'It was the first time I dropped everyone uphill' - Annemiek van Vleuten on the ride that changed her

Despite a horror crash, the Dutchwoman looks back on the road race at the 2016 Olympics as a turning point in her career

Annemiek van Vleuten riding clear in the road race at the 2016 Rio Olympics
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This article is part of Cycling Weekly's new 'the ride that changed me' series. Our writers hear from a range of professional and ex-professional cyclists about that one day on the bike that changed the trajectory of their career for good.

In Annemiek van Vleuten’s living room, there is a photo of her in the road race at the 2016 Rio Olympics. It is not a celebratory photo. She does not have her arms in the air, or a medal around her neck on the podium. 

No, Van Vleuten did not even finish the race. She crashed inside 11km to go and ended up in hospital, having suffered a concussion and two broken bones in her spine. 

It is a wonder, then, as she sits opposite Cycling Weekly on a sofa at Rouleur Live, why she holds such fond memories of that day. 

“That was the first time in my career that I was able to drop everyone uphill,” she smiles. “The main thing I learned from that Olympics is that, if I focus on something with a big goal, I can do more than I thought I was able to.” 

August 7th, 2016 marked a turning point for Van Vleuten. She began the race as a domestique, riding in service of her Dutch compatriot Anna van der Breggen, the eventual gold medal winner

“We were on the final climb, and I felt like we weren’t going fast on the climb,” Van Vleuten says. “Anna was supposed to attack on that climb, but when I asked her, ‘Hey, you want to attack?’ She said she couldn’t, so I went. 

“I was like, ‘Ok, if you cannot attack then it’s my turn.’ I felt fresh, so I gave it a go. And then I dropped everyone.

“I surprised myself there because I was 100% a domestique and Anna was our leader. I was never able to drop Anna uphill.” 

Annemiek van Vleuten at the 2016 Rio Olympics

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Then 33 years old, Van Vleuten led solo on the twisty descent of the Vista Chinesa, towards the line in Rio de Janeiro. She misjudged a corner, her wheels locked, and she jolted headfirst over the handlebars, crashing down onto a tall, stone kerb. 

The next day, the Dutchwoman posted an update on Twitter. “I am now in the hospital with some injuries and fractures, but will be fine. Most of all super disappointed after best race of my career,” she wrote. 

Looking back on it today, she says the race - and the crash - “gave me more than a medal”. 

“It’s the mentality that has helped me a lot in my career. I always try to look at what I still can and the positives,” she says. “Some people think that I act, but it’s really in my DNA to be a positive person and not get negative about things I cannot change. Accept and move on, that is my mantra.” 

Five years and three world titles later, Van Vleuten’s time in the Olympic spotlight would come in Tokyo, in 2021, where she won silver in the road race, and gold in the individual time trial

To match her new status as Olympic champion, Fizik, her shoe sponsor, sent her a pair of golden shoes. She then updated them with red, yellow, pink and rainbow motifs, as she won all three Grand Tours and the World Championships road race the following year.

Annemiek van Vleuten's Fizik shoes

(Image credit: Getty Images)

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