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Dutch courage: Annemiek van Vleuten profile

26 Jun 2019

Annemiek van Vleuten's winning ways have continued as she's just won the Dutch time trial National Championships. We sat down with the rider for Issue 85 of Cyclist magazine where she revealed how she overcame pain and doubt (and that horrific Rio 2016 crash) to win two world titles

Words Mark Bailey Photography Chris Blott

Wrapped in a long black cardigan, Annemiek van Vleuten is chopping vegetables in her kitchen, chatting about board games, the shaky form of her football team FC Twente, diving at the Great Barrier Reef, and her master’s degree in epidemiology.

Only the canvas print on the wall, which depicts her frozen in an immaculate time-trial position, is a reminder that this relaxed, pumpkin-baking chef is also the top-ranked female cyclist in the world.

This scene of cosy bliss seems odd given that Van Vleuten, 36, has earned a cult following on account of her grit and steel.

She has achieved great success, from winning the Tour of Flanders in 2011 to claiming the Giro Rosa, La Course, her second World Time-Trial title and the Women’s WorldTour in 2018.

But the Dutch cyclist is also famed for her comic book heroics. She recovered from a blood-chilling crash at Rio 2016, which left her lying, limbs twisted, over a kerb, to win the Belgium Tour a month later.

At La Course in 2017, her attack on the Col d’Izoard set a legendary Strava segment bettered only by two male Tour de France cyclists later that day.

Most recently, she miraculously finished seventh in the 2018 World Road Race, despite riding the last 90km with a broken knee. Yet Van Vleuten insists she isn’t the pain-chasing warrior people believe.

‘No, the truth is I hate to suffer but I am good at it. That is also maybe the reason why I hate to suffer, because I know I can push myself over the limit so it hurts even more. I don’t especially like time-trialling either. It is so hard. But I am quite good at it.’

Now riding for Mitchelton-Scott, Van Vleuten has enjoyed another successful season so far in 2019, winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Strade-Bianche, and finishing second at Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and the Tour of Flanders.

She is known as a ruthless competitor but she also fiercely pursues a life outside of cycling. As well as enjoying diving holidays and watching football, she studies Spanish and Italian, reads biographies and historical romances, strums the guitar (‘It’s like yoga, or mindfulness training’) and plays the Settlers of Catan board game with her friends.

‘I am proud to be a balanced rider,’ she says. ‘Taking a break is good for my mental health. It is like a mental recharge. Marianne Vos is a good friend but I have more friends outside of cycling. It is good to sometimes go back to my university time, have some alcohol and relax.’

Having worked in an office job after uni, she appreciates the difference between normal life and pro cycling better than most. ‘Sometimes I think back to the office, which I hated, and think, “Ah, don’t complain about the rain today because my job is much nicer now.”

‘I am realistic about how beautiful the life of a cyclist is. Sometimes my colleagues complain and I think they’d have benefitted from having an experience of normal life.’

Chasing rainbows

The sight of two rainbow jerseys hanging in the upstairs window makes it easy to identify Van Vleuten’s house in a suburban street in Wageningen, 80km southeast of Amsterdam.

At the 2018 World Championships in Innsbruck she retained her time-trial title of the year before, conquering the 27.8km course 28 seconds faster than Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen.

‘Everything in your body is screaming at you to stop,’ she says. ‘That is the fight you have got to survive. A voice says, “Stop pedalling!” And you say, “No, I have to push harder.” There’s a lot of talk going on in my head.

‘You need to be able to ride through pain, but there are not many people who have won the Time-Trial World Championships twice and nobody has won it three times so that is motivation for the future.’

A crash in the 155.6km Worlds road race left her with a broken kneecap and ruined her chances of a double victory. ‘I couldn’t believe it when I saw the MRI,’ she chuckles. ‘I had a lot of pain after the crash. But I pedalled uphill and I was passing everyone, with just one leg.

‘It felt very bad. It was unstable, but I thought it was just fluid in my knee. In my eagerness to win I pushed on. I couldn’t accept that I could not ride for the win, just because of people crashing in front of me.

‘The will to win was bigger than the pain.’

Van Vleuten spent the winter undergoing rehabilitation following surgery on her knee, but the injury couldn’t darken a spectacularly successful season.

She was especially proud to win the Giro Rosa. ‘My former DS told me I could never win the Giro so it was really cool to win it,’ she says.

Winning the uphill time-trial to Campo Moro by 2min 29sec was her highlight: ‘I decided to ride my time-trial bike as the last 2km were flatter, but the first bit was like riding up Alpe d’Huez on a time-trial bike.

‘It was a bit revolutionary. We had calculated it all with modelling and testing and I had done lots of recon, but it still meant riding 3-4km with a 10% gradient.’

Following her MSc in epidemiology at Wageningen University, Van Vleuten enjoys the scientific approach to performance: ‘My studies have made me critical so if my coach suggests a training session I always ask why. I like to read scientific papers and I follow people on Twitter who tweet interesting scientific ideas.’

In yet another demonstration of her resilience, she won the 118km La Course just two days after winning the Giro, beating Van der Breggen by one second after catching her in the final 25m.

‘I had only one day for recovery and she came fresh as she didn’t ride the Giro. When she got away, part of me wanted to give up but I told myself, “Just go hard to the finish.”

‘And then I came around the corner and I thought, “Hey, she’s slowing down.” So I used everything in my body to catch her. I was all over the bike.’

Party animal

As a child, Van Vleuten enjoyed football, gymnastics and horse riding as well as cycling. She used to ride to school on a red fifth-hand Peugeot race bike. ‘I remember I started to time the 1km journey,’ she recalls. ‘I was only eight.’

She also loved watching the Tour: ‘Especially when the Dutchies were at the front, with Rabobank. ‘I remember seeing Peter Winnen and Leon van Bon and Michael Boogerd.’

Football remained her primary passion but, after tearing her cruciate ligament in a match in 2005, her doctor advised her to cycle more. ‘I bought a bike just to stay fit because I had gained weight as a student.

‘My student friends only know me as a party animal and cannot believe I am now so serious about cycling. In 2007 I started racing and I became more of a fanatic.

‘Then in 2008 I did a physical test with oxygen measurements and found out I had the same abilities as girls on the national team. ‘That’s when I thought, “Hey, I can be good at this.”’

After university she combined racing for DSB Bank-Nederland Bloeit with her office job. ‘At first I was super-nervous about racing but I gave myself 20 competitions to judge it,’ she says. ‘At first I hated it, but after 10 races I started to like it.’

In 2010 she quit her job and went on to achieve 25 podium places at UCI races. ‘My salary as a cyclist was €800 a month so I couldn’t say I was a professional,’ she says. ‘But I started to believe I could do this.’

In 2011 she won the Tour of Flanders. ‘It was my breakthrough,’ she says. ‘The history makes it special but racing on the same day as the men gives it more value too.

‘Jeroen Blijlevens, my former DS, said, “Now you will see that you will win other races.” He was right. It was a step up to winning big things.’

Crash and learn

Van Vleuten’s journey to the top hasn’t been without drama. Her ugly crash in the Rio 2016 Olympic Road Race, when she was in the gold medal position, left her mother Ria distraught. ‘I thought she was dead,’ Ria later admitted. 

The crash became grim YouTube fodder but Van Vleuten has few memories of it. ‘I lost consciousness,’ she says. ‘I was alone in the front and I knew Mara Abbott, the girl behind me, was not a good descender.

‘Still, I didn’t want to take risks but I misjudged that corner. ‘It looked so horrible in the pictures but my recent injury was way worse. There was actually nothing major wrong with me.’

Three lumbar spinal fractures, severe concussion and 24 hours in intensive care sounds bad enough, but a month later she won the Tour of Belgium.

Van Vleuten has made peace with her memories of Rio. ‘I’ve seen the Rio crash because people show it to me over and over. I see someone crashing but I don’t have the feeling it is me.

‘But people only want to show the crash. I accept that is how people are. But it is not the story of Rio for me. The story for me is that I dropped everyone uphill and I was on my way to the gold medal.’

This is the memory that has fuelled Van Vleuten’s subsequent success in races such as the Giro Rosa. ‘Rio showed me that I’m a better climber than I ever thought I was,’ she says.

However, it also left her with demons to slay at the 2017 World Time-Trial race in Bergen. ‘My win in Bergen was a big relief because three days before that race I was still struggling a bit with Rio.

‘I couldn’t sleep or eat. I didn’t want to crash again in front of everyone. People would give me that label: when she is in good form, she cannot handle the pressure. Now, when I see the picture of myself with my mother after Bergen, I see a lot of relief on my face.’

On the podium she pointed at the lucky earrings from her late father, who died after a long illness in 2008. ‘It was like a connection between my father and my mother and me,’ she says. ‘I wore them too in Rio but after the crash I said to my mother, “Ah, those earrings didn’t bring me any luck.”

‘And she just looked at me and said, “I think they gave you a lot of luck.”’

With Van Vleuten, Van der Breggen, Vos and Ellen van Dijk all at the top of their sport, it’s easy to assume they are the product of an elite Dutch cycling factory, but that’s not the case.

‘The first reason Dutch women are successful is because we ride bikes from a young age, just to go to school or the shops. I’m proud of that part of our culture.

‘And we’re pretty tough. We have a saying: “You’re not made of sugar.” So if it is raining outside, we go out on the bike anyway. Also, women in the Netherlands are very independent. Nobody organises stuff for us.

‘In England or Australia, you have a system, the girls at the top are taken care of, but we do it all ourselves.

‘My teammates are amazed if I go by myself to a training camp. But Dutch girls are very self-supportive and independent and that is a strong characteristic in any athlete.’

Not content with her success so far, van Vleuten has already set herself new targets: ‘The Tokyo Olympics is a big goal – the time-trial but also the road race. After my crash last year I thought I’d lost my one chance to win the Worlds Road Race. The course was perfect.

‘But our coach sent me a one-line message after he saw me crying: “There are more altitude metres in the 2020 World Championships in Switzerland than in Innsbruck.” That was all I needed to know. It was the best message to cheer me up.’

Going for the win

The big moments from Van Vleuten’s riding career 

2008 Aged 25, Van Vleuten joins her first pro team Vrienden van het Platteland.

2011 Makes her major breakthrough with Nederland Bloeit, winning the Tour of Flanders and the Women’s Road World Cup.

2014 Wins the Belgium Tour and earns the first of her three national time-trial titles.

2016 At the Rio Olympics she crashes out of the road race when leading. She claims her second Belgium Tour a month later.

2017 Wins her first world time-trial title in Bergen, as well as the Holland Ladies Tour and Great Ocean Road Race.

2018 Enjoys her most successful campaign to date, winning the Giro Rosa, La Course, the Worlds time-trial title, and the Women’s WorldTour.

2019 An impressive Spring campaign delivers wins at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Strade Bianche, along with a handful of podium places.

My blueprint for the future of women’s cycling

Annemiek’s message for the UCI 

More high-profile women’s races

We need a women’s version of all the big races: Paris-Roubaix, Tour de France, Tour de Suisse, Dauphiné and the autumn Classics. They should be on the same day as the men’s, like La Course.

But we don’t want the Tour de France to think they have to do it. We want them to do it because they see us as a valuable addition. Amstel Gold is a good example because lots of women now come to the race: it is great entertainment and good for our sport.

Higher minimum wages

The next step is for everyone to get a full-time salary. There was an investigation by Cyclists Alliance that showed many women get less than the minimum wage (50% of female professionals earn less than €10,000 per year).

Most women get paid as they would in a factory. We need to improve that.

Raise the standard

Women’s racing should be two levels: a WorldTour level and a level below that. In the Netherlands, amateurs can get a licence and race with the professionals. A separation will raise the standard.

Prize money is bad but if we improve the race standard, sponsors will come and that will follow. The Tour Down Under and the Women’s Tour are super-good races, with good prize money and big audiences. England should be proud of that race.

Give us harder races

At the 2016 World Championships in Qatar they made us race stupid laps of the city, without the action of the men’s course, and that still makes me angry.

In Bergen we didn’t finish the time-trial with the same climb. Why? It suggests we cannot do the climb. Come on, take us seriously. The time-trial at the Tokyo Olympics is about 20km [22.1km], so it could be one second difference.

Why not 40km [44.2km] like the men? And we have only 68 starters but the men have 130. That is just discrimination. This stuff makes me way angrier than prize money.