Opinion: Annemiek Van Vleuten answers critics in style and puts down marker for the Tour de France Femmes
After an impressive win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege Katy Madgwick looks at the imperious Annemiek van Vleuten and the way the Dutch legend answered her critics. After struggling in the middle of the Classics season Van Vleuten wins the final one in style, thereby putting down a marker for the upcoming Tour de France Femmes.
Highlights: Dominant Van Vleuten wins 'vintage' Liege-Bastogne-Liege
The Dutch rider, who is 39 years old, launched one of her characteristic gritty attacks on the final climb of the day, the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, to distance her rivals and give her a huge boost of confidence as stage race season begins in earnest. With much of the pre-race focus on FDJ Nouvelle-Acquitaine-Futuroscope’s Marta Cavalli, who had the prospect of the Ardennes triple, it wasn’t simply the 89th victory of her career; rather, it was a statement of intent.
'Winning has become harder' - Van Vleuten hails strength of women's tour
The 2022 season has been a battleground in the women’s world tour, with more teams riding a greater variety of races, and a wealth of talent making life difficult for the Movistar rider who, in previous years, has found her way to victory simply by attacking on climbs and going solo – a tactic which has been extraordinarily successful for her, time and time again.
This season though, in one-day classics where she would have hoped to dominate in the past, Van Vleuten’s brute force attacks have not been enough, as in-form riders such as Lotte Kopecky as well as Cavalli have thwarted her progress and pushed her to the limits. She still has the strength to launch the big attacks; now though, others have the power to stay with her.
Furthermore, the increased depth in the sprint field has caused races such as Alfredo Binda, which would ordinarily be won by a climber, to end in unexpectedly fast finishes. The teams of the likes of Lorena Wiebes and Elisa Balsamo, with greater strength across the board, have been able to control races and restrain attacks, forcing the bunch sprint finishes we have seen so many of this season.
With three notable second place finishes at Strade Bianche, Ronde van Vlaanderen and most recently La Flèche Wallonne, along with a 4th place at Amstel Gold Race and 21st at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, commentators have been quick to jump to conclusions about whether the multiple former World Champion might have passed the best form of her career. Although she began the season in strong form, taking victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, her inability to hit the heady heights of previous seasons in the classics seemingly gave cause to question Van Vleuten’s continued ability to challenge at the very top of the sport.
Today, though, Van Vleuten proved her power once more. She attacked twice in this year’s Liège–Bastogne–Liège, with the second attack proving decisive. It’s her second victory at the race following her first in 2019, but this time around, the timing couldn’t be better, as she strikes a psychological blow to her competitors, proving she is still the rider to beat in the run-in to the first re-booted Tour de France Femmes following a 13-year hiatus.
Van Vleuten has made no secret of her desire to add the Tour to her palmares, and whilst she faces stiff competition from the other strongest teams in women’s cycling – SD Worx, Trek-Segafredo, Canyon//SRAM and FDJ- Nouvelle-Acquitaine-Futuroscope to name a few – Van Vleuten’s incredible experience and assured riding must surely see her as one of the favourites for the Tour, which naturally includes a significant amount of climbing, along with a finish up La Super Planche des Belles-Filles.
'Huge attack!' - Van Vleuten reels in Brown and then goes alone
Quite apart from the well-timed victory in the Ardennes, van Vleuten carries with her a wealth of experience riding in top level races, and a Movistar team who will be unequivocally united behind her. With the strength of teams such as SD Worx and FDJ coming from their variety of choices of leadership, it’s possible that this could lead to a lack of unity or a hedging of bets when it comes to tactical decision-making. Van Vleuten stands to gain from any such doubt, as she sets her sights on her main goal of the season, and in this form, she will once again strike fear into her rivals and put herself firmly at the top of the list of favourites going into the summer.
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