Shirin van Anrooij is only 20 years young but already one of the riders with a constant presence in the top five of the elite women’s cyclocross races. She is one of the 20 gang where Puck Pieterse and Fem van Empel also shine weekend after weekend. While Van Empel has already made the move to the elite category, Van Anrooij is still aiming for a rainbow jersey at U23, on her 21st birthday, racing a mere 20 kilometers from home.
Van Anrooij is home after another weekend of cyclocross for this interview with CyclingTips. She lives in the province of Zeeland, in the southwestern tip of the Netherlands, with her parents, older sister Lindy, brother Franklin and their dog.
“I love cyclocross season for many reasons, but one is definitely that I am home more often than during the road season,” Van Anrooij says. “I ride a race on the weekend and then on Monday I don’t touch the bike. On Tuesday I do a few hours on my bike through the forest and then on Wednesday we have the specific cyclocross training. Thursdays is also about longer endurance rides because I am thinking of the road season too and then Friday a short one, and Saturdays are to prepare for race day. That can be a course recon if I am already there or a fast hour behind the scooter.”
Van Anrooij is part of the Baloise Trek Lions, a team led by legendary cyclocross world champion Sven Nys, with riders like Lucinda Brand, Lars van der Haar, Thibau Nys and Pim Ronhaar constantly in the top ten of the biggest races.
“It’s a real nice team,” Van Anrooij says. “On Wednesday we always train together in Lichtaart [Belgium]. We do some starts and then some fast uphills and laps. I usually try to follow the wheel of Lars van de Haar, follow his lines, look at his technique and for me that is a super intensive training. Afterwards we have pasta together. It’s very ‘gezellig’,” she smiles expressing the typical Dutch word best described as coziness. “It’s what I like most about cyclocross. It feels like a family on the team and a family affair on race day when my own entire family is there too: mum, dad, the dog, my boyfriend.”
It all started very early for Shirin. Her older sister Lindy had already followed in their mother Mariëtta’s footsteps by getting into bike racing, and Shirin wanted nothing more than to copy her sister.
“I got my very first race bike when I was six years old and as soon as I could I started doing races. I love racing.”
She went on to win a national and a world cyclocross title, and both national road titles as a junior. As an U23 rider she won both the national and European road and TT titles this season. At the U23 Cyclo-cross World Championships in Fayetteville she just missed out on the title in a sprint with Puck Pieterse.
“I think about that sprint sometimes,” admits Van Anrooij, before explaining her decision to hold off her step up to elite level, “I am preparing for the U23 World Championships [in Hoogerheide, the Netherlands] this season again because they are so close to home and on my birthday, but maybe if I had won that U23 title already last season, making the step up to the elite category would be easier to decide.”
On the road, she has now completed the U23 game with multiple titles, but in cyclocross there is still one more to win to add to the tally. Van Anrooij is adamant she will ride U23 Worlds, although she has already won a World Cup event in the elite category at Beekse Bergen earlier this year, her first World Cup win ever.
“Maybe if I win a few more World Cups my opinion might change,” she smiles. “An elite rainbow jersey is worth so much more, but on the other hand, I have many more years to go. If I leave the U23 now, I can’t go back.”
At the Beekse Bergen World Cup, Van Anrooij attacked a lap before the finish and managed to keep a lead of a handful of seconds over Van Empel and Pieterse. Sven Nys coached her all the way, but most of all, he gave her confidence.
“Of course, Sven has so much knowledge and experience about technique and tactics, but I think what he and the rest of the team give me most is confidence. Sometimes at the start line I look up to some of the riders too much and feel I don’t have that level. It’s the people around me who make me believe in myself. It’s a learning curve and not only on the bike, but I’m also learning about myself. I become more and more self-confident every race.”
Van Anrooij not only excels in cyclocross but also on the road. Next year she will yet again be the youngest rider on the Trek-Segafredo team, but she’s already made her way to the Tour de France Femmes where she was crowned the best young rider. Combining the two disciplines is always a balancing act.
“I already have to always think about the road season during cyclocross season. I focus a lot on those endurance rides to build a solid base. After the road World Championships in Australia, I took two weeks off the bike and then started again. On a December training camp, I will build a good foundation for road season, but that also helps me in cyclocross.”
For a while cyclocross races were shorter than 50 minutes because the elite and U23 categories would ride together, and it was thought that having longer races would be disadvantageous to the young riders. But with the gang of 20-year-olds – Pieterse, Van Empel and Van Anrooij – and the likes of 21-year-old Blanka Vas winning week after week, that myth can now be put to rest.
“It’s true I would benefit from longer races because of my road race endurance. It would mean there is less emphasis on the start, for example, but if we already ride 55 minutes, the other riders [further back] would do over an hour week after week. I don’t think adding more time would make that much difference. I like it as it is. It also depends on the race. We have so much variety. For me the sandy races like Koksijde and Zonhoven are a main focus in January. I hope to build a bit more form right now and be at my best at the end of December and early January.”
With her seventh place in Tábor the only odd one out, Van Anrooij has finished on the podium in every race, so building even more form should make the competition extra wary of the young Dutch rider.
We are over halfway into the cyclocross season and then it’s back to the super team of Trek-Segafredo, second on the UCI teams ranking at the end of the 2022 season. Apart from national and European titles, plus team time trials, Van Anrooij hasn’t won an individual race on the road just yet, but that day can’t be far off. That said, how do you find a place on a team of super stars when you’re the most junior?
“It’s special to be part of Trek-Segafredo but also a challenge,” she explains. “In my first year there were many expectations. They thought I would already be there in the final and fully understood the game. On the other hand, there is so much experience in the team to learn from.”
Van Anrooij has already been part of the team in some of the most demanding Women’s WorldTour stage races like Itzulia Women, Vuelta a Burgos, Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, and of course the Tour de France Femmes, but always in a support role.
“I was often the worker this year to help Elisa Balsamo or Elisa Longo Borghini. Usually, I was still there in the finals but not at my best anymore. Next year I want to try and prove myself more and more, and hope to get a role as leader or joint leader in a race to get that result myself.”
In the first half of next season, she focuses on the Ardennes Classics where she excelled this year with a 13th place in Flèche Wallonne, 15th at Brabantse Pijl and top-twenty finishes at both Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Strade Bianche, where she finished ninth this year, is also high on the list. After that it’s back to stage racing and time trials.
“I often get asked if Paris-Roubaix wouldn’t be good for me, and of course I say yes but we have many great older riders on the team for that specific race right now.”
Van Anrooij recently signed a three-year contract extension with the American team. She made that difficult jump up from the junior ranks, a jump that becomes bigger and bigger, but she is still only a third-year pro next season. There is still a lot to wish and aim for. Van Anrooij and the team have a clear development path in mind.
“I hope to return to the Tour de France Femmes or do the Giro Donne for the first time. I think Grand Tours will become my specialty but I will also keep focusing on the time trial,” she says. “In the next three years it’s about getting stronger physically, tactically and mentally. The big dream is the Olympic Games, but maybe the 2024 Paris Olympic Games are still a bit too early. There are many candidates for that time trial spot that Annemiek van Vleuten now leaves open. But being at the Games one time in my life is a dream.”
And then the big question: cyclocross or road. She laughs. And refuses to answer.
“Although, if I really, really have to choose between a road and a cyclocross world title, I think having that road World Championship rainbow jersey around my shoulders is just a bit more special. But I won’t quit ‘cross and you can’t force me,” she concludes with a smile.