On the eighth day, she raced. The reigning champion always stokes interest before a World Championships, but few have dominated the build-up quite like Annemiek van Vleuten ahead of Saturday’s women’s road race in Imola. Would she, or wouldn’t she?
When Van Vleuten fractured her left wrist in a crash on stage 7 of the Giro Rosa in Maddaloni just over a week ago, it looked as though she had just lost the two most prestigious jerseys in women’s cycling in one fell swoop: the pink jersey on her back and the rainbow jersey she would be defending in Imola.
Last weekend, when the Dutchwoman refused to rule out riding the Worlds, it seemed a gesture of defiance rather than a statement of genuine intent. As the week progressed and she tested the brace on her wrist, however, it became increasingly apparent that Van Vleuten was not prepared to loosen her hold on the title.
Van Vleuten was formally cleared to race by the Dutch federation’s doctors on Friday afternoon, and as she made her through the mixed zone in the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari before the start on Saturday, she struck an upbeat note. “I would not have been here if I was not a contender. I am not here just to participate,” she said. “The course suits me better than last year.”
Twelve months ago, Van Vleuten annexed the world title in Yorkshire with a startling 100km solo effort. This time out, she had to settle for the silver medal after helping to tee up teammate Anna van der Breggen’s winning move on the Cima Gallisterna with a shade over 40km to race. Van Vleuten attempted to bridge across on the false flat over the top but eventually settled into a policing role among the chasers behind.
“When Anna went, I tried to jump across. You would be even more confident of winning the two of you in front, but I couldn't follow at that time. That shows just how strong she was riding in that moment,” said Van Vleuten.
The 37-year-old tracked Elisa Longo Borghini’s move over the final ascent of the Gallisterna and then beat the Italian in a two-up sprint, 1:20 behind Van der Breggen. Van Vleuten lost her world title, but she won her gamble.
“I think it’s a day to celebrate, being first and second. Anna was really the strongest today,” she said after taking a seat beside Van der Breggen in the post-race press conference. “Eight days ago, I thought my whole season was over after my crash in the Giro Rosa. I think I’m a lucky girl to be here.
"I’m very thankful to the doctors who helped me to be here. I was very proud to be here as a contender today. It was quite a rollercoaster of emotions.”
The Netherlands have won the women’s road race at the Worlds a record 13 times, with seven of those triumphs coming since 2006. The remarkable sequence was kickstarted by the singular talent of Marianne Vos, who won in Salzburg in her first year out of the junior ranks before clocking up a maddening sequence of five successive silver medals.
Vos finally began to amass the quantity of rainbow bands her quality deserved when she soloed to victory on home roads in Valkenburg in 2012, where a young Van der Breggen played a key supporting role. That win seemed to mark a watershed for Dutch women’s cycling. Vos took her third title in Florence a year later, while three more Dutch riders have won the last four titles: Chantal Blaak (2017), Van der Breggen (2018 and 2020) and Van Vleuten (2019).
“I get a lot of questions about our secret. In general, Dutch women are quite independent,” Van Vleuten said. “In the Netherlands, it’s quite normal for women to be top athletes as well as men. I think Dutch women win more Olympic medals than the men. It’s maybe also easier in the Netherlands to ride a bike because we have a good cycling infrastructure compared to other countries.”
On Saturday, the Netherlands filled three of the top four places after Vos won the sprint for 4th place, two minutes down on Van der Breggen. Along with Van Vleuten, Vos had helped to police the chasing group, where her finishing speed served as something of an insurance plan should the squad’s long-range offensive misfire.
The Dutch women’s team dominance at the Worlds at times echoes that of Deceuninck-QuickStep in the Flemish Classics, where a team of contenders compete for the right to win without being permitted to tread on one another’s toes.
“It’s a case of being honest. We know each other’s strength,” Vos told Cyclingnews afterwards. “Of course, it’s not easy: we all want to do well on such a course. But I think we know how to play it and when somebody is in the right place in the right moment, and in the best position, then that’s her place. One time it’s one rider and another time it’s someone else.”
The uncertainty over Van Vleuten’s participation, meanwhile, seemed to have little impact on the team's approach. The day ended, as if there were no alternative, with another Dutch rainbow jersey.
“We knew she was able to do a good race without too much distraction from her arm,” said Vos. “With her, the team is stronger, so we were happy to have her here.”
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