While Annemiek van Vleuten’s solo victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday might have seen the Dutch rider return to peerless form, the victories have not been so easy to come by this year.
The 39-year-old has three wins to her credit already this season, beginning with a stunning solo stage and GC win at Setmana Valenciana back in February, following that with first place at Omloop Het Niewsblad.
However, though she has other podium places since, things have not been so simple. At Strade Bianche she was unable to drop Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) on the steep Via Santa Caterina into the centre of Siena. Then, four weeks later, despite attacks on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg she was unable to go clear to win the Tour of Flanders, again losing out to Kopecky.
An all-out attack at Amstel Gold Race saw a group on her wheel up the Cauberg, and at last week’s Flèche Wallonne she was out-dragged by Marta Cavalli on the Mur de Huy. Despite clearly giving her all, at times this spring Van Vleuten has seemed below her best.
“Winning has become harder in women’s cycling,” she explained after Sunday’s brilliant win. “I think there are more contenders, I know that I’m better than ever in the spring, but it’s not that it always gives you the win.”
The results of the creation of WorldTour teams and the consequent introduction of a minimum wage and increased professionalism are certainly paying off in the women’s sport. For so long it has been dominated by a small number of remarkable athletes, and while they are still winning plenty, as Van Vleuten’s victory illustrates, others are challenging.
Of those perhaps Cavalli is perhaps the most obvious. While the Italian has truly thrown down the gauntlet with victories at both Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne, she was outstanding at last year’s Giro Donne.
The young DSM duo of Liane Lippert and Juliette Labous are improving year on year, and her move to Canyon-SRAM has seen Pauliena Rooijakkers emerge in hilly races. Add in SD Worx’s roster of climbing heavyweights and it’s clear there is the greater depth which makes predicting winners a far more tricky occupation.
Despite this on Sunday Van Vleuten put on a display redolent of her best ever performances.
Her first attack on La Redoute was predictable, she’s attacked there before including when she won in 2019, but this year she was unable to drop SD Worx’s Marlen Reusser, who sat on.
Her second effort, on the final classified climb of the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons was conclusive, and when she consolidated her lead on a steep drag and few kilometres later we saw the Van Vleuten we have become accustomed to seeing over the last five years. With such a palmarès, that she seemed to lack conviction is testament to the increased climbing depth in the peloton.
“To have the confidence today to go two times all out over Redoute and Roche-aux-Faucons, to have the confidence and then when it works out that’s the best," Van Vleuten said. "You need also some guts to go from the bottom and to have the confidence that I can drop them, but it’s not easy. It’s hard and then to still take the victory is amazing.
“Also I have more chances when I got two times all out, because the strength comes with age, and the more efforts I have the more chance I have to breakaway solo.
“I couldn’t believe until the finish line because it was a block headwind after Roche-aux-Faucons I knew already this morning at the start that it would be hard for a solo breakaway because if they start to work together I knew that they would catch me. It’s then one option, aero, time trial mode and give everything.”
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