IN­TER­VIEW: AN­NE­MIEK VAN VLEUTEN

Procycling - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view: Sam Dan­sie Pho­tog­ra­phy: Chris Auld*

The Giro Rosa win­ner and TT world cham­pion on her trans­for­ma­tion into a stage racer

An­ne­miek van Vleuten’s Giro Rosa win marked her com­plete trans­for­ma­tion from Clas­sics rider to stage rac­ing star, but, as Pro­cy­cling found out, the crash in the Worlds road race left the Mitchel­tonS­cott rider fu­ri­ous and hun­gry to re­turn to her best

An­ne­miek van Vleuten is di­rect. “What’s this in­ter­view for?” she asked us abruptly when Pro­cy­cling phoned her for a pre­ar­ranged in­ter­view. Con­text clearly be­ing im­por­tant to the 36-year-old Dutch­woman, we sketched out the ground to be cov­ered, which amounted a look back at her year – and to ask how re­cov­ery was go­ing. Re­ports said the knee in­jury she sus­tained in a crash in the Worlds road race had sen­tenced her to six months’ hard re­cov­ery. We were keen to hear how it was pro­gress­ing. “I’m fine to look back, but I can’t talk about 2019 be­cause I can­not look for­ward, and that an­noys me,” she shot back. “And I don’t want to talk too much about dis­ap­point­ments. It doesn’t make me very happy.”

Po­lite straight­for­ward­ness, a qual­ity pre-pro­grammed into the Dutch psy­che, is in abun­dance in Van Vleuten. One could imag­ine the Calvin­ist fore­fa­thers of the na­tion of pold­ers and dykes look­ing down and lik­ing the cut of the dou­ble time trial world cham­pion’s jib. For us, her di­rect­ness kept us on our toes.

In this case, there was no trou­ble break­ing the ice be­cause Van Vleuten has had a sparkling year. Her best yet. It rep­re­sents the body of work of a cy­clist who has mined ca­reer-best form care­fully and ef­fi­ciently. She de­fended three big race wins: the World time trial cham­pi­onship in Inns­bruck, La Course and the Boels Ladies Tour. For the se­cond straight year, she fin­ished as the UCI’s best-ranked rider. She took podi­ums at the Tour of Flan­ders (af­ter dis­lo­cat­ing her shoul­der mid-race) and LiègeBas­togne-Liège. But the ic­ing and the cherry on top was vic­tory in the most pres­ti­gious and hard­est stage race on the cal­en­dar, the Giro Rosa. The win was built on the back of three stage wins: a time trial, a solo break and a sum­mit fin­ish on top of the Zon­colan – a hat-trick that suc­cinctly ex­presses the range of her reper­toire in 2018. Quite a year, then.

“There have been a cou­ple of high­lights this year,” she said with ‘aw shucks’ mod­esty. “Win­ning the Giro Rosa has al­ways been a dream for me…” and then she stopped her­self and

re­mem­bered a time when the moun­tains and a race like the Giro lay be­yond her flat­lands realm. “Ac­tu­ally, no. It was never a goal be­cause I al­ways felt that I would not be able to win it.”

CHAL­LENGE AN­NE­MIEK

It’s clear Van Vleuten is the pro­cess­driven type, a char­ac­ter who en­joys the jour­ney as much as what lies at the end. So it’s un­sur­pris­ing that ‘chal­lenge’ is a key word in her lex­i­con. Chal­leng­ing her­self is al­most her rai­son d’être. It was the rea­son she ex­ited the com­fort­able and suc­cess­ful en­vi­rons of the all­con­quer­ing Rabobank squad of 2014 – to see what she could achieve. “I feel that if I have some ta­lent and I can develop it, I want to chal­lenge my­self. And as soon as I can’t chal­lenge my­self I get bored,” she said in her stac­cato de­liv­ery.

She’s sug­gestible too. It was her me­chanic who “chal­lenged” her at the be­gin­ning of 2018 to go to the Track World Cham­pi­onships and race the in­di­vid­ual pur­suit. She won sil­ver. But the ul­ti­mate chal­lenge, the one that pro­duced An­ne­miek van Vleuten the stage racer, came from her Mitchel­ton-Scott di­recteur sportif, Gene Bates. In 2016, it was he who planted the idea that she could be­come a world-class climber ca­pa­ble of con­test­ing the Giro Rosa. Bates threw down that gaunt­let in the af­ter­math of the hilly Rio Olympics road race, which ended with Van Vleuten ly­ing crum­pled and un­con­scious on the Vista Chi­nesa de­scent, af­ter crash­ing out of a medal-win­ning po­si­tion. But they saw enough in that race and the build-up to con­vince them that un­leash­ing her in­ner climber was a re­al­is­tic pos­si­bil­ity.

“It took some half a year be­fore I em­braced this goal,” Van Vleuten said. Be­fore that, she re­ported she “felt like a Clas­sics rider. I still thought the Rio Olympics was just one lucky day and I couldn’t do it. But Gene chal­lenged me and set me a goal that was out­side of my com­fort zone. Two years later, I’m on the top step,” she said, breezily.

Of course a lot has hap­pened in those two years. Van Vleuten got faster in the moun­tains – a given – and still found mar­gins in her time tri­alling, but she also learned to curb her im­pul­sive streak. Spon­tane­ity had served her well as a Clas­sics spe­cial­ist, but it was a li­a­bil­ity in stage rac­ing. “It’s still chal­leng­ing for me to race with neg­a­tive goals. This Giro, be­fore we had to climb, I think I had to sur­vive five days of hec­tic bunch sprints in which you race with neg­a­tive goals: don’t lose time and don’t crash. I hate that.

“I’ve changed a lit­tle bit, be­cause I think this year the team around me was bet­ter or­gan­ised and more ex­pe­ri­enced at tar­get­ing a gen­eral clas­si­fi­ca­tion with a pro­tected leader. I felt like ev­ery­one was around me, rid­ing all day.That re­ally helped. It made me feel re­laxed.”

She sin­gled out Aus­tralian Amanda Spratt for praise. Spratt fin­ished third at the Giro, but gave “100 per cent” to Van Vleuten. “It was an amaz­ing step up for Amanda. If you re­alise that Am­s­tel Gold Race was her first time on the podium in a World­Tour race and then af­ter that, she con­tin­ued to win World­Tour races and ended the sea­son with a podium in the world cham­pi­onships, she had a dream sea­son. It gave the team a pos­i­tive spirit. We had the most vic­to­ries ever, I think, and not only me and Amanda, but Jolien d’Hoore, Sarah Roy...” she ex­plained. “Ev­ery­one de­vel­oped, maybe not with a vic­tory, but ev­ery­one de­vel­oped.”

Van Vleuten gives a sense that 2018 ex­isted in a sweet spot where ex­pe­ri­ence, con­struc­tive pres­sure and hunger over­lapped. She turned 36 at the end of 2018, her 12th sea­son as a pro­fes­sional. We re­marked on the strength of her hunger. The root may be found in that de­par­ture from Rabobank, four years ago. “Leav­ing Rabobank was some­thing I knew I had to do. That step away has been so, so im­por­tant to me – it’s like I started an­other ca­reer. The level I had this year makes me even more hun­gry.”

TRUE GRIT

Van Vleuten told us this while sit­ting at her desk writ­ing emails be­cause “that’s the only thing I can do”. The rea­son be­ing the in­nocu­ous-look­ing crash in the Worlds that frac­tured her tib­ial em­i­nence, a small bony promi­nence in­side the knee.

“It made me very, very, very an­gry to be in such good shape and be in­volved in such a stupid, stupid

crash and lose those dreams. What makes it even worse is I’m still here with the af­ter-party of the stupid crash,” she said, as riled now as when she first felt the pain shoot up her leg. “Peo­ple in front of me were crash­ing in the mid­dle of the road and I was on the right and I just could not avoid the crash. I was think­ing, ‘I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay,’ and then damn: I crash. I didn’t have a scar or any­thing. My left leg stayed in my pedal and some­thing re­ally un­lucky hap­pened.”

Ellen van Dijk, her Dutch team­mate, paced her back to the pelo­ton, but then Van Vleuten rode fu­ri­ously to the front. “I was re­ally ped­alling there with one leg. I was dev­as­tated. An­gry. I did not suf­fer rid­ing up that hill. I was on such a good level – even though it was with one leg.”

Van Vleuten rode the fi­nal 50km and claimed sev­enth –a re­mark­able feat of tenac­ity. “Giv­ing up is re­ally not in my char­ac­ter. You see that in La Course,” she said, mo­men­tar­ily turn­ing back to a race she won with pure grit. “Even if you think you can’t make it any­more, maybe it will be pos­si­ble to be world cham­pion.”

At the Worlds, as she stood just past the fin­ish, her leg seized up and she was wheeled off to hos­pi­tal. “The high­light of last week was

I was able to bend my knee,” she said, re­turn­ing to the present. Doc­tors fore­casted a six-month lay­off. “Yeah, that’s some­thing the doc­tors told me, but to be hon­est they don’t have a clue. It was just to give me a lit­tle bit of an idea that it will take a long time.”

On the eve of the Worlds road race, she couldn’t hide her ex­cite­ment at her hol­i­day plans. They in­volved scuba div­ing and hik­ing in the Philip­pines, and a gen­tle rein­tro­duc­tion to train­ing dur­ing a trip to Colom­bia at the in­vi­ta­tion of Este­ban Chaves. The plans have now been binned. One nag­ging worry is that she has lost an im­por­tant pe­riod of re­fresh­ing down­time. “Now I’m sit­ting on my chair in my house and I go five times a week, two times a day, for physio and re­hab. That’s not re­ally recharg­ing your bat­tery.”

There was a hint of de­fi­ance in her voice that sug­gested she’d ac­cepted the prog­no­sis as an­other chal­lenge. Heaven help the phys­ios at the Na­tional Sports Cen­tre in Papen­dal if they’re not as com­mit­ted to her rapid re­cov­ery as the Mitchel­ton team was to her trans­for­ma­tion into a stage racer.

As the in­ter­view closed, in spite of her open­ing re­marks, she of­fered a glimpse of some­thing else be­sides anger that is fu­elling her jour­ney back. Van Vleuten noted that her TT bike, painted in rain­bow colours, was close by. “I saw the Olympic course in Tokyo. I don’t need any more mo­ti­va­tion to come back.”

" I was re­ally ped­alling there with one leg. I was dev­as­tated. An­gry. I did not suf fer there rid­ing up that hill. I was on such a good level – even though it was with one leg"

La Course came down to the wire be­tween Van Vleuten and Van der BreggenThe Giro Rosa tro­phy gleams next to Van Vleuten as she stands on the podium

Van Vleuten can en­joy an­other year in the TT rain­bow stripes when her 2019 be­ginsAVV on her way to a third stage win and GC vic­tory at the Boels Ladies Tour this year

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