On Sunday evening, a blonde Dutchwoman, probably the best climber in the world, triumphed at the Tour de France Femmes after a commanding performance in the final two stages of the race.
However, this time around, in 2023 rather than 2022, it was Demi Vollering (SD Worx) and not Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) who pulled on the final maillot jaune and took to the top step of the podium in Pau, rather than the latter atop La Planche des Belles Filles.
Vollering won the biggest race of her career, while Van Vleuten finished fourth, almost four minutes behind her compatriot. It really feels like an era-changing moment, as the baton is passed from one Dutch climber to another. While now is the moment to celebrate Vollering, it is also time to celebrate her predecessor, the greatest female cyclist in the world for the past few years, possibly the greatest of all time.
This is not the end for Van Vleuten. Knowing the drive, skill and tenacity of the Dutchwoman, there is every chance that she will turn up at the World Championships next week and defend her crown in the road race - although she says she will be riding for her team, and that the course is not hard enough for her strengths this year.
Van Vleuten's performance last year, with a surprise attack from seemingly nowhere netting her second road title, with a broken elbow, sums up the rider she has been.
At the end of this year, the 40-year-old will leave the sport, no longer at the top of it, but very near to it. By anyone else's standards, her 2023 has been outstanding. Top-ten finishes at Strade Bianche, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège; victory overall at La Vuelta Femenina and the Giro d'Italia Donne, with three stage wins at the latter, and then fourth place at the Tour de France Femmes.
Van Vleuten is no other rider, though. Five victories from 38 race days is her lowest return in terms of victory percentage since 2016, when she took five from 45. In the six years in between she won the Giro three times, the World Championship road race twice, the time trial equivalent twice, the Vuelta thrice too, the Tour of Flanders, Liège twice, La Course twice, and the Olympic time trial title too.
Very few people have ever won everything within their power, but Van Vleuten is one of them. A complete rider, a GC rider who could dominate one-day races, the kind of athlete Tadej Pogačar is aiming to be. Between 2019 and 2022 there was a period where there was essentially not a women's race where Van Vleuten wasn't winning, or at least at the front of the race. No wonder Elisa Longo Borghini called her an alien.
All of this has happened while women's cycling has got better and better, new greats have emerged, and the whole structure of the sport has got stronger. Who else but Van Vleuten would not only win the first ever Tour de France Femmes, but do it weeks after winning the Giro Donne, to complete a double which was unthought of previously?
Her Dutch foes and peers Anna van der Breggen and Marianne Vos also have claim to GOAT status in women's cycling, but the former didn't have the same level of dominance, while the latter didn't have the breadth of wins. For me, Van Vleuten will rule.
“To be honest, I would love to have her for many years because I know that she would be competitive," her Movistar team boss Sebastián Unzué told Cycling Weekly at the Tour de France Femmes. "But I think a great champion like her, having the opportunity to leave the sport in the way she can leave it this year, is something really special.
“She knows that she wants to leave the sport when she’s still at the top of her game and fighting for everything. There’s no one who can replace Annemiek. That’s the reality.”
During Van Vleuten's period of outright rule, every time she went up the road in a trademark attack, there was only one ending. That period might be over, but her record should be remembered.
Women's cycling might become more open now, more equitable - as long as SD Worx does not win anything - but there will not be another rider like Van Vleuten. An all-time great is exiting stage left. Cheers Annemiek, and see you in Glasgow.
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