INTERVIEW: ANNEMIEK VAN VLEUTEN
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.”
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.”
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