Last month, one of the all-time great careers came to an end, as Annemiek van Vleuten competed in a road race for the final time in front of cheering fans in her native Netherlands at the Simac Ladies Tour. Despite not becoming a full-time professional until she was 28-years-old, and only reaching her top level in her mid-30s, Van Vleuten nevertheless amassed a palmarès of over 100 wins, including most of the biggest prizes in the sport.
Picking just 10 highlights from such an extraordinary career is no easy task, but here’s what we’ve picked out as the best.
Giro Donne 2018
The first of Van Vleuten’s four Giro Donne titles came in 2018, beginning a period of dominance in what would become her signature race. The highlight was victory atop the iconic Monte Zoncolan, the kind of ultra-difficult mountain that she has perversely loved racing on, but she also triumphed in an individual time trial two days before and the finale at Cividale del Friuli the next day — all of which ensured she ended the race with a huge winning margin of over four minutes.
La Course 2018
Anna van der Breggen was the great rival of Annemiek van Vleuten, often the only rider able to get anywhere near her in the biggest races, and perhaps the pairs most memorable battle occurred at La Course 2018. Having been continually defeated by her during the spring Classics, Van Vleuten got her revenge later in the year in a thrilling climax at Le Grand Bornand. Despite being dropped towards the top of the Col de la Colombière, Van Vleuten kept her in sight during a breathless descent, before implausibly dragging herself past her in the final few metres to take a victory that would redress the balance in what had hitherto been a one-sided rivalry.
Strade Bianche 2020
The Covid-enforced break from cycling in the summer of 2020 left Van Vleuten itching to get back on the saddle and show off her rainbow jersey, as evidenced by the way she stormed to a remarkable streak of successive victories in all four of her first Classics upon her return to racing, culminating in Strade Bianche. And the manner in which she won in Tuscany was especially impressive. On a searingly hot August afternoon, Van Vleuten had to go early in order to chase down Mavi García, who had built a lead of over three minutes over the peloton having slipped into an early break. Despite the huge amount of ground she had to make up, she managed to make the catch a few kilometres from the finish, and attacked on the finishing climb to Piazza del Campo to claim her fourth win in just 10 days.
Olympics time trial 2021
Van Vleuten had unfinished business with the Olympics when she set off for Tokyo in 2021. Five years earlier, she endured a horrible crash during the road race in Rio, while out in front and seemingly on the cusp of victory. So it was especially devastating when she celebrated over the finish line in Tokyo, only to promptly discover that she had in fact only won a silver medal, as Anna Kiesenhofer had, unbeknownst to the Dutchwoman, already finished to win gold. Thankfully, she bounced back three days later to earn a redemptive victory in the time trial, by a huge margin of almost one minute over just 22 kilometres, ensuring that she would, after all, have an Olympic title to her name.
Tour of Flanders 2011
Only turning professional full-time in 2010 at the age of 28, Van Vleuten was a late starter to the sport, but didn’t take long to show she was a major talent. In the spring of her second season, she achieved her breakthrough victory at the Tour of Flanders, a result that elevated her to the status of one of the peloton’s elite riders. It was a more tactical, subtle victory than the kind of demolition jobs we’d later come to associate her with, as she smartly followed an attack from Tatiana Antoshina in the final kilometres before outsprinting her at the line, but announced her as a rider capable of competing for the very biggest races, and remains one of the biggest scalps on her palmarès — especially considering that it took her another 10 attempts before winning a second Ronde.
Lotto Belgium Tour 2016
How different Van Vleuten’s career might have been had she been more seriously hurt from her crash at the 2016 Olympics. She’d firmly established herself as a dependable contender for the major races by that point, but had yet to develop into the prolific superstar we know her as today — the gold medal she appeared set to win in Rio might have been the result to make that leap, but instead brought even the continuation of her career into doubt. Yet, despite suffering three fractured vertebrae, she bounced back a mere month later to win the prologue at the Lotto Belgium Tour on her first day back racing, before going on to win another stage and the general classification. It proved she was unaffected by the potentially career-threatening setback, and put herself back on course for becoming the Van Vleuten we know today.
Giro Donne 2019
Although Van Vleuten had already won the Giro Donne the year before, her 2019 title defence had the distinction of featuring Anna van der Breggen among the riders left in her wake. Van der Breggen was returning to the race having won both the 2015 and 2017 editions, and a hotly competitive battle between the two for the pink jersey was anticipated. Yet the race turned out to be a comprehensively one-sided affair as Van Vleuten obliterated the field on the Passo Fraele summit finish, before extending her lead further in the time trial, ultimately winning by an enormous 3:45 ahead of Van der Breggen and over six minutes on everyone else. It was a stunning leap forward for Van Vleuten, and the race in which she usurped her compatriot to become the very best rider in the world.
World Championships Road Race 2022
Van Vleuten was unstoppable throughout the 2022 season, even, it turned out, when she was injured. Having broken her elbow in the team time trial three days earlier, she reverted to a domestique role in service of compatriot Marianne Vos for the road race in Wollongong, finding herself in significant pain and unable to ride out of the saddle. Yet somehow, despite having been dropped on the course’s climb, she clawed her way back into the lead group with a handful of other riders, then caught them all off-guard with an expertly timed attack inside the final kilometre. The victory rounded off a year in which she’d already won the Grand Tour grand slam, plus Liège-Bastogne-Liège, in what was arguably the greatest season any rider has ever had.
World Championships Road Race 2019
If her 2022 Worlds victory was a triumph of somehow finding a way to win when all the odds were against her, her first road race title three years earlier was an exhibition of pure strength. There are long-range attacks, and then there are long-range attacks, and when she first accelerated on Lofthouse Hill with over 100km still to ride, including three laps of the circuit in Harrogate, it seemed like an act of madness. But this was Van Vleuten at her absolute irrepressible best, and she motored along for hours without anyone making inroads into her lead, and ended up winning by a comfortable margin of over two minutes. In a career full of jaw-dropping solo attacks, this was surely the greatest of them all.
Tour de France Femmes 2022
What makes Van Vleuten’s triumph at the inaugural Tour de France Femmes so special isn’t just the historical significance of the occasion, or even the dominant manner in which ultimately won it, but the obstacles she had to overcome during the race in order to do so. In many ways, it was like a hybrid of both her Worlds road race titles — as in 2022, she had to fight through the pain barrier, as a serious bout of illness disrupted her during the early stages of the race; and as in 2019, she ended up winning via a stunning long-range solo attack.
The enormity of the achievement only really comes into focus when you realise just how ill she was, not just vomiting and experiencing weakness and muscle aches, but also missing out on sleep and, at its very worst, unable to drink and sleep. Only by the race’s penultimate day queen stage had she recovered fully, upon which she produced a vintage performance, attacking on Col du Petit Ballon over 80km from the finish, and then dropping her sole hanger-on Demi Vollering on the net climb of Col du Platzerwasel 60km from the finish, to ride all of the final Grand Ballon mountain alone. Another stage win followed the day after at La Super Planche des Belles Filles, ensuring she won by a whopping 3:48, writing yet another chapter in cycling history as the first woman to win the yellow jersey.