Annemiek Van Vleuten is the best rider in the world - leader of the UCI World Ranking and the Women's WorldTour, winner of the Giro Rosa and reigning time trial world champion - but she's not willing to stop there. A proven rider of versatility during her decade-long career, she has transformed herself into the sport's newest climbing talent with an ability to hit her best form during the spring and summer blocks of racing this season. She's aiming to have the most significant peak at the 2018 UCI Road World Championships - on the hunt for double rainbow jerseys in the elite women's time trial and the road race.
“I feel the same about both events. I want to win both events," Van Vleuten told Cyclingnews about her quest to both defend her title in the time trial and secure a first-ever gold medal in the road race.
“My focus point is to be at my best possible level at the World Championships. I'm not concerned about what event could be more important, or who my competitors are; I just want to be at my highest level - that is my focus point."
There isn't much that can stop Van Vleuten once she sets her sights on a target. Her season to date has been the most successful of her entire career, with a first peak during the spring Classics, a second at the Giro Rosa and La Course in July, and a third, and possibly her biggest peak is planned to take shape during the next 10 days in Innsbruck, Austria.
The precision with which Van Vleuten can plan a peak is irrefutable. She broke into this season in near-perfect form, and with grit and determination that saw her sprinting to third at the Tour of Flanders despite crashing earlier in the race and dislocating her shoulder. She then muscled through the arduous cobblestones, and ups and downs of the Ardennes region of the Netherlands and Belgium to finish third at Amstel Gold Race and fourth at La Flèche Wallonne.
She arrived at the Giro Rosa in what she says has, so far, been her best-ever form. "I was intending to peak a second time, a bigger one, in July," she said.
"It worked out very well. I wanted to do well in the spring for the one-day Classics. I wanted to have a smaller peak for that, but my two main goals have always been for July at the Giro Rosa and for September at the World Championships."
To call her performance at the Giro Rosa a peak is a vast understatement. Mitchelton-Scott started out strong with second place in the opening team time trial behind Sunweb, and Spratt briefly took the attention away from Van Vleuten on stage 6 with a victory atop Gerola Atla, where she also took the leader's jersey.
It was the following day's 15km mountain time trial to Diga di Campo Moro where Van Vleuten showed her competitors, and the cycling community, her transformation into a world-class climber.
In an astonishing show of strength, she finished 2:28 minutes ahead of her nearest competitor, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio. Her rivals and climbing specialists Lucinda Brand, Elisa Longo Borghini, Megan Guarnier, Kasia Niewiadoma and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig ground their way to the finish line some three and four minutes slower.
Van Vleuten moved into a nearly insurmountable lead in the overall classification, and went on to win stages 9 and 10 before securing the overall title in Cividale del Friuli, 4:12 ahead of runner-up Moolman Pasio and 6:30 ahead of Spratt.
Two days later, she transferred her success on Italian soil to the roads of France at La Course where she beat compatriot Anna van der Breggen in Le Grand-Bornand, her second victory in a row at the French race.
"I needed a bit more time to be at my top peak, so by May, I was at a really good level. I went back to altitude, and then came back even stronger. Now we have the World Championships coming up."
Van Vleuten has always been a well-known classics rider, prologue and time trial specialist, and a successful short stage racer with previous wins at Tour of Flanders and Grand Prix de Plouay (2011), the Belgium Tour (2014 and 2016), and stage wins at the Giro Rosa (2014, 2015 and 2017). She spent most of her early years racing for teams Nederland Bloeit and Rabobank Women..
Although she is proud of those successes, particularly her 2011 season in what she calls her breakthrough year, it's hard to dispute that this year has been a standout period during her career. Victory in the time trial at last year's World Championships in Bergen, led into a strong Classics campaign, followed by Giro Rosa and La Course wins in the summer. Her most recent overall win at Boels Ladies Tour saw her move into the overall lead of the Women's WorldTour.
"I think you could say that this year was my strongest year ever," Van Vleuten said. "Last year was an amazing season. I don't know. It's hard to say because 2011 was also a really good season; only three victories but they were World Cup, and I won Tour of Flanders that year. I was definitely at a higher level this year than I was last year, especially at the Giro Rosa."
Van Vleuten said that a change to her training program and team, while also surrounding herself with people who believed in her ability to be a better climber and all-around athlete, helped her realise her potential as a consistent stage racer.
She left Rabobank, where she raced in support of compatriot Marianne Vos, and instead joined Bigla in 2015. She then switched to GreenEdge (now Mitchelton-Scott) in 2016. She was given a new-found leadership role and encouraged to target more climbing races during the 2017 season.
"Before I was always in a team with Marianne Vos and there was no one there to encourage me to target climbing races because she was also winning climbing races. Now, at Mitchelton-Scott team, they challenged me to target the uphill races."
She wanted to be part of the Dutch team that raced the elite women's road race course at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, but knew that she needed to become a better climber. She was later encouraged to focus more on mountainous races.
"In the first year, I thought 'yeah right, no way. I'm not a climber.' People always told me in other teams that I was a Classics rider. I had to process the idea that I could be a climber if I did it more often. My team director inspired me after the Rio Olympics to target more of the uphill races. That was where this project started. When people believe in you, you begin to believe in yourself more.
"I focused more on climbing," she said. "I went more to altitude training camps to improve my climbing. In general, I just climbed more. It's not only good for training, but it's good for my head; to have some quiet time without racing, to prepare for periodization training and to stay focused."
Concerning her specific training, Van Vleuten hired a nutritionist, scaled back her gym routine, which allowed her to reduce upper body weight and in turn improved her power-to-weight ratio. She maintained her natural power in the time trial and punchy classics, but also spent enormous amounts of time in the mountains; improving her climbing, which allowed her to be more competitive in the overall classification.
She compares her improvements to those of compatriot Tom Dumoulin; the current time trial world champion, who moved into a GC role on Sunweb over the last several years, winning of the 2017 Giro d'Italia, and finishing second at both the Giro and Tour de France this year.
"You can compare my success in climbing to Tom Dumoulin's, it's comparable," Van Vleuten said. "He's become a really good climber now, but I think I've become a really good all-rounder. If you have riders like Kasia Niewiadoma, who are in top, top, top shape, I think it would be hard for me to beat a rider like her on a climb. I don't think that I'm a pure climber, I'm more of an all-rounder who got better at climbing. I think Tom Dumoulin and I are a little bit the same."
Van Vleuten gave examples of her training sessions, which ranged from six-hour rides that included 4,000-5,000 metres of altitude gain, to shorter one-hour rides with intervals such as four by eight minutes at maximum effort.
"The hardest sessions I do are the all-out efforts in just a couple of hours, which are super, super hard," Van Vleuten said. "They are short, all-out, high-intensity, they improve your ability to ride above your threshold. I work on those, along with my power. They also help to improve your climbing."
The women's individual time trial is held on September 25, on a 27.8km route. The Dutch have top riders in Van Vleuten, Anna van der Breggen, Lucinda Brand and Ellen van Dijk. The road race will take place on September 29 along a challenging course. It will start in Kufstein and head west to finish in Innsbruck-Rennweg, for a total of 156.7km. They will race a 90km loop followed by three shorter circuits of 23.9km each. The course has 2,413 metres of elevation gain.
Van Vleuten will try and defend her title in the individual time trial, but she has planned her training in a way that will allow her also to be a top contender for the road race title. With the course being so difficult, there are only a handful of riders who start as clear favourites; compatriot Van der Breggen, Moolman-Pasio, Spratt, Uttrup Ludwig and Niewiadoma, to name a few.
"It's not that often that we have the opportunity to race on a climbing course, which will eliminate a lot of competitors so that the people that can win there are not a lot, and I am one of them," she said. "That makes me eager and keen, and I look forward to the World Championships.
"I know how special it is to race in the rainbow jersey and I would love to wear it all year round, not only in the time trial. There is a lot that I prepare for in my season, but I am very focused for the World Championships too. It's a special race, special to wear the jersey."
The most well-orchestrated plans sometimes don't pan out, however, and so asked if she is confident she will peak at her highest form at the World Championships, Van Vleuten said, "yes."
"Last year, surprisingly, it was amazing that I was at such a high level from May through September, and I never had a period where my level went down. This year, I got to rest after the Giro Rosa, so my level did go a little bit down. I did La Course and then had a week without my bike.
"I went again to altitude, and I have a feeling that I'm really good right now. I still think I can do another little peak at the World Championships."