Can anyone challenge Van Vleuten at the Giro Rosa?

Ahead of the Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile, many expected a head-to-head fight for the win between the two strongest riders in the women’s peloton – defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) and 2017 winner Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans).

Van der Breggen had consciously opted out of a defence at the 2018 edition to focus on mountain biking and preparation for the Innsbruck World Championships, where she lined up as the big favourite and duly won the road race. A few days earlier, Van Vleuten had won the individual time trial world title for the second time in her career.

But like last year, Van Vleuten has so far been on a level of her own. After six of ten stages, the time gap to her nearest competitors is huge: Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), the previous race leader from the stage 1 team time trial, is on the same time as Van der Breggen at 4:17 minutes. To compare, the time gap from Niewiadoma and Van der Breggen to 13th-placed Demi Vollering (Parkhotel Valkenburg) is only 4:14 minutes.

“Annemiek was insanely strong,” Niewiadoma said after Tuesday’s stage 5 where she had to relinquish the maglia rosa to Van Vleuten. “When she was riding up the climb, I was thinking of us in the peloton as an apple and her as a grater. She just grated us into small pieces. She was extremely strong and definitely deserved that win.”

When Van Vleuten attacked on stage 5, Niewiadoma and Lucinda Brand (Team Sunweb) briefly tried to keep up but soon gave up. After the ITT, Brand now sits in fourth place overall, 5:17 minutes behind Van Vleuten.

Despite moving up in GC, Brand was’t happy with her time trial: “I can’t help but feel dissatisfied with this. The time differences are too big, and I am I can do better. The result isn’t bad, but I want to do more than that and that’s what I’m going to try to do over the next days.”

After losing another 52 seconds to Van Vleuten in Wednesday’s time trial, Van der Breggen seems to have resigned herself to the fact that unseating Van Vleuten will be near-impossible. Thursday’s stage 7 is very hilly, followed by stage 8 with two climbs in the middle and another mountaintop finish on Saturday – but making up more than five minutes on this course appears to be too much to ask even of the road race world champion.

“Annemiek was clearly the strongest yesterday, and I didn’t try to follow her,” she said. “Today’s time trial went well, resulting in a second place. I am looking forward to the coming days and the fight for the podium. That is not what we originally came for, but it is a good goal for the rest of the race.”

Boels Dolmans press officer George Deswijzen confirmed this: “Annemiek is superior at the moment. In this shape she seems unbeatable and we are focusing on reaching the podium with Anna. A lot can still happen but it’s going to be a hard final of this challenging Giro. We are pleased with the fitness and strength of the team, in particular with the support Katie [Hall] gives to Anna when the climbing starts.”

Van Vleuten herself, meanwhile, stayed focused on the task at hand.

“It’s not over until Sunday. But now I can go to sleep a bit more relaxed, knowing that I don’t need to sprint for bonus seconds, for example. I just wanted to put my best time trial out there. I didn’t feel yesterday’s attack in my legs, so I recovered well. I went all out, and it hurt to the max, otherwise you don’t gain enough time. But as the winner, maybe it hurts a little bit less after the finish.”

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Lukas Knöfler started working in cycling communications in 2013 and has seen the inside of the scene from many angles. Having worked as press officer for teams and races and written for several online and print publications, he has been Cyclingnews’ Women’s WorldTour correspondent since 2018.