After a promising spring that saw her take multiple UCI victories and seven top 10 finishes in WorldTour one-days, Orica-Scott's Annemiek van Vleuten has enjoyed the best summer of her career. A little less than a year removed from her horror crash at the Rio Olympics, she has matched strong form with savvy racing over the course of the past month, nabbing two stages and a GC podium at the Giro Rosa before delivering a dominant performance at this week's La Course by Le Tour.
Sporting an updated format for 2017, La Course added an extra day of racing, with the results of the Thursday's stage to the Col d'Izoard determining start times for a pursuit-style race on Saturday. Van Vleuten won the opener convincingly, and cruised to a clear win on the second and final day of racing. The 34-year-old Dutch time trial champion weighed in on the new format in the post-race press conference.
"Before it was only for sprinters and I think it was also really good they could show climbing abilities, and I think my Strava file on the Izoard shows that girls are also pretty fast on the bike," Van Vleuten said. Her time was quicker than many of the men, although their climb came after 17 stages and 120km more racing into the Izoard.
"It was really good to ride up the Izoard with a lot of people to watch. Today was a different formula, something new. I was just in front and going hard so I don't know what happened behind, if it was fun to watch or not. I hope so. One of the purposes of cycling is to entertain people, so maybe the people watching can tell if it's nice to do it again. If you asked me, it would also be really really nice to have a stage race for women in the Tour.
"There were so many people on the course, they made me go really fast for the 22km. I hope it was entertaining for the people staying out in the sun for such a long time."
The new format of the event left it unclear how riders would take on the pursuit, but Van Vleuten waded through the tactical uncertainty safely to take a commanding victory.
"Part of the fun about today's race was thinking about what the other riders would do. There were a lot of tactical scenarios that we talked through. For me it was logical that if they wanted to win, they had to come together and chase me together," she said. "So maybe six against one could have been really hard for me. So for sure I expected them to wait, especially Lizzie (Deignan), then I was prepared for Elisa Longo Borghini to attack on the climb. With four kilometres to go I saw them riding together, and I thought it would be even harder with three-against-one, but if you have a good shape you can do it."
Although Van Vleuten pointing out that there was much work to be done still for women's cycling, she acknowledged that the much-publicised extension of La Course into a multi-day event was a step in the right direction.
"I think the level is a bit different still. The men get at least minimum wage so they're all full-time professionals," she said. "We have still a part of the women who are not full-time professional and are not full-time paid. So we have some girls who cannot train full-time. We're still growing but you see every year more girls are paid full-time and can become full-time athletes so you see it's growing. And I think stuff like this on the Izoard and the television coverage really helps to step up women's cycling."
Her La Course win in the books, Van Vleuten is now setting her sights on another prize, hoping to carrying her impressive form through to fall and the last big target on the women's cycling calendar.
"My next stop is the World Championships in Bergen," she said. "It's finally a Worlds course that suits me, I think. Maybe the next year even better, but I'm really looking forward to that, also for the time trial, I'm national champion in time trial. Now I'll take a week of rest, do some crits in Holland then I'll go again to altitude camp. It's something I really enjoy so I'll go to altitude then try to smash the world championships."