A year ago, when Annemiek van Vleuten attacked on the Muur van Geraardsbergen to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad there was a sense of déjà vu.
Though we’d seen her take plenty of breakaway wins before, the 17km she raced solo to win in Ninove was paltry compared to the 100km solo move which brought her the rainbow jersey in Yorkshire five months earlier. But that Belgian performance was the beginning of a remarkable run of form.
Days later the world went into lockdown as Covid-19 tore through our communities, and racing went into hibernation, but somewhere in the Netherlands Van Vleuten wisely bided her time. In July as we emerged blinking into the scorching summer sun she won three hilly Spanish races on the bounce.
Then, at Strade Bianche she bridged a huge gap to Alé-BTC Ljubljana’s Mavi García, making contact six kilometres from the finish, dropping the Spanish champion on the painful incline into Siena, becoming the only rider of either gender to win successive editions of the Italian classic.
After winning the European championships in Plouay, she again ruled the Tuscan gravel, winning stage two of the Giro Rosa with an advantage so large she might have added a third consecutive maglia rosa had she not broken her wrist on stage seven.
Despite that injury, eight days later she finished second in the World Championship road race.
“Me and my coach ask this every year, it cannot be better than last year, but last year  was my best ever,” Van Vleuten told Cycling Weekly over the phone from her pre-season training camp at Mount Teide in Tenerife.
But the European champion is not one to rest on her laurels, and despite her stunning 2020 and years of consistent success at Mitchelton-Scott, when she defends her Omloop Het Nieuwsblad title in Belgium this Saturday she will do so in the colours of Movistar.
“Leaving Mitchelton made me sad because I really loved my Australian family, but it’s not only about riding my bike, I have to challenge myself off the bike,” she said. “I could have stayed there because I had a lovely time, but after five years it’s sometimes good to go out of your comfort zone.
“And for the girls in Mitchelton-Scott I think it was good because I made space for them. Grace Brown showed she’s ready to go into a leader role and I think for Amanda Spratt it’s also amazing that she took my place as a leader. They are amazing girls and of course I wish them all the best.”
A quick glance at the Dutchwoman’s Instagram shows her induction into the Spanish squad is complete. Not only has she trained with the rest of the women’s team, but also with the men and their Classics, Giro and Tour squads.
“Sometimes social media doesn’t tell the truth and makes life more nice than it is in reality, but it was amazing, and it gives me a lot of energy to start the season,” she enthuses. “I expected a really good relaxed atmosphere but it exceeded my expectations.”
Changing teams in an Olympic year is always a risk, with new equipment and support structures sometimes upsetting a rider’s equilibrium, it has even been known for riders to insist on using some of their previous team’s equipment. However, despite realistic ambitions for medals both on the road and against the clock, changing everything “apart from my Garmin” was not an issue for Van Vleuten.
“In an Olympic year usually you don’t want to do that, but the Canyon bike is amazing, I have tested my time trial bike and I’m faster than I was before, and with the Aeroad you can have an aero bike that’s light.
“But in the end it’s quite one dimensional if you only have the target to be faster on your bike, for me that’s too small, I like to get my energy not only from good training or having a good race but because I have good relationships with the girls or I inspire them or we can laugh together, train together and suffer together, for me that’s an important factor.”
With such a stellar palmarès, Van Vleuten could have gone to any team, and after all, before this season Movistar’s women’s squad have hardly lit up the WorldTour, but there were many factors in her decision.
“I wanted to go to a team with a men’s team, people say that then I can train with the boys, but that’s not a reason to chose a team. You can take advantage of the structure, which is bigger than on women’s teams, for example they don’t have a full time performance manager who is working to make you faster,” she explains.
“Then I also spoke with Trek and said ‘why do you want to speak to me, you already have four leaders?’ I feel responsible that we keep women’s cycling interesting, and one way to do that is not get all the good girls in one team. What is interesting is if there are more teams that have a leader and that the quality is a little bit spread out.
“And I feel more home in the south of Europe, in my opinion they are less controlled and more balanced also in cycling. In Movistar they stop every training for tostada and coffee, there is no training without a stop!
“In Dutch [teams] they don’t stop too long, it’s ‘hup hup hup! go go go, we leave sharp at ten!’ but in Spain we leave, but not sharp!” she laughs.
This laid back attitude runs counter to the focussed, hard training, hard riding, all-conquering image we sometimes get of Van Vleuten, but she is funny and engaging.
“I’m not a machine, I like to enjoy my life also and sometimes I compromise that a bit with my training, but it the end I am a happy person and that’s why I love to be here. I learned at Mitchelton-Scott to work hard but it is super important to keep on enjoying it.”
Movistar are the only WorldTeam that have not won a WorldTour race and it would be easy, though lazy to say they are pinning all their hopes on Van Vleuten. She certainly has the best palmarès in the team, but believes other women are ready to step up.
She names Sheyla Gutiérrez and Jelena Erić as women likely to takes wins, and Sara Martinas a huge talent, but reserves her highest praise for Emma Norsgaard and Norwegian climber Katrine Aalerud, describing the latter as her sister.
So what does she hope for in 2021?
“I am not saying that at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad I will be very good but I believe in the process and in the plan we made. But the objectives are not the races, the objective is to be in a really good level.
“There is still room for improvement, and I am 100% convinced that Movistar will make me faster and the bike will make me faster.
“I hope that we also have the results in the races but at least we had a good time preparing.”