The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro were a major event in Annemiek van Vleuten’s career. While many will remember the horrible images as Van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) crashed during the road race, it was the performance prior to it, on what looked to be a race-winning move, that has spurred the Dutchwoman on to become a serious stage race contender in the past 18 months.
Her ride in Rio led her team to tell her that she should consider testing herself out as a general classification rider. After letting the thought sink in, Van Vleuten tested herself at the 2017 Giro Rosa and enjoyed a career-best finish of third overall. Buoyed by the performance, she has set her sights a few steps higher this year.
“I am aiming for overall victory,” Van Vleuten told Cyclingnews after returning from an altitude training camp in Tenerife. “I think that I’m riding really well. I feel really good and I think I am going better than last year.
“After the Olympics, my team said you can climb really well, maybe you should go for the GC at the Giro. It took me half a year to process that thought because I really like to race one-day races a bit more. [Stage races] are stressful and you have to ride in a defensive way, which is not what I really prefer, but I really like new challenges. It is a beautiful goal in my season.
"I came very close, with third in the end. I was very proud of that and that made me start to believe that I could maybe win it."
Going from one-day racer to GC hunter has been something of a learning curve as Van Vleuten learns to temper her more aggressive approach to racing. Despite the strong result, there were some harsh lessons to learn too, namely that there is no day off when you’re targeting the overall classification. Van Vleuten was in a strong position after the first three stages, but she missed the cut when crosswinds hit on day four and lost more than two minutes to the other contenders.
“The time trial was the day after, so in my head, I was busy thinking about the time trial afterwards. I was planning the day, thinking I could relax a bit. That’s why I learned the hard way that you can’t approach it that way. You have to be super focused every day.
“You need to be good for 10 days. It gives me more respect, when I’m watching the Giro or the Tour de France, that the men can do that for 21 days and on longer stages.”
As with last year, Van Vleuten has opted to sit out of racing throughout June, aside from the national championships, and head to altitude on Mount Teide in Tenerife. It is her sixth visit to the volcano and she’s become a fixture at the local hotel, which has nicknamed her 'Macarena' after struggling with her Dutch name.
Van Vleuten will be part of a strong Mitchelton-Scott squad that includes an in-form Amanda Spratt, who has been training in Livigno. The Australian finished fifth in last year’s Giro and won her last race at the Emakumeen Bira. Van Vleuten is coy on how they will play their cards but says that it will be a big plus for them to have two strong climbers in the line-up.
“That’s our tactics, so I can’t say too much about it,” she laughed. “I expect her to go well in the GC. It’s a big advantage to have her and me riding really well uphill, so we can play off each other a bit more. We did it in the Bira. Don’t forget Lucy Kennedy, too, who is coming back from a crash at Amstel Gold Race. She is stealing all my QoMs at the moment in Livigno, so I think that she’s doing really well.
Van Vleuten and her rivals will face a very different Giro Rosa to the one that they faced last season. It starts with the traditional team time trial but features much more climbing, with an uphill time trial and two summit finishes, including one on the infamous Monte Zoncolan, which first appeared in 1997.
“It’s a way harder Giro than last year,” explained Van Vleuten. “It is really nice, well I don’t know if it is nice, but it is really good that they put in a famous climb into the Giro. It puts in a bit more body to the Giro. If I tell people that we also do the Zoncolan then they say oh that’s good.
“The time trial has 1,000 altitude metres of climbing. I’ve got a super nice time trial bike but it’s only uphill. It’s not very suitable for a time trial bike.”
The road to Innsbruck
Following the Giro Rosa, Van Vleuten’s next big goal will be the World Championships in Innsbruck, where she aims to defend her time trial title as well as targeting the road race. Prior to racing the Emakumeen Bira in the middle of May, Van Vleuten headed out to Austria to have a look at what she’s going to face come September.
While she liked what she saw, she came away with a similar feeling to previous years that the women’s peloton wasn’t getting a fair crack at the whip. Cervelo-Bigla’s Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig made similar comments in a blog on Voxwomen. Van Vleuten pointed out that she wasn’t asking for the race to be as long as the men’s, but that she wanted to test herself on the same course.
“I like the time trial course. It’s quite technical and there are some tough parts in it. I think that the strongest will win. You need some skills; it’s not a highway,” Van Vleuten told Cyclingnews. “You can’t really get into a rhythm and that’s what I like about this time trial.
“For the road course, it’s a super hard climb in the course. I am a little disappointed that there is a bit of discrimination between the men and the women and we don’t do the same course. I don’t really understand why we don’t do the same final climb as the men do. At the Qatar World Championships, it was the same, we didn’t go out of the city. In Bergen, we also didn’t have the uphill finish. I think it is time that we aren’t discriminated against. They don’t need to have the same distance, but at least we can have the same courses as the men and we can show what we can do.
“Guys like [Vincenzo] Nibali said that it is super hard, but then I have to explain to people that we don’t do it. For me, it’s a bit disappointing. It looks like we can’t do a steep climb. Cycling has developed, and just give us the same courses. Still, it is a really nice and hard climb and we have a really strong Dutch team. So, I think that we can make it hard again."