Is this year one too many for Annemiek van Vleuten? In her final season in the professional women’s peloton, the world champion, once known to be a prolific winner, has – so far – had a fall from grace. Fourth in Setmana Ciclista-Volta Comunitat Valenciana Fèmines, fourth in Strade Bianche, 11th in the Amstel Gold Race, seventh in La Flèche Wallonne Féminine and sixth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège could be the makings of an impressive, consistent season opening for some riders, but for Van Vleuten, who in years past has dominated the one-day races, these results are below expectations.
On her website, the 40-year-old has outlined, in a series of blog posts, the varying reasons that have caused this run of subpar results. There was the flat tyre in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, then there was bad positioning and being outnumbered by SD Worx at Strade Bianche, then the crash at the foot of the Koppenberg in the Tour of Flanders, then the cold weather and rain at Amstel Gold Race, then a lack of cooperation from other riders during Flèche Wallonne, then in Liège-Bastogne-Liège there was the issue of Van Vleuten being isolated in the front group.
It’s true that in bike racing, there are always factors to blame or justifications for poor performances, but to those watching Van Vleuten race this season, one thing has been clear: she doesn’t look to have the physical form or strength she has in years gone by. Those attacks that would have once detonated a peloton now are calmly responded to by her rivals. The solo efforts that a few years ago would have seen her put minutes into the group chasing her are no more. While this might be a positive indicator of the growing strength in the women’s peloton, rather than a decrease in Van Vleuten’s personal form, her riding style has indicated a type of struggle.
When the gradients kicked up during the Ardennes Classics, the Dutchwoman looked to be fighting her bike, rocking and rolling over the pedals, her physical demeanour was like a literal representation of her mental state; you could almost see the desperation to distance her competitors in her ragged riding style. Perhaps this was due to the terrain; the short, steep climbs may not have given Van Vleuten the time and distance she needed to put the hurt on others. The hilly, punchy Ardennes don’t allow for the world champion to get into a metronomic style which weakens other riders before she launches a trademark attack.
The good news for Van Vleuten, though, is that the stage races are on the horizon. The next three competitions for the Movistar rider are La Vuelta Femenina, the Giro d’Italia Donne and the Tour de France Femmes. In these races, long climbs with consistent gradients will be on the menu. Could these mountainous landscapes set the stage for Van Vleuten to return to her dominance of old?
She has only raced once this season so far in the mountains, and that was on stage three of Setmana Ciclista-Volta Comunitat Valenciana when she eventually finished in third place after she was outsprinted at the finish by Ashleigh Moolman and Amanda Spratt in a three-up breakaway that went to the line. That stage didn’t actually finish in the mountains, though, it had a flat approach to the finish line which didn't favour Van Vleuten. La Vuelta Femenina could be a different story.
Stage five of the race will be the first real test in the mountains of the season for the women’s peloton with all of the star riders present. It finishes atop the brutal Mirador de Peñas Llanas, a 4.8 kilometre climb that has an average gradient of six percent. The first 250 metres are the toughest, with a gradient of almost 10%, while another 250 metre section at 9.1% hits riders inside the final two kilometres. After passing the Flamme Rouge, the final 500 metres throws up a gradient of 7.4%. That’s not it for the day’s stage either, before that, riders will have also faced the Puerto de Navafría, an ascent of 11.5km with an average gradient of 5.8% and steep pitches of 8%.
These climbs will undoubtedly suit Van Vleuten better than anything she has faced so far this season. With Demi Vollering (SD Worx), revelling in the glory of her triple Ardennes win, it could be that Van Vleuten is able to get the better of her here. Vollering’s punchy kick won’t be as much of a weapon in the long mountains, and Van Vleuten will be able to utilise her endurance base to set an infernal pace for her rivals. If she does this in the same fashion she did at the inaugural Tour de France Femmes last year, Van Vleuten’s first victory of the 2023 season certainly isn’t far away.
The finale of La Vuelta Feminina also should provide Van Vleuten with the terrain she needs to excel. It’s in the race's ultimate stage that the women’s peloton will, for the first time, tackle the famous, especial category climb of Lagos de Covadonga. There are few mountains as difficult as Los Lagos in the cycling world. The climb spans 12.5km, but the average gradient of 6.9% is a misleading statistic. The opening kilometres rise at approximately 10% before the gradient leapfrogs to undulating ramps of close to 20% gradients. Lagos de Covadonga is brutal and cruel in its unpredictability, and will be an unforgiving place to ascertain if Van Vleuten remains the strongest climber in the women’s peloton.
However, history tells us that the Dutch rider thrives on tough terrain like this. Her solo attack Le Markstein in the penultimate stage of the Tour de France Femmes last year was unmatchable – she won the stage by three and a half minutes ahead of Demi Vollering. She’s won the Giro d’Italia Donne on three occasions, dominating on the long climbs. Every single time race organisers have given Van Vleuten the opportunity to do so, she’s excelled in the mountains, but the question remains: does she have the form to do so in 2023?
Numerous training camps at altitude and Van Vleuten’s physicality is surely a sign that she is targeting these longer stage races this year. As she has got older, Van Vleuten’s punchy accelerations have become less effective, but the climbs in stage races require endurance, experience and a diesel engine, which Van Vleuten has proven repeatedly that she has in abundance.
The Dutch rider hasn’t had to wait this long into the season for a victory since 2016, and she won’t want to bow out of the sport with a lacklustre results sheet in her final year. It’s true that her competition is hotter than ever and things aren’t going to be easy for Van Vleuten, but the mountains are calling, and they are where she comes into her own.