Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) surprised herself with a fourth-place performance at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but she said that she's still missing that top one per cent of form needed to win the Women's WorldTour opener at Strade Bianche on Saturday in Italy.
"The last per cent takes a long time and a lot of hard work," Van Vleuten told Cyclingnews. "People think that with 10 weeks training you're there, but the last part really takes long."
Van Vleuten won the Women's WorldTour series last year after successes at the Giro Rosa, La Course and Boels Ladies Tour, along with podium performances during the Classics. A crash in the road race at the World Championships in September, however, forced her off the bike for six weeks with a severe knee injury.
She waded patiently through her recovery process, which included surgery and then physical therapy, not knowing if she would be able to return to her highest level during the 2019 season. Her progression into full-time training has been smooth, however, with a 10-day training camp with the men's team followed by time spent at altitude in Tenerife, which she documented in her latest blog on Cyclingnews.
That blog followed with an announcement that she would return to racing earlier than expected at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche.
"The form is really good," Van Vleuten said following Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. "I saw my numbers when I was at altitude after 10 weeks of training. I trained so hard to come back, and I think now I'm just happy to be back racing for the team. That already feels like a big present for me."
At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Van Vleuten rode into the front group and finished fourth behind solo winner Chantal Blaak (Boels Dolmans), and then Marta Bastianelli (Team Virtu Cycling) and Blaak's teammate Jip van den Bos.
"To ride like this … I know that top, top, top [form] isn't far away," Van Vleuten said. "A few more weeks."
When Van Vleuten announced that she would race in early March, she and her team agreed that, given her long road to recovery, she would compete in a domestique role with the team. She felt strong during Omloop, and so that role shifted to becoming more of a "joker" for the final, but Van Vleuten insisted that the course used for Strade Bianche will be much too hard for her to be competitive for the victory.
"I race Strade Bianche next, and before I crashed, I had that race with a red line underneath it in my agenda," she said.
"Now, it's maybe too hard for me with my current shape. [My form] is good, but it's not like my form at the Giro or Worlds last year. I need a bit more time for that."
Strade Bianche, the first race of the 23-event Women's WorldTour, features a 136km route that starts in Siena and is routed along the white gravel roads of Tuscany. It includes 30km worth of gravel spread over eight sectors, and there are short climbs with up to 18 per cent gradient, before finishing back in Siena at the Piazza del Campo.
Van Vleuten said to be competitive in a race like that, against the best women in the world, she needs to be at the top of her game. Although she is almost there, she is still missing that last little bit, which is what effectively decides the winners.
Strade Bianche is one of the most unpredictable races on the Women’s WorldTour. With its gravel elements and unruly weather conditions, Strade Bianche a race where anything can happen, and so don’t rule out Van Vleuten for the victory in Siena.