Annemiek van Vleuten won her second consecutive rainbow jersey in the elite women's individual time trial at the 2018 UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck on Tuesday. She was the clear favourite heading into the event but told Cyclingnews that it ended up being a 'game of seconds' between herself and compatriot and silver medallist Anna van der Breggen.
"I had this feeling that it was a game of seconds with Anna, and so I got nervous, and I didn't know when I passed the finish line that I had won. It was a nerve-racking time trial," Van Vleuten told Cyclingnews.
"Time trials are a game of seconds, and you die 10 times, but I think I died 100 times this year. I didn't want to lose by two seconds, and I was surprised the gap was so big."
The Dutch team swept the podium with Van Vleuten winning the title, Van der Breggen taking silver and Ellen van Dijk the bronze. But Van Vleuten said she wasn't confident she had won the race because her GPS timing system wasn't functioning correctly in the second half of the time trial.
The elite women raced 27.8km from Hall-Wattens to Innsbruck. The route was entirely flat for the first 10km to Baumkirchen before kicking up over the short climb.
The second half of the circuit was hillier with a climb up to Absam at roughly 18km, followed by a descent and then a rolling section before a fast run-in to the finish line.
"I felt very strong," Van Vleuten said. "I was pushing out amazing power, and so I was thinking that maybe my power meter wasn't working properly. I went out fast, and then I got a little bit nervous because my the GPS time in the second part wasn't working very well, where my initial record said that the time was coming back. So, I felt like maybe I had gone out too fast, so I got a little bit nervous in the second part. I still felt good, but I was also suffering like hell during the time trial all the way to the finish line."
Over the climb, video cameras showed her catching and passing former-two-time world champion Amber Neben, who started the race 90 seconds ahead.
"In the intermediate time check, I knew that I was in front of Anna, and I also knew that I went out fast so maybe I would see a really good second part, and the GPS timing was mixing up. I think that happened because I was overtaking Amber Neben and so the GPS timing was a bit confused."
Van Vleuten finished the time trial in 34:25, crossing the line 28 seconds ahead of Van der Breggen and 1:25 ahead of Van Dijk, for an all-Dutch podium. It's been a successful start to the World Championships for the Netherlands as Rozemarijn Ammerlaan (Netherlands) claimed the first rainbow jersey in the junior women's time trial on Monday.
She said that the fact that three Dutch riders stood on the podium in the elite women's time trial, along with the Dutch success in the women's events at the most recent Olympic Games, where Van der Breggen won the gold medal in the road race, was a sign that her nation respects women's sports.
"I think we showed that we are professional with women's cycling in the Netherlands, and in general in sports in the Netherlands," Van Vleuten said. "Also in the Olympic Games the number of medals won by women from the Netherlands was high, so I think that we might have an advantage with our women athletes because we are professional. Maybe some countries are a little bit behind with women's sports. I'm very proud to be from a progressive country that gives equal chances for men and women."
Van Vleuten transformed herself from an all-rounder to a world-class climber two years ago in an attempt to make the team selection for the Olympic Games in Rio. She was on her way to winning the gold medal in the road race when she crashed on the final descent and hit her head on the curbside. She was briefly unconscious and suffered a severe concussion and three fractures to her spine.
She made a full recovery and went on to have an overall successful 2017 season, which ended with a victory in the time trial at the World Championships in Bergen. She was also encouraged by her Mitchelton-Scott team and coach to train for more climbing races, a project that proved successful with victories at the Giro Rosa and La Course this July.
While standing on the winner's podium accepting her rainbow jersey, a bouquet of flowers and Tissot watch, she touched one of her pearl earrings and winked into the crowd.
Asked of the significance of that gesture, Van Vleuten said the pearl earrings were a good luck charm, a gift from her late father who died in 2008.
"I wore them in Rio Olympic Games for the first time in a race," she said. "I said to my mother afterward that they did not bring me luck. She said, 'I think they did.'"
Van Vleuten crashed dramatically in the Olympic Games road race in Rio, suffering a concussion and three spinal fractures, but the injuries could have been much worse.
"That made me realise they are my lucky earrings. I wore them last year too [at Bergen Worlds]. They make me think of my mother and that my father is still a little with me, with us."
Van Vleuten will now turn her attention to the elite women's road race on Saturday, where she will once again line up as the favourite to win.
"I think that I have taken a lot of confidence out of this victory," she told Cyclingnews. "My shape is really good. The road race is a very different race, though, because today was all individual, and the road race has a team aspect. I was focused on being at my top level for both races – and I am."