This article forms part of a week of women's focused stories, in celebration of our Women's Special edition of Cycling Weekly Magazine, one sale from Thursday, March 10. See the full schedule of upcoming articles here.
If you are into board games, then you may have played Ticket to Ride, the game where you build an empire across a continent using railway lines. If so then you have something in common with Annemiek van Vleuten, who is one of millions of players worldwide. But the difference between you and her is that in the past few years, the Dutchwoman has also been building a very real empire across Europe, not with little plastic trains or wooden blocks on a board but with win after relentless win.
The 39-year old has established herself as the rider to beat in almost every race she takes part in. But as she’ll later tell CW, she still considers herself a “normal girl” and isn’t adverse to a beer and a piece of cake between her rival-crushing victories.
2022 is set to be a history-making year. This season heralds the first edition of the Tour de France Femmes, an eight-day event organised by the most dominant promoters within the World Tour, ASO. It will be the first time a women's Tour has been held, in association with the men's race, since 1989.
This opportunity to compete for a yellow jersey comes in the same month as the Giro d’Italia Donne, a ten-day stage race which has been one of the biggest races in the women’s sport for decades. Only one rider can realistically win them both, and that rider is Van Vleuten. If she does, she'll be the first person to achieve the feat in a quarter of a century, the last such double victory went to Marco Pantani, in 1998.
“We have another beautiful goal coming up in the Tour de France, and then I maybe make it a bit more challenging, because if the Giro course is interesting, I will also add the Giro to my plan,” she says when CW mentions it, clearly not adverse to the idea of racking up another historic achievement.
In a message which will no doubt cause concern for her fellow contenders, the Dutchwoman adds: “Then you have two super nice races close to each other, and I like challenges. Challenges usually get the best out of myself.”
You only have to look at Van Vleuten's palmares to gather that. Both the road race and the time trial (twice) at the World Championships, the Giro Donne twice, the Tour of Flanders, Strade Bianche and La Course, also twice. Last year she bounced back from the ignominy of thinking she had won the Olympic road race, but in fact finishing second, to win the time trial days later. She has won 14 races in the past year, more than any other rider.
It is no wonder that some have talked about her as super human; following one of her trademark solo attacks at the Giro Donne in 2019, Elisa Longo Borghini jokingly referred to Van Vleuten as an “alien”. She insists, however, that she is a “normal girl”.
“I saw it as a compliment [the alien remark], I'm not offended by it. If you ask me in general, if people talk about me as not normal, then I'm not super happy. I think I'm still a normal girl that also likes to enjoy a coffee stop. It's really important to have balance in my life, and in my team I try to be a role model.
“I work hard, but I also really enjoy my cycling life. I'm not always 100% working hard. I say to my teammates on purpose that I accept that I'm not a perfect athlete. I'm doing my cycling life 95% good, and for that last 5% I go to bed too late sometimes, I drink a beer sometimes, eat cake and I'm not always eating healthy stuff or skipping training if it's raining. With 95% working hard you can still win a gold Olympic medal.”
While the Tour might be the race that everyone is focusing on, she thinks it might be a little overhyped, although it is still motivating her to perform well this year.
“I sometimes have a little bit of a problem when something gets really hyped, like the Olympics. Too many people talk about it and the media make it too big, maybe also with this Tour de France. It's super nice to have it and I'm super happy, but in the end we also have had years of the Giro d'Italia for women over ten days and I have had super epic battles there and no one was talking about it.”
Despite being such a consistent winning machine, it can’t be ignored that Van Vleuten will turn 40 this year, although she refuses to countenance stepping away from the sport yet. In fact, she's training harder than ever to fulfil her potential.
“People underestimate the fact that I'm a bit older, and that means the older I get the more extreme training triggers you have to look for. That means extending the duration and intensity, because my body doesn't get shocked with three or four hours of normal riding anymore,” she explains.
The pieces are all laid out for Van Vleuten to continue to dominate cycling in 2022, her rivals will need to upend the board to stop her casual advance
This story forms part of Cycling Weekly's Women's Special; to read the full interview, buy the special edition of the magazine, it's on sale from Thursday, March 10, in newsagents and supermarkets and online. If you want more content like this you can subscribe, save on the cover price and get it delivered every Thursday.
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