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Annemiek van Vleuten says that she’s “proud” to have played a part in the major development of women’s cycling during her career.
Van Vleuten is set to retire at the end of the season and the women’s side of the sport has changed to something almost completely unrecognizable from when she started racing back in 2007.
Only 10 years ago, next to no races were broadcast live and a short five-minute highlight package was the only way to see an event outside of following social media posts. Meanwhile, liveable salaries were just a pipe dream for all, but a handful of riders and teams were run on a shoestring.
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Now, a guaranteed of at least 15 teams will pay their riders a sizeable minimum salary, all WorldTour races are required to broadcast their events live. The result of the investment is a quickly growing fanbase that is helping to drive the development further.
“I appreciate it more because I know where we come from and it’s fun sometimes to look back. For sure, it will stop because it will continue to develop so I will miss out on something,” Van Vleuten told VeloNews. “I already saw the announcement of the Giro that RCS will take over some races which is a really good development. At first, I was like, ‘oh, shit, I will not be part of that’ but I think I’m happy that I was part of the biggest step.
“It puts a smile on my face that we entertain more people than only big cycling fans. When I started in women’s cycling there was only a really small core group of fans, really small. Then we went to a group of more cycling fans to entertain them and now we also made it to the wider public. Sports fans are watching us and it’s nice to see it in reality if I just go biking or go to the supermarket where I live.”
The 2022 season was arguably the biggest season for modern women’s cycling with some of the biggest pushes to date. Along with developments such as the new U23 category at the world championships, the headline moment of the season was the return of a Tour de France for women.
Van Vleuten was the face of that race as she dominated the big mountain stages on her way to an emphatic overall victory.
In the past, Van Vleuten has described the one-day La Course event — the precursor to the Tour de France Femmes — as the race win that got her the most attention from casual cycling fans. That was surpassed by her time trial gold medal at the Olympic Games in 2021, but nothing can match the power of the Tour de France brand when it comes to recognition from non-cycling fans.
“The Tour de France Femmes, you cannot compare it with anything. You make the comparison with La Course, but I would more make the comparison with my Tokyo Olympic gold medal and the Tour de France Femmes had way more impact than my Tokyo gold medal,” she said.
“Maybe more people watch the Tour de France than the Tokyo Olympics and that was a new experience. People inside and outside of cycling followed it. We were never sure [if they would]. They follow the Tour de France for the guys but then also with us I could see people outside cycling were following it.”
The Tour de France pull has continued into the new season, and it has led to a bigger reaction to her as she goes about her training in the jersey of world champion.
Wearing the rainbow stripes always gains the wearer plenty of attention and Van Vleuten is well used to it after winning the road race world title in 2019. However, this time people are noticing her far more, especially when out on her off-season training camp in Colombia.
For Van Vleuten, it’s a sign of the impact that the Tour de France Femmes has had on the women’s side of the sport.
“I could feel already after the Tour de France that a lot of people outside of cycling have watched it and for sure that the momentum is with women’s cycling and it is growing,” Van Vleuten said. “To wear, this year, the world championship jersey is quite different from the other time I had it. Especially the Tour had a big impact. I’m still the same person but more people look different at me, and that’s crazy.
“To go to Colombia with a rainbow jersey is even more crazy, I cannot explain how it was. For sure it’s a country where I have the most fans because people were hanging out of cars and filming me. If I left for training and sometimes I look around and I had 12 people in my wheel after five minutes. It’s a crazy country and they are crazy cycling fans.”