“That was f***king hard!” said Annemiek van Vleuten between gulps of water and recovery drink, while removing her helmet.
Sheltering from the brutal Italian sun in the shadow of Cesena’s Rocca Malatestiana castle, the world’s best stage racer was recovering from winning the fourth day of the Giro Donne. It was a victory which propelled her into the overall lead and towards her ambition of winning a third title in the 10 day Italian race.
It was a consummate victory, but perhaps not the kind of win we have grown used to seeing from the 39 year-old. She created the winning move on the second of three classified climbs, had increased the pressure on the descents, then attacked in her fellow escapees.
But, unusually, she did not come to the line alone, instead having to use her head to get the best out of her legs. in a move redolent of her win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the spring, she forced Mavi García (UAE Team ADQ) to the front, sweeping past her in the final bend then opening her sprint to put a second into her Spanish rival.
But it wasn’t the plan. At least it wasn’t when she saw the road book before the race. It was the route recce after arriving from the three opening stages in Sardinia which made her think she had to do something, if only just to defend.
“I saw the crazy descents,” she said in a post race TV interview. “We have Johan Cruyff in the Netherlands, the famous footballer, and he always says that attack is the best way to defend and that’s what I did today. I thought it’s more easy if I attack and then I can do the descents easy so the idea was more to stay safe and more out of trouble today, but then I saw I had a gap and I had to go for it.”
Podium done, race leader’s jersey received, and an endless warm down on the turbo later the Movistar rider was back for interviews.
“Also for me I like to attack and for me GC riding is boring if I have to wait all day so yeah, I had this opportunity and I took it.”
The stage result has devastated the GC. On Monday morning the gap from first to 100th place was just 1-51, now Elisa Longo Borghini is five minutes behind Van Vleuten in fourth place. And while García is only 25 seconds down in second, and Marta Cavalli (FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) is at 57 seconds, surely the GC is surely decided.
“I leave that to the journalists, for me it’s focus day by day. Everything can happen in a stage race”
And it has done. In 2017 she lost 1-59 in cross winds on the fourth stage of the 2017 race, eventually finishing third, 1-39 behind the maglia rosa. “[I will be] super attentive, for sure it’s a little bit more easy to defend and maybe less exciting for the GC.
“I was not expecting that to be honest, I expected to have quite a group of a favourites, I was not expecting to drop them on the first climb already.”
Van Vleuten has not had the best of years, at least not when compared to her normal dominance, and then there were some injuries which meant that when she started last week’s Giro time trial she had not raced since her dominant win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. However, she warned that despite Monday’s performance she’s not yet at her physical best.
“I just came back from altitude just before the prologue, I flew directly from Livigno, so I'm now not in my best shape. The altitude effect is top two weeks after you come back and it will sustain for four weeks, so I will make it to after the Tour de France.
“The most challenging element is to mentally recharge, because for me it's hard to recharge yourself for another stage race. But with a beautiful stage race as the Tour de France coming up it’s not hard to get pumped again.”
The Giro may well be gone, those with Tour de France Femmes ambitions should be afraid. Very afraid.
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