Last year, Annemiek van Vleuten completely dominated the Women’s WorldTour calendar, taking almost every title there was on offer, including a clean sweep of the three Grand Tours. The Dutch rider looked unbeatable back then, and in the inaugural 2022 Tour de France Femmes, the story followed the same script, with Van Vleuten winning the eight-day race with 3:48 on Demi Vollering in second place.
Going into her final year as a professional rider, it was expected that Van Vleuten would continue her winning ways, and it seemed like everything was on track at the start of this season. She had already won La Vuelta Femenina and then the Giro Donne earlier this year; it was just the second edition of the Tour de France Femmes that she needed to secure to make it a double in the triple for the second year in a row. However, going into the Tour, there was one rider who was hungry for the win too, and that was SD Worx's Demi Vollering, a rider who seems to have prised the winning baton from Van Vleuten’s hands.
In the first six stages, Van Vleuten and Vollering looked on par with one another in terms of performance and time (minus a 20-second penalty for the SD Worx rider). The battle was expected to unravel on the Col du Tourmalet, the penultimate stage. Both were remarkable climbers, but there could only be one winner at the top.
In the end, Van Vleuten came third atop the Tourmalet, with Vollering taking the yellow jersey and a healthy 2:28 lead on the world champion. Going into the time trial on the final stage in Pau, it was a safe bet that her Movistar rival would be taking the yellow jersey; however, a podium place was still in Van Vleuten’s grasp. As a gold medallist at the Olympics in time trialling, everyone had expected Van Vleuten to fly through the course and secure a place on the podium, but what unfolded for the 40-year-old rider was another disappointing day, placing 14th and narrowly missing out on the GC podium behind Vollering, Lotte Kopecky, and Kasia Niewiadoma.
“I gave everything I have. I gave everything yesterday, everything that I have. But I don’t know what happened,” Van Vleuten said after finishing her time trial. “I didn't have my normal level. And yesterday after the finish, I already felt a bit unwell. Also, this morning I still didn't feel normal for me.”
Van Vleuten came third on stage seven which featured the Col d'Aspin and Col du Tourmalet (Image by Thomas Maheux/ASO)
Disappointment was the first thing the Dutch rider felt, mentioning that she was sad that she wasn't able to compete at her normal level for the past two stages and truly battle with Vollering for the yellow jersey. Vollering looked unstoppable, however, on the Tour’s mountain stage, as well as throughout the season so far, so it will be a question left unanswered as to whether Van Vlueten at her best would have been able to beat the SD Worx superstar if she was at full fitness.
It hasn't all been doom and gloom in the Movistar team; they've had a successful Tour with two stage wins by Liane Lippert and Emma Norsgaard. While Van Vleuten didn't achieve what she set out to achieve, she has signed off her cycling career with another hugely respectable performance. The Dutch rider is a big influence in her team, and to commemorate her glittering career, the Movistar riders and staff greeted her at the finish line of her time trial, chanting the world champion's name.
“What I was more emotional about was my teammates and they were so nice being there,” Van Vleuten said. “I find it such a nice gesture after they worked so hard for me the whole week, and then to be there at the finish line, such a warm welcome.”
Despite her exceptional results throughout her career, you can’t win every race and overall, Van Vleuten came 3:59 behind Vollering in the final classification. But she did not go down without a fight and in true Van Vleuten style, she raced with everything she had. The Dutch rider said she wasn't feeling well in the last two stages (Image by Thomas Maheux/ASO)
This is something the Movistar team manager, Sebás Unzué, said after the final stage, “Annemiek, once again, she did incredible. To be able to say goodbye like that, at her age, fighting, and making us dream until the last moment, it's incredible. That's the greatness of this rider, which is something we will never see again.
“She is not a rider who is motivated by winning, she is a rider who is motivated by improving every day, by bettering herself and the way she rides. You’ve seen her, how many times has she made us get up from the sofa and enjoy epic days of cycling. I think that’s going to be very difficult to see in the future.”
It's true; Van Vleuten has brought untold amounts of excitement into women’s racing, and it is the end of an era for the sport. It’s not known what she’ll do after she retires at the end of the season, but the Dutch rider can look back and be proud of everything she has achieved. Even if she didn't place on the 2023 Tour de France Femmes podium, she provided an epic battle that cycling fans around the world anticipated and will now not forget.
It may be the last time we see Van Vleuten on the Tour de France Femmes start line, but it won’t be the last time she comes to the iconic race – as a spectator or potentially in another role. “I’m a big cycling fan, and I don't even know what kind of role, but for sure, I’ll be supporting because I am a big cycling fan," she commented when looking ahead to what the future holds.
*Cover image by Alex Broadway/Getty Images