Annemiek van Vleuten was a prologue specialist before she was even a cyclist.
“I always rode my bike to school,” she tells Eurosport's Cycling Show. “It was seven kilometres away. I always did a time trial because I was always a bit late. I remember I could do it in 20 minutes on my normal town bike.”
By the time she entered the pro ranks, in 2012, Van Vleuten’s times had come down a bit (by which we mean: a lot). But all those early efforts might explain why all but one of her victories before 2016 came from short, stage-race-starting time trials.
Tour de France
‘No matter!’ – Breaking unwritten rules wouldn’t have stopped Van Vleuten
Although Van Vleuten enjoyed watching the Tour de France as a child, the 39 year-old was not born to be a cyclist. As a youngster, she was more interested in playing football but all that running, kicking, sliding and jumping eventually took its toll.
“I was studying in Wageningen and I got injured in my knees,” she says. “I had to stop soccer. I bought a bike to keep control of the extra student kilos.”
This time Van Vleuten wasn’t just using it to get from A to B. She entered a few races, performing well above her own expectations.
“I did a physical test - oxygen and power measurements. And then suddenly without training too much I already had numbers - watts and VO2 max - similar to the Dutch national selection.”
That was when her competitive instincts really kicked in, and a new version of herself was born.
'Winning has become harder' - Van Vleuten hails strength of women's tour
“My student friends think I’m really strange because they know me as the girl who was enjoying the parties. I had an awesome student time,” she says. “I was really a party animal.”
Putting the “party animal” aside when she turned pro, the early years of Van Vleuten’s career saw solid but not spectacular success. It was a reflection less of her potential and abilities than her commitment and discipline. Only with the 2016 Olympics on the horizon did she decide to dedicate everything to the singular goal of becoming the very best rider she could.
“One year before Rio, the project started to improve my climbing abilities. I went more to altitude, I watched my weight, I trained more seriously. The Rio Olympic [road race] was the first time in my career that I was dropping everyone uphill. That was a new experience for me. It gave me the message that when I focus on something, when I have a really big goal to be good at something, I can achieve it.”
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As she seemed to be riding away to Olympic gold, 10 kilometres from the finish line disaster struck on the course’s dangerous descent. The crash witnessed around the world left her with concussion and three separate spinal fractures.
Rather than rue what might have been Van Vleuten says she is "proud of what I achieved there".
"I’m sad that I made a mistake on the corner. In the end Rio gave me, not the gold medal, but in the end it gave me more than the gold medal could have,” she adds.
The six years since have rained results, with Van Vleuten adding almost every race on the calendar to her illustrious palmares.
As ruthlessly successful as she has been, however, she is adamant that she is not overly concerned with her results.
“I don’t do it for the wins. I also love the training, and the process. Winning is the cherry on the cake. I really like to get the best out of myself. That’s my driving force,” she adds.
‘A gold medal at last!’ - Van Vleuten celebrates with abandon after time trial success
One of the few big victories that Van Vleuten has yet to take is the one that has yet to happen: the Tour de France Femmes. The first edition in its new incarnation begins straight after the men’s version finishes, at the end of July.
“For me it’s a milestone that it’s again on our calendar,” she says. “I know where we’ve come from within cycling and this is huge.”
The eyes of the world will be on her more than any other competitor. She says she is still getting used to the spotlight:
“It’s sometimes crazy that people see me as a star. I see myself as Annemiek.”
Before the Tour de France Femmes, Van Vleuten will compete in the Giro Donne, which begins on June 30 in Calgiari.
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Stream the Giro Donne, Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes live and on-demand on discovery+. You can also watch all the action live on eurosport.co.uk.
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