On Friday night, Annemiek van Vleuten was awarded the Sharon Law’s Rider of the Year at the Rouleur Classic. A worthy winner – we look back at the story of her incredible 2019.
The story of van Vleuten’s 2019 actually begins on the roads of Innsbruck, Austria at the end of the 2018 season. The recently crowned world time trial champion was on for a historic double but a crash 90km from the finish would quash her chances of success. A testament to both her mental and physical strength she went on to finish seventh despite breaking a bone in her knee during the incident.
But so it was her 2018 season ended in a wheelchair, surgery and a six-week layoff. Yet if there is one thing that defines van Vleuten’s career it is rising from adversity to triumph. 2019 would be no different; from a broken kneecap she rose to be the road World Champion.
After surgery, rest and rehabilitation, van Vleuten was back to work by November. Privately and quietly she then started to rebuild, laying the foundations for the following season. Among the peloton van Vleuten’s work ethic is well known and held in high regard, so whilst her mammoth January training block took social media by storm, her peers weren’t shocked – just nervous. She had joined the male Mitchelton-Scott squad for their two week camp in Spain and in a fortnight amassed a staggering 69 hours and 2057km of riding not to mention over 33,000m of climbing.
As the old adage goes – ‘winter miles, summer smiles’. Soon enough she would be beaming, arms aloft in Siena, Italy, having just won Strade Bianche and the opening round of the World Tour Series. On the white roads of Tuscany, she attacked on the final gravel sector opening a sizeable lead before soloing the remaining 12km alone. Her victory and the manner in which it was achieved would set a precedent for what was to follow.
The next goal for van Vleuten came in the form of the Ardennes Classics. After two extremely close second places in Fleche Wallonne and Amstel Gold she would leave nothing to chance in Liege- Bastogne-Liege. On a grim, cold, wet day, van Vleuten stung the peloton with a vicious attack at the bottom of Cote de la Redoute in what transpired to be the race winning move. Despite cresting the climb with 30km to go, she not only held off a select chasing group, but even managed to extend her lead, crossing the line with an emphatic winning margin of one minute and 39 seconds. In winning Liege she also regained control at the top of the World Tour rankings where she would go on to hold the purple leaders jersey for another 10 rounds.
After a successful spring, van Vleuten’s focus would turn to defending her Giro Rosa title in July. A week prior to the Italian grand tour, she showed her scintillating form was back and took the Dutch national TT championships for the 4th time in her career, beating time trial specialist, Ellen van Dijk, by over a minute and a half.
Her Giro Rosa campaign was also utterly dominant and no superlative can really do justice to the magnitude of strength she displayed in Italy. Van Vleuten seized the race lead on the first summit finish (stage five) at Laghi di Cancano where she attacked at the base of the 10km climb and yet again just rode away from her rivals. She left them in her wake and want on to win the stage by three minutes. Such was her strength that day that Elisa Longo Borghini even joked “I saw when Annemiek went, and everybody was like, ‘Okay, the alien is gone, and now the race for human beings begins,”. Van Vleuten then backed it up with a victory in the following day’s uphill individual time trial where her winning margin of 52 seconds demonstrated she was simply in a league of her own. By stage six she had a four minute lead on GC and her overall victory never looked in doubt over the remaining four days of racing.
Following her success in Italy, van Vleuten would begin preparations for her final goals of the year – the World Championship held in Yorkshire, England – where she would hope to replicate the 1995 feat of Jeannie Longo by doing the time trial and road ‘double’. Yet it wasn’t to be. The time trial ended up being dominated by young American Chloe Dygert-Owen and van Vleuten – who said she didn’t deliver her best performance – was left to settle for bronze.
The disappointment, however gave rise to a truly spectacular performance just four days later in the road race. She attacked on the 3.7km Lofthouse climb leaving the peloton in her wake and on cresting the summit she had opened her lead out to a minute and a half over a very select group of chasers. However, with 104km to go not many were predicting that she could continue to solo to victory from such a distance. But she did. As she did in Strade, as she did in Liege and as she did in the Giro, she powered on alone extending her lead. There were numerous attempts from the peloton to reel her in but no one could match the unrelenting strength of van Vleuten. And so she rode herself into the record books and became the road world champion.
Thus the story of 2019 ends with a victorious van Vleuten donning the coveted rainbow stripes after the most audacious and sensational ride ever witnessed in a World Championship. From a hospital gown to the rainbow jersey, it was a glorious year for the Dutchwomen. Yet I suspect it will just be a chapter in the ever lengthening success story of her career. And with Tokyo looming in 2020 she will hope it is indeed just the prelude to an even greater one.