The vision of Annemiek van Vleuten's crash while leading the Rio Olympic Games road race in August is not easy viewing. The 34-year-old Dutchwoman was on her way to the gold medal when disaster struck and she crashed out of the race, suffering a concussion and three fractures to her spine.
Less than a month later and van Vleuten was back winning races, taking the prologue, a stage, the mountain classification and overall at the Lotto Belgium Tour. The Orica-AIS rider finished her road season at the Doha Worlds in October with a 'miracle' fifth place in the time trial.
She then packed her bags and headed to the southern hemisphere for a holiday in New Zealand and the Crocodile Trophy mountain bike stage race in North Queensland to kick off a summer of racing in Australia.
"For me it was a nice way to see some of Australia and have a bit of an off-season while still staying fit, enjoying myself and meeting a great group of people. I loved it," van Vleuten told Cyclingnews of her experience at the race dubbed the 'hardest' mountain bike race on the planet.
Van Vlueten won several stages at the race but having gotten lost and ridden and extra 40km, she finished the race in second place overall. Regardless of the extra kilometres and long demanding days, it is a race she is planning on returning to.
"Normally, I wouldn't go for a second time but this was such a good experience, one of the best things I've done so far" she said. "The organisation have invited to me to come back and I liked it so much to ride there."
The Crocodile Trophy will be the only mountain bike race of the Australian summer for van Vleuten who is making the most of the sunshine and favourable weather compared to the wintery conditions in her native Netherlands.
"I have to get back to training which is way more easier to do here than to do it back home where it is cold and dark and raining and snowing sometimes," she said of her summer plans.
"I'll also do some races in Australia like the Tour Down Under and Cadel's race but also some small races like Tour of Bright and some crits in Tasmania. It's a nice way to see some of Australia."
Van Vleuten's role for the Australian races will be a super domestique, helping her teammates out on home soil and preparing for her biggest classics campaign to date.
"My Australian teammates will be in great shape because they have the nationals coming up in early January so I said I would love to support my teammates in the bay crits and Tour Down Under. I think it is nicer if an Australian girl can win it, it is also nice when I can support them. My real season goal are the classics in Europe so I will ride the races here with less ambition and as a domestique and when Nieuwsblad starts in Europe, then I will be in a good shape."
Excited about the new Ardennes triptych
In 2017, Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege have been added to the Women's WorldTour to complete the Ardennes triptych. A move that excites the 2011 Tour of Flanders winner.
"When I look to the Classics calendar now I get really excited and Liege is really nice but for me, as a Dutch rider, it is really special that we now have the Amstel Gold Race," she said.
"The short punchy climbs are really something that suits me so I am really looking forward to that race in my home country as a really big WorldTour race and I think it is a big achievement."
Although van Vleuten is looking to the future and new possibilities on the horizon, the Olympic Games remains a strong memory. But it is a memory that she has come to terms with and will drawn upon for the future knowing she is capable of being the best in the world on the biggest stage of all.
"I look back a little to the Olympic road race and I am proud what I achieved there and it inspired me to believe a little bit more in myself and what I am capable of, particularly uphill," she said of the race won by teammate Anna van der Breggen.
"That part I take into the next season but I am not thinking about 'what if?' I try to avoid it for sure. When I was lost in the outback for the Crocodile Trophy, sometimes my thoughts went back to what happened in Rio and it was also a really hard year for me with some high achievements, but also some lows and I have to deal with it. The main thing is that I am proud of what I achieved and that I was in top shape at the right moment and that is what I will remember and focus on."
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