Annemiek van Vleuten has made adversity something of a specialised subject, of late.
Ever since a horrifying crash in the Rio Olympic Road Race, when she was in the lead and looking good for Gold, she has proved to be one of the most resilient riders in the sport.
Serious injury in the 2018 World Championship Road Race could have ended her career. Instead, she redoubled her commitment, and attacked the 2019 edition of the race from an almost unfeasibly long way out. The resulting victory amounted to one of the greatest rides ever to claim the rainbow jersey; the first of her glittering career.
In her own words, she recalls to mind the hidden detail of her race, and what it meant to her and her family at the deepest emotional level.
I have to go back to the day.
It’s more a game. A game thing. ‘Let’s play the game.’ I was looking forward to that. I knew there was a super-hard hill there. That’s the thing I’m good at.
I’d seen the course already in August. I’d seen that there was a really interesting climb. But also, I noticed that there was still 104km to go. That was my moment. And that was also my opportunity. But I started to make a little bit of a plan to attack there. I shared this with my coach and he said, ‘Solo will be almost impossible.’ But we started to embrace the plan to attack so early in the race. And then we started to believe in this plan.
If you attack on a hill, everyone hurts. Everyone has pain. That was not a moment to think. Instead: ‘Commit. Go. Don’t look back.’ Now, when you attack, and you see that there are still 104km to go... that was a hard point. ‘Oh. I’ve started this. This is crazy.’
Immediately, it was silent around me. Usually you hear the little sounds of bikes and chains. There was no sound at all, except from the really crazy British people who were cheering for me.
Then on the way down, that was the moment to think, ‘I’m sacrificing my chances here.’
The thinking started. Then I was at the bottom of the descent, and there was a section of maybe 20 or 30km flat. It is an advantage to ride in a group and it’s not good to be alone. I had the feeling, ‘I’m sacrificing my good legs and ruining all my chances.’ So that was a mental battle for those 20, 30km. And the gap stayed for, I think, 40 or 50km at only 50 seconds.
I had the feeling that they were just playing with me. ‘They’re leaving me. They’re killing me, just to play a game. To keep it under a minute? They’re playing with me. I’m out in the open wind here, dying by myself.’
The moto rider gave me some good information. He was my only friend there. I asked him a couple of times whether they were working together, how many there were and which countries were represented. At first, I only had time gaps, and then later I got a little bit of information about how it was working behind me. Then I knew that Anna van der Breggen was there, so that was also helping me to sacrifice myself, because I knew it was good for the Dutch team, so I put pressure on her to continue. ‘She gets an easy ride there behind me, so if it comes back, it’s for her.’ It was ideal tactics.
In the second lap when I crossed the line I heard the speaker say that Chloé Dygert had attacked. My gap went down from 2 minutes 15, and suddenly it was only 1 minute 45. That made me super-nervous because I’d just started to believe in it a little bit – that it could, maybe, just be possible to win. But then she attacked. Immediately, my belief that it would be possible started to fade away. I knew she’s a crazy-strong girl, and she’d had an easier ride behind me. That made me nervous.
On every climb I went flat-out, to give her immediately the message, ‘Don’t play with me. This is my answer.’ I took all the risks on the descent on that second lap. And I gave everything I had on the climbs.
But as soon as the thought came up in my head that I could be world champion, I pushed it away. I focused on the job I had to do – taking the corners well. I just focused only on the ride and not on what could be waiting at the finish line, because I know it’s a dangerous thing.
I could only start to enjoy the moment with 3km to go. To be able to enjoy your win – that makes it even more special. I pointed out the earrings I got from my father. They have travelled a lot. They were a present that my father gave me for my 18th birthday. I was wearing those earrings in the Rio Olympic games. After Rio [in which van Vleuten suffered a potentially life-threatening crash while leading the road race] I had a conversation with my mother, and I said, ‘Those earrings from my father – they didn’t bring me any luck.’ But I could tell from the look on my mother’s face that she felt something completely different. My mother thought they’d already brought me a lot of luck. They are my lucky earrings. They might not have given me the gold medal, but I’m still alive.
Since then, I have worn them for every special event. So in the mornings, when I put on those earrings, it’s like my dad is with me a little bit today. I’m not a very emotional person, but it’s just for me a small thing, a nice thing to think of him. I don’t take it for granted that my mother is there, especially because my father is not here anymore.
I don’t think I said anything to my mother at the finish line. I just knew that if I didn’t celebrate with her in that moment it would be all gone.
This victory had nothing to do with Rio.
My team have ordered me a lot of new stuff. I have lots of nice, white, new rainbow jerseys. I just had a talk about my programme for next year. I’m really excited to wear the stripes. But also, every training ride, I can wear the stripes.
Today, I even trained in the rain.
The 2019 Road Book is published by The Road Book Ltd RRP £50. To purchase the book and receive a complimentary musette worth £7.50 with free post and packaging go to theroadbook.co.uk and enter the code tel-19.