but we also have a group of midfield players who can certainly score a goal too.” Outwardly calm, the confidence that the former professional has in the strength of the team brims over. He’s been with the federation for almost a decade, since retiring in 2007, and clearly knows procedure of getting the best out of his riders.
Back in their Austrian hotel, he asks the team’s ‘two strikers’ to air their goals. They both utter the same answer and sit quietly. To win. Now Veneberg steps in, reporting back to us on the outcome of the meeting later during their recon ride of the course: “Once their goals had been aired, both Anna and Annemiek concluded that they were also willing to help each other, because the ultimate goal for us all is to make sure that the colour on the top step of the podium come Saturday is orange.” He pauses, as if contemplating the potential scenarios. “I’d certainly say it was a little easier for us in the past because we had one defined leader, so this is a big step for the team,” he adds. With the world media ready to hone in any potential leadership upsets within the team, Saturday’s race would bring added pressure to perform. Veneberg agrees it was going to be a test of character, control and his tactics.
It doesn’t take much digging through the history of World Championships to see that those with the strongest team in the race tend not to walk away with the gold medal, with the Spanish and Italian teams being the top of the pile when it comes to not living up to their potential. Either as a result of the other teams sitting back and looking at them to control the race, or because a group of strikers might misguidedly focus on their individual success, scuppering the team’s result. Think Valverde and Rodriquez in 2013, where trade teams came first, seeing Valverde sit on his country man in favour of his team mate (professional team mate) Costa who was up the road.
Having multiple potential winners is not that common in women’s cycling, where traditionally teams have consisted of one viable hopeful — and that was perhaps a rarity in itself. But after the Dutch clean sweep of the Women’s Time Trial Championships podium (and their sweeping domination over the entire season of WorldTour racing), it’s clear that this cycling nation is onto something.
We quizzed Veneberg on what he sees as the roots of the success. He doesn’t immediately know how to answer, but thinks through the rich history that is central to the female success within Dutch cycling. “Traditionally we have always had one superstar, which has been an idol for the upcoming women riders. From Ingrid Haringe to Van Moorsel and, more recently, Vos. This is what inspires the women to want to succeed. But not just to succeed, even to just try racing. From a grassroots point of view, we live in a cycling nation. We all ride our bikes everywhere, in the safety of our network of bike lanes, which means that taking the next step to competing is a progression that does not need to be pushed by us as a federation.”
As a natural extension of that, Veneberg explains how the federation then works closely with their talented athletes before extending that out to a wider collaboration with the trade teams once a level has been reached. This open approach could be traced back to experience that Veneberg brought to his position within the Dutch federation after his professional career with Rabobank.
At the start of the year the federation sits down with the trade teams to see their programs, working out how and where they can aid the Dutch riders — rather than embarking on a battle with the teams for time and resources. It’s a continuous dialogue, he explains, that sees the federation kept in the loop throughout the season, and enabling them to supplement the trade teams’ programme where they fall short. “This means everything from the loan of power meters or altitude tents, right up to training camps and beyond.”
From an outsider’s perspective, this seems like a logical and progressive mentality seeing that both the federations and trade teams are stakeholders in the sport of cycling, and one could even argue that this is part of the reason why there are so many strong trade teams in this small nation. “It’s clear that having three of the top women’s trade teams based in the Netherlands means that we can have constant communication with them,” continues Veneberg.
This approach strikes a chord with us, as earlier that month we’d sat in on a recon of the Team Time Trial course with one of the male WorldTour teams, and we’d heard their staff bemoaning how the World Championships become a bit of a void for the trade teams. Despite paying the riders’ wage, providing their equipment, and supporting them through the arduous season, the team staff were suddenly kept at arm’s length once they were in the fold of the national team. Clearly frustrated at having no say or input into how to get the best out of their riders at the World Championship events.
Just two days after the recon, it’s clear that the Dutch federation’s strategy can’t be faulted. Given their success, it’s hard to fault their initiatives, with four of the top nine places going to orange jerseys. This extraordinarily successful finish was led by Van der Breggen’s demonstrative victory, who had a margin over 2nd place pushing almost 4 minutes. After the post-race rituals encountered by a winning team’s Sports Director, we caught up with Veneberg once more to get his lowdown on the race. “It was always going to be tough and we certainly couldn’t account for every possibility because there are no radios here. So, when Annemiek crashed we had a big moment of worry. As we discussed in the pre-race plan we wanted to stay in control and be proactive in the race, meaning that we’d use riders to open up the attacking.” This was a similar approach that the Dutch team had tried at the European Championships in August, but they had fell prey to ode that the strongest team would not win. Here in Innsbruck though, they had re-written the story as the race’s main protagonists. And the happy ending was in indelible ink — even if some bad luck in the first 70 km reduced the capability of one of their leaders.
“Unfortunately, Annemiek was not able to push 100 percent after her crash, but it was her attack that was key to launching Anna to the win. Anna’s rebound was so strong that it could not be followed. We certainly expected a hard race because of the course, and a finish that would see a lot of groups, but the advantage that Anna had at the end was a huge surprise to us all.” He looks bemused at the question of the winning margin. “The actual gap does not really matter, because in the end we achieved what we wanted: orange on the top step of the podium.”
So, just how far are the Dutch ahead of other nations with their women’s riding? Is it an insurmountable distance? Well, if you look purely at the results of major championships then you’d conclude yes. The Dutch are acting as pioneers when it comes to adopting new strategies for securing the financial model of women’s cycling — but that’s a privileged position that ultimately only benefits their nation’s riders. From a fundamental starting point, they’ve created a safe environment for everyone to be able to cycle in a non-competitive sense, which ensures that they will have the talent pool from which to select future champions. Then they move ahead to supporting riders who are successful, making them the idols for the next generation of riders, and finishing with a healthy network between the federation and the trade teams that works collaboratively for the mutual benefits of the sport. This is undoubtedly an intelligent model for other federations to consider in the future if they want to keep up with the Dutch.
But results and development programs aside, seeing the unity of this team from the inside confirmed that women’s cycling is indeed very healthy in Holland, truly dispelling the myth that all national teams are simply a group of mercenaries. Rather than resembling riders-for-hire, these particular women in orange are arguably stronger than any trade team.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 20 where it was first printed.