“I need a harder race," said Annemiek van Vleuten after the 2022 Tour of Flanders.
“It is not raced hard enough for me,” said Annemiek van Vleuten after the 2022 Amstel Gold Race.
“I also get quicker after a hard race,” said Annemiek van Vleuten after the 2022 Omloop Het Nieuwblad, which she won.
“Harder races are more beautiful,” said Annemiek van Vleuten ahead of the… [checks notes] 2014 Ronde van Drenthe.
You get the picture. If there’s one thing Annemiek van Vleuten wants, it’s a hard race. Yet on the evidence of recent Spring Classics, the racing has been plenty hard enough. It’s not easy to outsprint Lotte Kopecky at the end of the Tour of Flanders in a three-rider group with Chantal van den Broeck-Blaak. It’s not easy to out climb Marta Cavalli on the Mur de Huy at La Flèche Wallonne or Amstel Gold Race, or follow Elisa Longo Borghini over the Roubaix pavé.
These things are hard. If they weren’t hard, van Vleuten or anybody else would have been able to do them.
To be fair to Van Vleuten though, what she really wanted in those races was longer climbs and plenty of them. At last, after a spring campaign in which she has never finished lower than fourth place in a Women’s WorldTour one-day race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège granted her wish.
Van Vleuten is a rider who relies on physicality. Tactics, where they exist, resemble swinging a hammer and trying to break her opponents. In a spring where most winning performances have been built on strong collective teamwork, Van Vleuten stands out as a lone ranger at Movistar. She is a rider for whom victory comes from persistently trying to be the best individual female cyclist on the planet. She often succeeds.
Her mammoth training sessions are well known. She continues, as she often has done, to train with the men’s squads on whatever team she is riding. In 2020, the pandemic year, she rode over 32,000km and clocked up 1229 hours on the bike, an average of over three hours per day every day of the year.
It’s in this context that one must consider a race like the women’s Liège: 142km long with over 2,200m of elevation gain and comprising 3 hours 52 minutes in the saddle. It’s the hardest one-day race on the calendar. Or an average day out for Annemiek van Vleuten.
She detonated the race on the famous Côte de la Redoute, caught the breakaway, but got no help from sole survivor Marlen Reusser and got reeled back in. Van Vleuten went again on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, catching and dropping a counter-attack from Grace Brown. Attack followed attack followed attack until she was alone with 13km to go, the last woman standing, just how she likes it. Even though she was riding solo into a headwind, five chasing riders from three teams could only try in vain to bring her back this time.
Marta Cavalli led out Brown to second place – another good result in an excellent spring for FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope – and last year’s winner Demi Vollering from SD Worx got third. But the day belonged to the 39-year-old Dutchwoman. La Doyenne of the women’s calendar went to La Doyenne of its peloton.
Cover image: Getty Images