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There is no slowing down Annemiek van Vleuten, not even a broken pelvis last autumn.
After soaring high throughout the year, van Vleuten ended the 2021 season with an almighty bang on the cobbles of France’s Nord region. It left her with a broken pelvis in two places and a broken shoulder and an off-season of rehab.
Most may have eased off the gas a bit and taken a little longer to get up to pace as the racing season took off, but not van Vleuten. She romped to overall victory at the Setmana Ciclista Volta a Comunitat Valenciana, the earliest she’s taken a first win of the season since 2018.
“If you realize that it’s only four-and-a-half months ago that I crashed so badly in Roubaix and left only my crutches behind in mid-December – to be able to already do this… it’s so nice to start the season this way,” van Vleuten said after her win. “It’s also nice to take the pressure off my shoulders, to show that both myself and the team are back. It’s also a Spanish race, which makes it a bigger goal for the team.
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“It’s nice to start here in the sun than in classics temperatures, also doing it in a little bit more relaxed way. You can work for four days with the team, keep learning, processing goals – which is important to take lessons for the Giro and the Tour de France. All in all, a great way to start my 2022 season.”
It’s not the first time that the 39-year-old has bounced back quickly from a big late-season injury.
In 2018, she ended the season with a broken tibia following a crash at the world championships in Innsbruck, but she took victory at Strade Bianche in the second day of racing in her 2019 campaign. She would go on to win the Giro d’Italia and the world road race later in the season.
Van Vleuten’s win and the manner in which she took it should be a warning shot to her rivals. She might be in her 40th year but she’s not come to play in 2022.
The Dutch rider stormed away from a group of four attackers, which included Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Marta Cavalli, and Mavi Garcia, on the queen stage in Valencia. She had a 25-second advantage over the group at the foot of the final climb, but she more than doubled that gap by the top of the ascent to take the win by 1:07 over Uttrup Ludwig.
Early-season races are never a fool-proof way of gauging form for later in the year, with riders ramping up their efforts differently towards major goals, but the rest of the pack will be somewhat worried by seeing how easily van Vleuten dispatched with her competitors.
There’s still time to close the gap to the marauding Dutchwoman but it will be no easy challenge over the coming months. One thing is for sure, van Vleuten will not willingly ease off the pace for them to catch up.
A team growing in confidence
It’s not just van Vleuten that’s getting off to a flying start in 2022, it’s also the team around her. Having been an also-ran in the early years of its existence, the squad has rallied around van Vleuten, and the other leaders brought into the squad, to enormous success.
Under her guidance, the team has been growing in ability and, though it might not be the squad of big hitters that SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo boast, it is turning into a top-rate squad to keep an eye on. It helps to have a leader that will finish off your work almost 100 percent of the time.
“It was super helpful to have all the team around me today. It makes it easier to keep things under control in days like this one. We never panicked; we started riding immediately when Grace Brown left, kept it under two minutes and it was fine. It was really a team effort today,” van Vleuten said Sunday
“I can see that the team is stepping up compared to last year. For some of the riders here, it was the first time defending a GC lead. I can see now that my teammates are getting more and more experienced, having won other similar races like Ardèche, so it’s good to see that the team is more able to defend a jersey and know how to do it.”
Van Vleuten will now move onto Omloop Het Niewsblad, where she will play support rather than lead, and then Strade Bianche where she’ll be aiming to win again after taking the title in 2019 and 2020.
In her success at the weekend, van Vleuten had a moment to reflect on some other events from recent months.
Movistar lost one of its long-standing soigneurs in Gary Baños after he died in a mountaineering accident in February. Meanwhile, van Vleuten’s Dutch compatriot Any Pieters remains in a coma in hospital following a training accident in December.
“Our soigneur Gary Baños died one year ago today, so that’s why I had Gary on one arm and then #StayStrongAmy on the other one, for Amy Pieters, who is still in hospital. I just wanted to think of both of them and dedicate my jersey to them.”