My victory at Strade Bianche was so special and such a surprise, particularly when I think about the long recovery from my knee injury in the off-season or the fact that I haven't won a spring Classic since the 2011 Tour of Flanders.
I always assumed that it wasn't possible for me to be racing for victories so early in the season, because no matter how hard I tried to be in peak form in the spring, it usually didn't happen until May. So when I placed my targets on Strade Bianche and the Ardennes Classics, my coach Louis Delahaije said, "It will be hard, but we will aim for it."
I noticed at my altitude camp in Tenerife that I was performing at a higher level compared to other years in February. I didn't train differently, and so there are no real secrets to my comeback. Louis believes in building general fitness, and that it’s important to ride your bike for many hours, while also going in and out of your comfort zones.
A key success factor, for me, however, is to find ways to enjoy doing the work. I like to travel to beautiful places to train, and I arrange for visits with friends and family so that I also have a good time when I'm not riding. For example, I had a training-camp holiday after Christmas in Gran Canaria with my friend Sjoerd. I was invited to train with the men’s team in January, which was an entirely new experience for me. And I had opportunities to ride with new people in Tenerife (and I must give a special shout out to Jumbo-Visma!). All of these things have helped in my early-season success.
I truly believe that happy cyclists perform better.
Despite all the physical training, however, nothing could prepare me for what it would feel like to win Strade Bianche. As I crossed the finish line in Siena's Piazza del Campo, I felt so many emotions. There was a mix of happiness, disbelief and surprise.
The day before the race, we took team photos in the medieval square, and that made me remember all of the reasons why I love Strade Bianche. The course is excellent – so hard – but the finish is the best.
The Italian fans were going crazy when I raced up the final steep climb into 'Il Campo', and I was surprised by how many Dutch people there were, too.
And, of course, realising that so many people could watch our final live on TV, and that my friends and family at home could see me winning, gave me an incredible feeling. It’s very new to have the finishes of some of our Women’s WorldTour races live on TV or streamed online, and I hope that, in future, this happens more often.
It was also special to see our Mitchelton-Scott soigneur, Nadia, who has been working with our team for years, standing at the finish with so much excitement on her face. We have a new director, Alejandro Gonzalez, and this was his first race with Mitchelton-Scott – so what a great way to start!
It was priceless to see my teammates after the race; all of their super-dusty faces, but seeing that they were so excited when they heard that I had won, especially after their tireless help during the entire race. They were hesitant to give me a big hug because I'd got all cleaned up for the podium presentation.
I’m so proud to share this win with the whole team.
The Ardennes Classics
I'm now travelling back to Tenerife for another block of training to prepare for the next big goal at the Ardennes Classics in April. I will join my Mitchelton-Scott teammates at Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders, but my main focus will be later on at the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
I think that Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège will probably suit me the best, but Amstel Gold is in the Netherlands, and so it's my 'home' race. Winning there would be extra special. It starts in Maastricht, a city where cycling is growing in popularity, but because of the Amstel Gold Race, it's easy to see how popular men's and women's cycling has become in the whole of the Netherlands. Every year, I see more and more women coming to watch our race and to join in the Amstel Gold experience the day before.
I hope to see you at one of my next races!
Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) astounded the cycling world during the 2018 season, winning a second consecutive world title in the individual time trial and securing top honours in the overall standings of both the Women's WorldTour and the UCI World Ranking – making her the number one rider in the world. You can visit her website here.