The Dutch cyclist launched her attack with over 100km of the race remaining and built a steady advantage over a strong chase group that included her team-mate Anna van der Breggen.
Coming into Harrogate for the final time, Van Vleuten knew she had an insurmountable advantage and even had time to celebrate for the cameras.
Van Vleuten’s victory will go down as one of the all-time great World Championship performances, and the afternoon got even better for the Dutch as Van der Breggen came across the line in second to seal a Netherlands one-two.
'A spectacular win!' - Van Vleuten takes stunning solo win
The 36-year-old van Vleuten mounted a solo breakaway with 104km to go on the Lofthouse hill climb, and astonished fans by staying away for the rest of the race. An eight-strong group that included Lizzie Deignan went on the counter attack, eventually reduced to a group of three when an attack by Chloe Dygert and Amanda Spratt left Lizzie Deignan to struggle solo until she was swallowed in the main peloton.
Van Vleuten said she had "goosebumps" crossing the line, with her mum in the crowd. Van Vleuten said "It wasn't planned. I wanted to go hard on the climb. I thought it was good for our team."
She then realised she could stay away.
"It was a crazy plan," she said.
Highlights: Van Vleuten’s brave ride secures Dutch one-two
The other riders underestimated the Dutchwoman, and let her ride away. And Van Vleuten credited her win on her hard work in training.
"I train a lot of hours, that also helped me to be ready for such a big effort."
Lizzie Deignan led the race in its first miles through her home town, Otley. However, it went wrong for the British rider after Van Vleuten's attack. Deignan led from the front of the initial chasing group before multiple attacks from fellow riders left her behind and isolated, trying to chase that group down. She was later swallowed up by the peloton, exhausted.
Deignan said although she was happy with her physical performance she described it as a "masterclass in how to get it wrong" tactically. Deignan was greeted by her husband and one year old daughter at the finish line. She spoke emotionally about her family being there to greet her at the end of the race.
Australia's Amanda Spratt came in third after a last minute attack by Amanda van der Breggen separating the two. Chloe Dygert Owen (US) followed in fourth place, having led a solo attack trying to reel in van Vleuten, before being caught by Dygert Owen and van der Breggen, and falling behind.