On Sunday, Annemiek van Vleuten ended her spring as she started, with a win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège to go with her February victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, retaking the trophy she had won in 2019 with a solo attack from the Côte de Roche-aux-Faucons.
The Dutch woman has rarely been away from the podium this spring campaign, taking second places at Strade Bianche, the Tour of Flanders, and La Flèche Wallonne to go with her two victories.
Speaking after the finish of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Van Vleuten hailed her spring as her best ever, citing the growing level of the women's peloton as reasoning for making her victory all the sweeter.
"I know that it's my best spring ever," Van Vleuten said in the post-race press conference, citing her power data and her best-ever time on the Mur de Huy at Flèche.
"I notice that the level is growing, so I'm also better but there are more girls that are able to win. I think it's the development we want to have. OK, it's not so easy anymore to win, but it also makes every win more beautiful if you really need to fight for it.
"It's also one of the reasons why I decided to go on La Redoute, in combination with Roche-aux-Faucons because the strength in the women's peloton is now so high. In 2019 when I won, I went solo on La Redoute – I didn't expect that today because the level is too high now in women's cycling to go with one attack."
Van Vleuten's victory was indeed built off the back off two attacks, the first coming on the Côte de La Redoute with 29km to go in response to an acceleration from Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (SD Worx).
That move, which saw her cross the summit with SD Worx's breakaway rider Marlen Reusser, was shut down soon after, but her move on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons proved to be decisive, with nobody from the elite lead group able to respond.
Van Vleuten said later that she hadn't thought it would be possible to stay away on the run-in from the final climb to the finish in Liège due to the headwind that blew for much of the way. She did it and indeed extended her lead as she raced into the final kilometres.
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "This morning I knew that it was a big headwind after Roche-aux-Faucons, so if you then solo away with a block headwind in the last 12km, if they find each other then they will chase you down.
"I was actually only celebrating after crossing the finish line. My directeur sportif told me in the last kilometre that you can enjoy it and I looked around and tried to enjoy the moment but was still pushing on the pedals.
"I think even without winning I would have gone home as a happy person," she said, referring to the spring campaign which had seen her runner-up on three occasions in the past five races. "I know I had the confidence from Flèche that I'm in really good shape. I know that I've had my best spring campaign ever, so I still believed in myself and in my level, but also maybe people in the end got a bit spoilt that it was so easy to pull off the wins. It has become harder, and I think we should be happy with that."
Van Vleuten said that, even at the age of 39, her driving force is still the process of improving her racing, rather than the end goal of taking wins. Still, she has four to her name so far in 2022 and has been the top rider of the women's peloton through three months of the season.
"My driving force is not the wins," she said. "My driving force is still that I see small things I can improve, together with my team for example, but also for myself, for my training, for tactics, for knowledge of the courses, but also in my training and preparation. I still have that eagerness to improve."
After taking a few weeks off following the end of her spring campaign, Van Vleuten will next face up to a packed schedule through the summer months, taking on Itzulia Women and the Vuelta a Burgos in May before attempting the Giro Rosa and Tour de France Femmes double in July.
Before the challenge of the new Giro-Tour double, she'll head to Livigno – "my happy place" for a training camp after joining the Movistar men's team at a camp in Andorra.
"I like challenges and the Giro is, for me, a too beautiful race not to do, so I do them both," she said. "I'm not busy with who's the top favourite [for the Tour], I leave it up to the media.
"My goal is just to be in my best possible shape at the start of the Tour de France together with my team and optimally prepared. Like if you see after the race is finished how fresh I usually am – I'm usually not really destroyed.
"I think that's one of the strengths from all the training I do. My fitness level is maybe the highest in the peloton, which means I recover quite fast and that will help me also in the Tour de France."
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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