Annemiek van Vleuten has called Saturday’s UCI Road World Championships road race a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The 35-year-old Dutchwoman retained her time trial world title and is one of the favourites to wear the rainbow jersey on Saturday afternoon.
If she were to win the race, she would be only the second woman to take both elite titles at the World Championships, though she says she’s not thinking about records at the moment. Jeannie Longo is the only other rider to have done the double when she won both in Duitama, Colombia in 1995. Van Vleuten was among the favourites for last year’s road race, but this year’s offering in Innsbruck is a much more clear-cut chance.
“It suits me better, so that also makes me a bit more nervous. It’s almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to race the World Championships on such a climbing course. I really look forward to tomorrow,” Van Vleuten said on the eve of the race.
“I was good in the spring, but from May on I was on another level, until now. Actually, I felt like I was still growing during the season, so I feel as if I was slightly better than I was at the Giro d’Italia. The season is over tomorrow, I can’t believe it. It went so fast and I really enjoyed it. I had some epic, nice results. It will take some time to enjoy it after tomorrow.”
Van Vleuten was one of those who voiced their disappointment that the course didn’t include the same brutally steep closing climb as the men’s. However, the 156.2-kilometre route is still punishing, with one short, punchy climb followed by three longer ascents into Igls.
“It’s a course that suits the climbers. You need really good legs uphill, and it will be a really honest race, I think,” she explained. “I would have preferred if the climb was a bit steeper because it is a 5.7 per cent average gradient, but the good thing is that it is a bit steeper, then it backs off a bit, and that’s also what I like. I’m not someone who really likes a rhythm. I think that it could be good for attacks.”
Though she has had some very big goals to aim for this week, Van Vleuten hasn’t been living in her own bubble, and she has been looking to the other races to get a sense of what could be coming at the weekend.
“You saw with the under-23 riders, the group will be reduced every lap, and there are also riders on the start line that also like to climb but are proud to be at the World Championships and that’s why they’re starting. So, those riders will be dropped a bit sooner,” said Van Vleuten.
“I think if you want it then you can go for it. I think that if they had good legs then they could have stayed ahead. I think you can go maybe a bit earlier. You also need to feel your legs and how you are. You feel it in the race and that’s important.”
The Dutch are the outgoing champions and are seen as the overwhelming favourites to take the title in Innsbruck, with Anna van der Breggen in top shape, too. However, Van Vleuten is keen to point out that it is not just a two-horse race for victory.
“Everyone thinks about La Course because we were both in front, but there were some girls that hadn’t recovered from the Giro and some weren’t racing at all there. So the level tomorrow will be way higher. There will be more climbers at the start line that weren’t at La Course,” she said.
“Lucy Kennedy (Australia) is my teammate in Mitchelton-Scott and she is an amazing rider going uphill. If she goes, then I need to be on a really high level to follow her. They have a really good secret weapon. Amanda Spratt is the leader, but she has an amazing domestique to help her and make the race hard.
"There’s also some dark horses like Jolanda Neff. I’m really curious what she’ll do and people without a country. Kasia Niewiadoma is also really strong and the course suits her really well. Longo Borghini has a really strong team and is always good in World Championships, so I’m curious.”
Even if Van Vleuten is unable to take victory in the road race, her World Championships can already be deemed a massive success after she defended her time trial title on Tuesday. It is, she says, the latest chapter in a book she started writing with her performance and dramatic crash at the Rio Olympic Games. Two years on, the aftereffects still linger on.
“Last year it was a super big relief to be in super good shape and finish it off, because in Rio I was also in super good shape but I wasn’t able to finish it off, so last year it was a big thing that I was able to show that if I am in good shape then I am able to finish it off,” explained Van Vleuten. “I was also able to add a chapter to my book. Before, Rio was the book and now it is only a chapter with also winning the Giro and La Course and now winning another world title.”
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