Annemiek van Vleuten didn't begin her journey into cycling aspiring to win the Tour de France. Growing up in Vleuten, Netherlands, in the 1980s and 90s, her first memories were of the men's race on grainy television footage showcasing riders competing in the jerseys of her home team, Buckler-Colnago-Decca turned Rabobank. She was hooked.
"The first Tour de France I watched was when I was eight, and my parents didn't have anything to do with cycling. It got me, especially when a Rabobank rider was in front. Rabobank was a Dutch team with Dutch riders, and when my family went outside to the beach, I stayed inside watching those stages.
"I only watched the Tour de France; I never considered myself being a cyclist. Cycling felt far away from anything I could be a part of, but I have special memories of the Rabobank riders, and that was my first memory of the Tour de France."
Van Vleuten spoke these words at an international press conference, with pride and triumph in her voice, while wearing the yellow jersey she earned after winning the overall title at the 2022 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, 32 years after watching Rabobank race the men's Tour on television.
She had gone into the eight-day race as the favourite, but she faced the disappointment and uncertainty that went along with an unexpected stomach bug that hit her body on the first stage in Paris. She pushed through the physical symptoms and kept herself within reach of the overall race lead. She waited for the worst of the illness to subside. And when it did, she launched a rampage across back-to-back mountain stages where she soloed to wins atop Le Markstein and La Super Planche des Belles Filles to secure the coveted victory.
"The victory in yellow on La Planche was the best way to finish it off. It was special. All the spectators cheering my name on the way up and down," she said.
Winning the Tour de France Femmes was one of her crowning achievements during a season that has seen her reach several milestones.
It started with a two-up sprint against Demi Vollering to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and then a solo win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. She secured a third overall title at the Giro d'Italia Donne and won the Tour de France Femmes in July and then won a second overall title at the Challenge by la Vuelta in September.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the year at the Road World Championships, Van Vleuten returned from a crash in the mixed team relay, where she broke her elbow, to stun the elite women's road race and win the rainbow jersey - the second road race world title of her career after an audacious 104km solo attack led to her victory in Harrogate in 2019.
One reaches milestones with small, consistent achievements that, when added over time, equal something big. Van Vleuten revealed a glimpse of things she and her coach, Louis Delahaije, discuss at the end of every season, a review of the small steps taken, and power data, which reflect the bigger outcome.
This year marked Van Vleuten's 16th year of racing since turning professional in 2008. She's become one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, winning World and Olympic titles, and rising to the top of the sport somewhat later in her career with success in one-day classics, time trials and in the high mountains.
She celebrated her 40th birthday in October, another milestone, at the Tour de Romandie, where she debuted in her new rainbow jersey with Movistar. It was her last race of the year.
Van Vleuten is also approaching the end of her career, set to retire in 2023, yet she is still surpassing all her training and racing targets, and hitting milestone after milestone.
"Every year, I sit down with my coach, and we have a dinner to evaluate the last year and make a plan for the new year. Every year, he says, 'It cannot be better than this year.' But it was by far my best year ever," Van Vleuten said.
"All the goals I set, apart from performing well in the individual time trial at the World Championships, all the goals I had this season came true. It's unbelievable.
"Results-wise but also performance-wise, I still improved because I had my best 5, 10 and 20-minute power outputs this year. I turned 40, but I'm still improving with the numbers. It means my level still goes up, which is necessary because the [women's peloton] around me gets better and better. The quality of the field is higher, and it's harder to win, so still having quite a season is amazing."
What is Van Vleuten's secret to staying both motivated and successful in pro cycling?
She revealed that she found a mentor in cycling during the early stages of her career in Marianne Vos. They raced on the same team beginning in 2009 through 2014 at DSB Bank-Nederland Bloeit, which later became the Rabobank women's programme. It was launched under the same title sponsor of the men's team that she watched racing at the Tour de France all those years ago on television, and it became her team.
Van Veuten and Vos also reconnect as teammates during major championship events for the Dutch National Team.
"I learned from Marianne that fun is the foundation for a good performance," Van Vleuten said.
"Especially at the beginning of our careers, we were sprinting for signs and had a lot of fun on the bike, we made a lot of errors and worked hard, but fun was always the basis. In that way, she was my role model, and I was happy that I rode with her as a teammate during the first years of my career."
Outside of cycling, Van Vleuten gains inspiration from professional tennis players like Rafael Nadal. "What I like from them is that they show fair play. They are great leaders and role models on and outside the court. In general, sports people that are not only great inside the sport, but also great outside the sport are inspiring for me."
In her final year, Van Vleuten plans to do it all - again - one last time, with her main priorities focused on winning the Giro d'Italia Donne and the Tour de France Femmes, all while wearing the rainbow jersey. It doesn't get much better than that in professional cycling.
Van Vleuten is adamant that she will fulfill her retirement plans at the end of next season, despite rumours that she might reconsider.
"To become World Champion and to wear the rainbow jersey is a confirmation, for me, that stopping next year - after wearing the rainbow jersey for the whole season - is the best way to stop. I don't have any doubts. I will enjoy it until the end of next year," she said.
'I'll need to find a new passion'
Serena Williams revealed her retirement plan in a farewell to tennis essay published in the leading fashion magazine, Vogue. Rather than use the word retirement, she described her experience as an evolution.
Van Vleuten agreed with Williams' approach to ending her pro athletic career and said that she often toys with the idea of staying involved in sports while no longer competing. Although she is still determining her next role, she envisions working with athletes.
"I would like to work with young riders, and it's not that if I stop riding my bike, I can't coach as an active cyclist. I can continue to be in that role without riding my bike or competing, so in that way, it's more of a continuation, just in a different role," Van Vleuten said.
Still, she is under no illusions about how difficult hanging up her wheels might be, and the change from an athlete's lifestyle of goal-setting, routine and discipline will be new.
"I have so much passion for developing myself physically with a plan to be in my best possible shape in the right moment and also to prepare myself mentally and physically with my coach and my team to set some goals. When I stop cycling, finding a new passion will be an interesting challenge.
"I'm realising I will not find that same passion, but I'll need to find a new one. I'm confident that I will find something. It will be challenging. I like going out of my comfort zone, and stopping cycling is also out of my comfort zone. It will also give me new opportunities, and in the beginning, it will be a bit scary, but it will also give me a lot in return."
Van Vleuten's new endeavours could find her back at Movistar or a similar programme. However, nothing is set in stone, yet, she said she could see herself coaching or even moving into sports psychology.
"Something that gives me energy is that at Movistar, I see a young group of women that are developing so quickly, and the staff around me are on this journey. To work with a young group of people and enthusiastic athletes is something I would like to do," she said.
"I'm sure I would not like to do it from the car, so I will not be a DS. I have to think about which role I can work with young athletes, how I can inspire and coach them, sport psychology or a team manager or a trainer, and where I can make a good impact."
Movistar team manager, Sebastián Unzué, has worked with Van Vleuten since she joined the team in 2021, and he acknowledged that her presence with the Spain-based outfit has helped it grow into one of the top teams on the Women's WorldTour in just two seasons.
While he understands that a rider like Van Vleuten is irreplaceable, the team has invested in developing riders for the future.
"It's going to be difficult for us to say goodbye to Annemiek. We've been working on the present and the future of our team. We are signing talented riders who could take the role of Annemiek in the future. It will be tough for us to lose the best rider in the world," he said.
"There will probably never be someone like Annemiek, but the team is ready to take on that challenge in 2024, be competitive, and stay at the top, even without Annemiek."
We've come so far
Van Vleuten said women's professional cycling is hardly recognizable from when she first began racing 16 years ago. The trajectory of the sport's progress has almost happened simultaneously with her own successful career - she's both watched and helped it to transform.
The introduction of a minimum salary for top-tier teams in 2020, the live television requirements for all top-tier women's races, and the rebirth of the Tour de France Femmes, all of which Van Vleuten helped to push for, have all facilitated growth and visibility to events, teams and riders.
Some areas of the sport still need to improve, but Van Vleuten said she has witnessed women's cycling take significant steps forward throughout her career.
"When I look back to my first year on a UCI team, I think we did everything in a small van. We did Tour du Limousin [while travelling] in a small van together, and the next race was a team time trial in Sweden, and we travelled for two days in that van. I got paid €100 a month," she said.
"When I look at where we are now, that is also why I was over the moon to have the Tour de France this year. It was such a massive milestone that it was organised for us, and [ASO] wanted to create that race for us."
She compared her experience of winning the Tour of Flanders in 2011 to winning the same event ten years later, as being almost night and day, especially now that the races are either televised or streamed live.
"To go from no TV coverage in 2011 to people now asking for small races to be covered. There was a one-second finish shot when I won my first Tour of Flanders because, by accident, a camera was already set up there for the finish of the guys' race later in the day. There was no television coverage in 2011," she said.
The first edition of the new version of the Tour de France Femmes, an event that was held at one point from 1984-89, was a resounding success in terms of racing, but also branding and marketability. The media, fan presence, and interest spoke volumes to the race's popularity internationally.
In total, there were nearly 20 million viewers in France across the eight days of racing, with an average per stage of 2.25 million on France 2 and France 3 delivering an audience share of 26.4%, according to official Tour de France Femmes figures. The finale alone, where Van Vleuten took victory atop La Super Blanche des Belles Filles, was watched by more than 5 million French viewers.
"When I see the huge steps we made and how many people followed me and knew my name after winning Tour de France, I'm super proud to have seen and to know where we came from, where we are now, and how quickly it has grown, and can still grow - how many more people can follow our racing - It's big."
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