In her post-race interview after the 2022 Tour of Flanders, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig expressed to the press: “I was suffering like a pig. I’m so brain dead, I’m so tired.” The Danish rider was barely able to hold herself upright, shivering, coughing and exhausted. Most riders at the finish line shared a similar sentiment.
Annemiek van Vleuten, on the other hand, disagreed. Second after 158km, one of the longest races on the Women's WorldTour, the Dutchwoman sounded like she could have raced it all over again.
“I need a harder race," she said, reflecting on her 11th top-ten at De Ronde.
Van Vleuten’s unmatched strength is something that’s made headlines before. In 2020, the Dutch rider revealed she had ridden over 32,000km in a year – a greater distance than many professional male riders despite the shorter race distances in the Women's WorldTour.
That total represented over 1,229 hours, or an average of three hours and 22 minutes every single day of the year. She’s known to train with the Movistar men’s team over the winter, keeping up with world-class male riders for rides of over six hours. In July 2019, Elisa Longo Borghini described Van Vleuten as an “alien” after the Dutch woman’s attack in the Queen stage of the Giro Rosa. “The alien has gone, now the race for the human beings,” the Italian said.
After De Ronde on Sunday, Van Vleuten asserted that the reason why she hadn’t been able to distance her rivals was simply due to the nature of the Flemish roads. The punchy, steep climbs didn’t go on long enough for her to put pressure on the faster riders in the peloton. While many would have been crying out to crest the summit of the cobbled bergs, Van Vleuten was wishing for the gradients to continue even further. “In Liège it will be different. The climbs here are so short,” she said.
The perennial strength of Van Vleuten and the danger she poses in long-range attacks means that other teams have had to learn to be vigilant when racing the Olympic time-trial gold medallist. In both Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders, SD Worx looked to have found the trick to keeping the Dutch rider in their wake. The key is numbers, and lots of them.
At De Ronde, Kopecky rarely left the wheel of Van Vleuten, waiting for the Movistar rider to decide when the race would open up. SD Worx had raced cagily until Van Vleuten made her big attack on the Kwaremont. They were alert, but only burning matches when it was absolutely necessary, this left them with three riders in the final select group of six. The Dutch team’s reluctance to open up the race was noticed by their rival. “It was sad that the middle part was not raced so hard. So we arrived at the Koppenberg, for me, with a bunch that was too big,” said Van Vleuten.
“People say, why are you not doing attacks? But I can't do everything. I also need other teams and hope that they want to make the race hard.”
But cycling is a game. Van Vleuten may have physically been the strongest in the race on Sunday, she may have been able to ride another 145km after she crossed the finish line in Oudenaarde, but it didn’t matter. SD Worx’s display on Sunday was the perfect example of why cycling is a team sport and why clever tactics can prevail over power time after time. When they had Van Vleuten isolated, there was nothing that the 39-year-old could do, even with all the kilometres of training she has in her armoury.
“I cannot blame myself, it's not that I didn't try it,” said Van Vleuten after the race.
The Dutch rider appeared content with the fact she’d done all she could in Flanders’ Finest, but it’s clear she will be out for revenge in the Ardennes.
Cover image: Baz Czerwinski/Getty Images