There was a time, around the mid-2000s, when Annemiek van Vleuten was living in cramped student accommodation, working a 32-hour week, and racing on a salary of just €100 a month. If it’s tough at the top, as the old adage goes, then it’s a hell of a lot tougher at the bottom.
Almost a decade later and the 35-year-old is striding confidently through the Hilton Hotel in downtown Adelaide, greeting fans and mingling with the cycling public who affectionately call out, ‘Annemiek’ before instinctively positioning themselves for selfies.
That previous world, when Van Vleuten was just starting out on the Vrienden van het Platteland team, must seem like a galaxy away. Now, the world time trial champion is at the pinnacle of the sport but, as she tells Cyclingnews’ Daniel Benson, she’s far from finished and just as determined as ever to build on her ever-improving legacy.
This year, Van Vleuten will embark on perhaps her most challenging season yet as she aims to dovetail her love of road racing and time trialling with ambitions of success on the track at the World Championships. Given the increasing specialisation and competitiveness that has developed in women’s cycling, it will be no easy venture but the Mitchelton-Scott leader is anything but fazed.
"I only want to take on a challenge if it’s really serious," she says with a smile that belies her undoubted hunger.
So, this year Van Vleuten will use the early-season races in Australia – she is currently racing the Herald Sun Tour – as building blocks before switching to individual pursuit preparations in February. Her track plans mean that she will miss the majority of the Classics – barring the Tour of Flanders – before returning for a serious tilt at the Giro Rosa and then a three-pronged attack at the UCI Road World Championships in the autumn, in which she will race the team time trial, the individual time trial and then the road race. She is nothing if not eager.
"The idea for the track actually started three years ago when the mechanic at Mitchelton-Scott tried to convince me that I should target it," she says, before stating that her goals for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are likely to be based on the road.
"The mechanic, he worked with some of the girls on the track and I was a good prologue rider but I found that it was hard if you had no track experience. It’s not super-technical but there’s a lot involved. I like challenges and maybe this gives me a different approach to the start of the season."
Indeed, Van Vleuten was once recognized as a fine prologue rider and was a regular fixture at the podium celebrations on the opening days of stage races. Then something changed but, unlike a switch being turned on, it was a slow gradual process of improvement that started around 2015, when she began preparing for the following season's Olympics. Her subsequent crash in the road race has been well documented but it was the months of preparation in the build-up to Rio that really saw her change.
"I saw the course for the Olympics and realised I had to become a better climber if I was to really try and target the race," she says. "I did a lot more altitude camps and really worked on my climbing, and that really was a turning point in my career."
It wasn’t just her climbing that was given a thorough examination. Although she was proficient and successful against the clock, she wasn’t quite world class over longer courses. A move to the Australian team in 2016 provided her with the necessary equipment and the platform to train properly. It may sound clichéd, but sometimes a change of kit and a new environment can work wonders for a rider.
"Another point is that I have a time trial bike at home now. That made a massive difference. Before, on other teams, I never had a TT bike at home, so I could never train on it. So now I can fly to altitude and bring my time trial bike. When I was on previous teams that wasn’t even allowed. People ask me how I became a stronger time triallist, well, being able to train twice a week on my time trial bike made a huge difference."
With her skillset complete, Van Vleuten has the air of someone who believes she is now ready for anything. She doesn't come across as arrogant – the opposite in fact – but whether it's track, Classics, stage races, time trials, or the cyclo-cross she dabbles in, anything seems possible.
"After I come back from the track, the Ardennes are a big goal for me but if you ask me what my two main goals are for this year, it’s the Giro and the Worlds. I’m really pumped for the Giro this year after messing up last year. I’m really looking forward to racing on the Zoncolan on the second last stage and there’s a really hard time trial. I’m going to love targeting it with my team. We’re all really motivated," she says.
"For the Worlds on the road I’m looking forward to targeting the road race and the time trial. That’s my main focus. The triple is possible but that’s not a main goal. The goal for me is to win a rainbow jersey."
The road Worlds, however, are a long way off on the horizon and Van Vleuten is still competing in Australia as part of the Herald Sun Tour.
She has based herself here for several months now, enjoying the warm weather, the relaxed nature of living, and the adventure of being away from her native home. In a sense, it was her move to Mitchelton-Scott in 2016 that created the freedom in which she could flourish.
"The team has really helped me develop. In the past, I was focused on training and numbers. This team feels more like a home and I enjoy it more," she says. "I’ve learned to enjoy more about my life in cycling. So, while I’ve been here in Australia for three months and had a lot of fun, if you check my training files I’ve done a crazy amount of work here too."
It’s not just the team’s nationality Van Vleuten has a fondness for.
“I love it here, I love Australia,” she beams. “I started my holiday in November. When I got to Melbourne I parked my bike for three weeks and I traveled around with my best friend, who I’ve known since I was three years old. We had great fun. We went hiking, saw the Great Barrier Reef, and did camping with spiders and snakes around us. I was totally out of my comfort zone but I loved it.”
Whether it’s on the track, the road, or the mud and sand of ‘cross, it’s difficult to imagine Van Vleuten ever out of her comfort zone when it comes to cycling. So much has happened to her since she left that tiny student room in 2008 but, given her appetite for a challenge, few would bet against her rainbow dreams becoming a reality once more. Whether it's on the track, the road, or both.