After another staggering performance from the world champion on Saturday Tom Owen asks: Can anyone stop Annemiek van Vleuten?
Arrival / Annemiek Van Vleuten of The Netherlands and Team Mitchelton Scott World Champion Jersey / Celebration / Dust / during the Eroica - 6th Strade Bianche 2020, Women Elite a 136km race from Siena to Siena - Piazza del Campo / #StradeBianche / on Au
Her lead over the peloton at one point today stood at three-and-a-half minutes and it truly looked as though she was on course for a career-defining victory in what is, probably, the biggest one-day race on the women’s WorldTour calendar.
And then Annemiek van Vleuten did what Annemiek van Vleuten does.
The Dutchwoman, who had been conspicuous by her absence for all but the final hour of racing, simply broke free of the peloton, overhauling the chasing group who had been on Garcia’s heels for most of the race, and in the course of a few kilometres closed the enormous gap that the Spaniard had spent all day building.
The two entered Siena together, sparing Garcia the heartbreak of being caught and overhauled right on the line, as Van Vleuten did to Anna van der Breggen in the 2018 edition of La Course. Whether that is any consolation to Garcia we’ll never know. However, when the time came, Van Vleuten skipped away up the paved streets to the Piazza del Campo, becoming the first woman to ever win the race twice, and the first cyclist, male or female, to win Strade Bianche in consecutive years.
With a performance as dominant as today, the rest of the Women’s WorldTour must be wondering, can anyone beat AVV?
'This rider can do no wrong' - Van Vleuten seals Strade Bianche win
A quick look at the world champion’s palmarés would suggest not. She has won every race she has started this year, pre- and post-pandemic – and while only Gent-Wevelgem is of an equivalent stature to Strade Bianche, she won that in similarly emphatic fashion.
Of the races she is planning to compete at for the rest of the year, it is unlikely van Vleuten will trouble herself too much over the next one.
The 2020 edition of La Course (29 August) is, once again, a tokenistic affair, following the same city centre criterium format to which ASO have clung so doggedly over the last few years. If there’s one thing Van Vleuten cannot do it’s full-gas sprinting, so while she is expected to start, don’t expect to see her anywhere near the pointy end of that particular race.
Van Vleuten didn't come to Strade Bianche expecting to win
And then, beyond that perfunctory whizz around Nice, it’s hard to see another race on the Dutchwoman’s programme that she might not win. She has won two of the last three Boels Ladies Tours (the 2020 edition is on 1 September), and is on the hunt for her third Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile on the bounce when it kicks off on 11 September.
In October, she should race Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where she is the defending champion, before taking on Amstel Gold, a rare gap in her glittering palmarés.
How do you solve a problem like Annemiek?
Van Vleuten is, in short, an all-conquering cannibal in the mould of Marianne Vos or Eddy Merckx and this level of dominance must have rival team directors pulling their hair out, a tactical conundrum that seems all-but-unsolvable. The fact that Van Vleuten is capable of magicking victories out of nowhere, without the help of a phalanx of teammates, never having to rely on a rival to help join her in the chase, makes her almost unplayable. The old classic of making the favourite do all the work won’t fly if you can’t ride fast enough to sit on her tail.
If there is one consolation for those beleaguered minds trying to outfox Van Vleuten, it is her advancing years.
Age is just a number, but Van Vleuten’s number is a little bit higher than most in the women’s peloton. She is more than twice as old as Giorgia Catarzi, who also started Strade Bianche today. By the time she takes the start at the first ever Women’s Paris-Roubaix on 25 October she will be 38.
While it may seem defeatist, perhaps the best thing for those teams that don’t have Annemiek van Vleuten to do would be wait out the storm? Wind down the clock and start planning for a world post-van Vleuten. In the meantime, there’s always e-racing…