Anna Henderson: From piste to peloton

National time trial champion Anna Henderson talks budget bikes, team dynamics and ski school with Owen Rogers

Anna henderson
(Image credit: SWPix)

This article forms part of a week of women's focused stories, in celebration of our Women's Special edition of Cycling Weekly Magazine, one sale from Thursday, March 10. See the full schedule of upcoming articles here.

Anyone watching the women’s elite road race at the Flanders world championships last September might have been forgiven for thinking there was more than one Team GB rider wearing a Jumbo-Visma helmet.

After the British took control through Leuven and onto the Flanders circuit, the race exploded in attack after attack, most of them marked by a white jerseyed rider in one of those yellow and black helmets.

But despite its omnipresence there was only one GB rider wearing the distinctive lid. From the 100th kilometre onward Anna Henderson was rarely further back than 20th position. Indeed she covered 14 attacks for her leader, Lizzie Deignan, before making her own move off the front too.

Though she eventually finished 25th, 11 places and 48 seconds behind Deignan, she was arguably the strongest Brit in the race, maybe even the strongest woman overall. Despite that there is no hint that she feels she should have been going for the win.

“Unfortunately I couldn’t follow the last attacks to help Lizzie in the final,” she tells us from a pre-season Mallorca training camp. “Surprisingly I had really good legs, I didn’t feel very good at the start of the race and I told Lizzie and she told me to hang in and keep going. I really enjoyed it, the atmosphere was amazing and it was the best British performance anybody’s seen in years.” She’s not wrong.

“It was a long and tiring season for everybody, and I was just trying to keep right for the nationals and worlds. You spend the whole of September and October surprised if you have any form.”

Anna Henderson TT bike

(Image credit: SWPix)

Form hung around a few weeks longer though, Henderson putting in a dominant performance to win the national time trial title in Lincoln. “My power was terrible. I kept looking a my Garmin and thinking ‘this is not good day, but just keep going.’ I think what happened is that I managed to make my bike go really fast in places that other people didn't. 

“I was actually very, very surprised to have come across the line first, it was a really bizarre day, which ended up being a really good day.”

The result was a far cry from her first ride at nationals, only three years before, aged just 19. There, on the roads around the Northumbrian town of Ponteland she finished ninth, 2.33 behind winner Hannah Barnes.

“I had no idea what I was doing, absolutely no idea, I got sent out on a TT bike and just got told to go as fast as possible,” she laughs. “I got the bike I think two or three weeks before, and my mum said ‘we've got your bike, so go fast.’ I look back at my position, it was terrible, and some of my equipment choices, but it was good fun.”

Any mistakes can be forgiven given her relative lack of experience. At the time she had only been competing two-and-a-half years, her sporting attentions previously focussed elsewhere, mostly on skiing, where she excelled.

Taming the slopes

Henderson will often be seen leading the peloton on descents, attracting commentary that her history as a downhill skier has contributed to her descending skills. While she has clearly developed her abilities over the years, it was far from simple.

“I was actually terrible at descending on a bike when I first started, I was so scared,” she explains. “I had stopped skiing because I had lost my nerve going downhill, I didn't like it anymore. And I lost the feeling of going [downhill] on my bike, and I really couldn't tip my bike over. 

“Obviously, descending is a skill that you have to learn and nobody ever taught me, and it took Coryn [Rivera] and all the girls on Sunweb to push it. It was only in 2020 that I really learned to be good and confident on a descent because it's such a hard skill to learn. I was kind of terrified of it and they helped me find my feet again.

“Now it’s nice because I can use my skills, seeing a corner and taking a good line. Coryn told me to try and go smooth over fast because when you go smooth you go fast.

“I was on ice skates when I was 18 months old!” the now 23 year-old proclaims proudly. “My parents put us in every single sport they possibly could. Netball, tennis camps, football camps, we had swimming camps, it was that kind of array of sports. I’ve always been a competitive person and and doing all these sports ended with me wanting to do more and more competitions.

“I did so many sports and still saw my friends at school, it was a good balance, and for me I think keeping that array of sports was really helpful.”

However, a ski competition at the Hemel Hempstead dry slope aged four changed that. Over the ensuing 10 years those other sports would drop away one by one, skiing taking her attention, only hockey remained. The young Henderson graduated to the national development team, spending months at a time in Austria at the Ambition Racing ski academy.

“We’d train in the morning and school in the afternoon. My school said, ‘you fail then don’t come crying to us,’ and my mum and dad said if I failed I wasn’t allowed to ski.

“It made you grow up really fast and be responsible for yourself. I think it made me into the person I am, I'm quite independent and I can look after myself pretty well, and make my own decisions.” But according to Henderson the exposure to elite sport helped her future career as a professional cyclist. “Because I did skiing to quite a high level you're used to that high performance environment, so all you have to focus on is making yourself a better bike rider and learn the trade.”

After representing Great Britain at the Junior World Championships and the European Youth Olympics, a broken leg left her at a career crossroads. “I made international level but I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, and once you come up against the French and the Austrians you’re actually quite rubbish!” she admits.

Cycling had actually always been part of Henderson’s life, using it occasionally for off-season fitness. It also helped during her extended, year-long rehab during which “the only way to get anywhere without pain was to cycle.” Then a trip to watch a hockey match took her past the Olympic Velodrome in London and her competitive spirit was stirred.

The future's bright, the future's young

For years British women have been threatening to challenge the international scene with multiple riders, and the 2021 season has seen this promise reaching fruition.

Just look at the WorldTour Young Rider classification, which lists the most consistent Under 23 women in top tier races, where GB have more riders in the top 15 than any other country. More even than powerhouse nations Netherlands and Italy.

Along with Henderson at Jumbo, expect Anna Shackley (20), Pfeiffer Georgi (21) and Elynor Bäckstedt (19) to continue their development at SDWorx, DSM and Trek-Segafredo. And the increase in the number of top teams will bring more Brits to the WorldTour, such as EF Education-Tibco-SVB taking Abi Smith (19) up from Conti level.

Add in 24 year-old Evie Richards’s mountain bike and cyclocross successes for Trek Factory Racing and there is a generation of young British women who will be a commanding force on the world stage for years to come.

Without ever having raced, her local bike shop in Berkhampsted, Lovelo Cycleworks asked her to join their team, and as 2016 progressed she began to win. First she was beating small fields, but she ended up closing the year with victory in the VCL 1/2/3/4 and a second cat licence.

Henderson’s reputation was growing. After seeing her race at Hemel Hempstead CC’s Bovingdon circuit she was one of Simon Howes’s first signings for his new OnForm team, though she took some convincing.

“I told her if she wanted to be a cyclist be a cyclist, and if she wanted to be a skier be a skier, there was hockey in there too,” says Howes, whose team has since progressed to become UCI Continental outfit, CAMS-Basso. After a couple of weeks she committed to cycling, but what did he see in the then 17 year-old?

“I think it’s a quiet determination, she does have a hidden confidence, but it’s not a confidence that jumps out in terms of her being brash. She’s strong but I think often it’s more mentality and passion that make you that bit better.

“Her parents are driven too. I ride my bike regularly with her mum and it’s all about watts and average speed. Even though she’s not a racer it’s still very much about competition.

“She’s [Anna] the type of rider I would never doubt, it’s her drive and ambition backed up with exceptional physical ability.”

With Howes’s team Henderson gained experience, racing road and track, learning her craft, and, working with Mark Dolan of Epic Coaching, developed physically, dropping some of the upper body muscle she had built as a skier.

She won the Rydale GP and the national Circuit race title in 2018 as well as gaining crucial exposure to European racing, and was selected for her first world championships in Austria. The following year she was rarely outside the top 10 in domestic events, including nationals where she won the Under 23 time trial title and was second in the elite road race. Then, after finishing second overall at the two day French Kreiz Breizh with Brother Tifosi, she joined Tibco-SVB as a stagiaire, and in her first race was the American team’s top finisher at the WorldTour level Ladies Tour of Norway.

That, and her part in Team GB’s third place in the Mixed Team Relay at the Harrogate World Championships attracted the attention of WorldTour squad Sunweb. However, Covid allowed few opportunities to develop or race in 2020 and last year she was snapped up by Jumbo-Visma, initially on a two year contract.

“They’re two completely different teams, and unfortunately I didn’t fit the mould [at Sunweb], but I did learn a lot about how to look after your team-mates, and how to really race as a team,” she explains. “[At Jumbo-Visma] it always works towards a team goal, but you have your own goals to focus on so it keeps everybody motivated.”

Anna Henderson at the 2021 British National Championships

(Image credit: Getty Images)

A successful return to Kreiz Breizh was one of Henderson’s 2021 goals and she delivered, winning  both stages and the GC. “I was building up all season and I was like, can I do it, can’t I do it, I don't know. But when you do it it’s ‘thank god for that!’ The second day it was ‘Yes! I won a bike race!’”

Five days later the team announced a contract extension until the end of 2024, and she begins this season with both security and confidence, continuing her working relationship with Marianne Vos and rekindling that with Coryn Labecki [née Rivera] who joins the team from DSM.

The future seems bright for Henderson, her versatility lends itself to the classics, but her obvious ability against the clock adds an extra dimension. She can sprint too, but other than finishing her 

Sport and Exercise Science degree her ambitions remain less obvious

“I mean everybody wants to win Flanders and become world champion, so yeah, in a perfect world that would happen,” she muses. “But my goal is to become a better bike rider every day, other people can comment on those things, ‘she should do this, she shouldn’t do this,’ but at the end of the day, you've got to be happy with what you've done.”

This article forms part of a week of women's focused stories, in celebration of our Women's Special edition of Cycling Weekly Magazine, one sale from Thursday, March 10. See the full schedule of upcoming articles here.

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