Commentary: Could Annemiek van Vleuten’s final season be her best one yet?
Van Vleuten is planning to go out with a bang this season, but there are plenty of teams hoping to beat her before she goes.
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Could Annemiek van Vleuten’s final year as a professional be her best one yet?
This week, the Dutchwoman announced her full 2023 schedule with some of the biggest races in women’s cycling forming part of her swansong tour.
There’s potential for more to be added as the year goes on, but the 13 races that make the backbone of her calendar, which kicks off in Valencia this month, are the scene of some of her biggest successes. The season will include the Tour de France Femmes, Giro d’Italia Donne, and La Vuelta Femenina, all of which she won last year, as well as the top one-day races on the calendar.
It’s still hard to imagine a world without Van Vleuten racing, but the changing of the guard was always going to happen and the 40-year-old would surely want to go out at the top. With the rainbow jersey of world road race champion on her back this year, what better way to draw the curtain on her illustrious career.
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There’s a small chance that she might hold on through 2024 to encompass the Olympic Games, but the Paris course is unlikely to suit her and the Dutch are likely to look elsewhere for success in that event.
This year will, more than likely, be Van Vleuten’s last hurrah as a professional. After enjoying possibly the best season of her career so far in 2022, can she top it in her final year?
Few riders do truly get the opportunity to go out at the peak of their abilities and it takes some guts to step away when you know that you’ve potentially got more in the tank.
Van Vleuten’s long-time rival and compatriot Anna van der Breggen did it aged just 31 when she could have arguably maintained a career for at least five more years. She has stuck to her guns, though, and is quickly developing herself as a sport director behind the wheel of the SD Worx car.
Van der Breggen’s final season in 2021 could prove an interesting contrast to Van Vleuten’s last effort, but it could also be a warning as to the challenges of maintaining a full season at the top when your final day is fast approaching.
In 2021, Van der Breggen went into the season as a dual world champion, having taken the rainbow jersey in the road race and time trial in Imola the year before. She blitzed the opening part of the season, with wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Flèche Wallonne, and the Vuelta a Burgos before taking her fourth overall title at the Giro d’Italia Donne.
The second half of the season did not go quite as well for Van der Breggen as she struggled with fatigue. In the end, her final races proved more of a parade lap.
Keeping the hype for a full season when the end of your career is on the horizon can be tough to do. However, Van Vleuten ability to push herself comes second to none and she’s unlikely to turn up at races to pootle about. She will want to go out with a bang.
If Van Vleuten can achieve a similar level of success this year as she did in 2022, all while wearing the rainbow jersey, it could possibly be her greatest season ever.
The ability to go out in a blaze of glory will not just be down to Van Vleuten, though she is pretty hard to beat when she is at her best. Her rivals in the pack will want an opportunity to win against her and not just wait for her retirement to start notching up the big victories.
Van Vleuten provides a big target for teams to focus on going into this season, possibly more so than Van der Breggen did despite her blistering talent.
FDJ-Suez has already put its neck out in recent weeks with team manager Stephen Delcourt saying that he wants to defeat Van Vleuten before she hangs up her racing wheels, setting the major target of the Tour de France Femmes.
While the French squad has so far been the only one bold enough to state its intentions, there will surely be plenty of other teams and riders looking to topple the Dutch superstar before she stops racing. Nobody will want to let her just ride off into the sunset without taking her on.
As dominant as Van Vleuten’s been over the past few seasons, her performances may well leave a lasting legacy as riders and teams fight to match her supreme abilities. Her rides have forced others to up their game just to keep within touching distance.
While she might end the season slightly disappointed if she loses out on some of her bigger targets, her defeat could also be a positive sign for the health of women’s cycling as it continues to develop.
However Van Vleuten’s 2023 season pans out it’s going to be exciting to watch.