Annemiek van Vleuten’s final lap of the Glasgow city centre circuit at the World Championships today was a paradox. She soaked in the applause of the fans that lined the sides of the roads, waving and blowing kisses to the public who cheered her out of respect and admiration. This was Van Vleuten’s final participation in the Worlds, and they were showing their appreciation of that. But as the Dutch rider rolled around the course, out of contention for the medals after a flat tyre, she did so with what she described as “super legs.” While her lap of honour was moving and special, it was also bittersweet. Van Vleuten believes that she could have done more today.
“Accept, adapt and move on,” the Dutch rider said when asked about her feelings after her second mechanical of the race. “You can get really angry about a flat tyre but you can’t do anything about it. You have to make the best out of it and for me today I was enjoying those last moments.”
Before the dreaded puncture, Van Vleuten was in the front group of favourites who were fighting for victory. She had been crucial to closing the gap to lone leader Elise Chabbey so that her teammate, Demi Vollering, could have a shot at victory. The 40-year-old rider had already had one bike change earlier in the race and made it back to the front group – subsequently attacking straight over the top of them – which was proof of her good form in the race. She looked like she was back to the Van Vleuten of old, a different rider to the one we saw at the Tour de France Femmes a few weeks ago who looked tired and out of sorts.
“I’m super proud that I’m in my last World Championships still in the mix and fighting for the win and for my team to win. Still the energy is there and I didn’t lose the energy in my last year, I had super legs today,” Van Vleuten said afterwards.
Her confidence about her supreme form today raises some questions, naturally, over the Dutch team’s tactics. If Van Vleuten’s legs were as good as she claimed, it might have been pertinent for Vollering to ride for her older teammate, rather than Van Vleuten being put on the front to bring back Chabbey in the closing kilometres of the race and sacrificing her own chances. However, Van Vleuten argued that the team were sticking to the plan that was formed ahead of the race that Vollering would be the sole leader today.
“Demi said to me, you need to ride now. I said ok. She was the number one leader and that made it easier. This year she showed she had an amazing level,” Van Vleuten explained. "I even said to my other teammate: ‘I'm still quite good,’ because I could feel when I came back from two bike changes that I had a really good level. I think it was sad we were not there with the two of us in the final.”
Once she had accepted the fact that her race was over due to the mechanical issue, Van Vleuten had to force herself to make a shift in her mindset. It’s a testament to the strength in character of the Dutch rider that she could put her disappointment behind her so quickly and seek out the positives from her misfortune.
“I had goosebumps,” Van Vleuten said when asked about riding the final kilometres of the race. “I love the UK people, they have a special place in my heart and I could also feel I have a special place in theirs. It was not nice to have a flat tyre in the last lap but then you need to accept it and it’s just a flat tyre. It got me out of the race but I was able to not get angry or mad or disappointed, I was like I need to enjoy this. I could feel people realised it was my last World Championships so it was a nice ending.”
Van Vleuten’s performances over this season have certainly proved that she is still present at the top of the sport and able to fight for victories. It raises questions about whether leaving it all behind at the end of the season is the right thing to do, and the Dutch rider admits that while she has had reservations about this, she is confident that her decision is the right one.
“The more people beg me to continue, the more I think it is a good moment to stop. It’s better than them asking you when you are going to stop, it makes me proud because it gives me the feeling I still entertain people,” Van Vleuten said. “Today I’m still in front, still full of energy to get the best out of myself and it makes me proud to still have that attitude. I know if I continue too long that energy level will go down. I’m proud to say goodbye to the sport like this.”
It is also apt that Van Vleuten’s last World Championships was one that was filled with drama. Everytime she races with her national team there always seems to be some sort of controversy, whether that’s winning with a broken bone like she did in Wollongong last year, or a misplaced celebration after bad communication like we saw at the Toyko Olympics.
“I have all my high and low moments in orange,” Van Vleuten laughed afterwards. “I always have some drama when I am in orange. Today I had a flat tyre and bike changes, there’s always something.”
Overall, however, Van Vleuten expressed a sense of fulfilment when looking back at the wider impact she has had on women’s cycling and how far she has helped it come. Her attacking performances in races have attracted fans for years and a hole will undoubtedly be left in the peloton when she hangs up her wheels at the end of this year.
“It is good to leave the sport behind now it is on a super high level,” Van Vleuten said. “When I started it was an amateur sport and now it’s a professional sport, I’m proud to be part of that.”