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Could Annemiek van Vleuten see a double rainbow over Flanders?
Only two riders, male or female, have ever won the time trial and road race in the same year — Jeannie Longo in 1995, and Anna van der Breggen in 2020.
Van der Breggen has already put paid to any idea that she might do the double-double after she pulled out of the time trial due to the fatigue of a long season. However, her Dutch teammate van Vleuten is well placed to take both rainbow jerseys on offer for the elite women.
The possibility of a rainbow sweep is not a new one for van Vleuten, who has looked capable of doing it for several years now. In 2017, she went into the worlds in Bergen, Norway, as a major favorite for the TT and road race for the first time in her career.
On that occasion, she smashed the time trial and beat van der Breggen by more than 12 seconds. However, the road race victory would ultimately go to another Dutch rider with Chantal van den Broek-Blaak taking with a solo breakaway while van Vleuten took fourth from the chase group.
A year later, the odds were once again in her favor to score a double rainbow in Innsbruck.
She would once again thrash the time trial, winning by nearly 30 seconds. A crash during the road race would leave her with a broken knee and hamper any chance of her going for the win, let alone taking it. Despite the injury, she set up van der Breggen for the race-winning move.
“Can’t believe it. So many emotions now. Will heal, but will take time… (weeks),” she wrote on social media after the race. “I felt okay even if my knee was painful, I can’t explain it.”
Fast forward another year to Yorkshire and van Vleuten was outgunned by U.S. rider Chloé Dygert and van der Breggen, leaving her to settle for third. She wasn’t going to be outdone in the road race again and poured any TT disappointment she had by attacking with over 100k to go to take the title.
In last year’s worlds in Imola, the chance at the double was taken off the table far earlier when she broke her wrist at the Giro Rosa. She decided to skip the time trial to give herself some extra time for the road race, where she raced with a brace on her wrist.
With van Vleuten injured, it was van der Breggen that stole center stage with her impressive performances in the time trial and road race. For van Vleuten, it was the first time in four years that she would leave a world championships without at least one rainbow jersey.
This year, van Vleuten is back to make sure 2020 was just a rare rainbowless blip.
Van Vleuten has been one of the dominant presences in the peloton once again this year. From her marauding win at the Tour of Flanders to her blazing attack at the recent Challenge by La Vuelta to take a second stage victory and the overall title.
Five years on from Burgen, van Vleuten is still as versatile as ever and she nearly took a historic double at the Olympic Games, finishing second in the road race before storming to the TT win.
Her form since Tokyo has been commanding, winning San Sebastián, Ladies Tour of Norway, and Challenge by La Vuelta in the last six weeks. She also helped compatriot Ellen van Dijk to the road race title at the European championships last week.
“I had a very good day today,” van Vleuten said after her long solo break to win in Spain. “The first two days I struggled with some altitude fatigue because I hadn’t really tapered this time. With a view to what is to come, I wanted to make the most of the altitude training. The time trial was only about 20 minutes of effort, so that was relatively favorable to get back some hours. As a result, I noticed today that I was super fit. That’s what I often train for because of the many hours I have great fitness.”
There’s no doubt that van Vleuten is again a huge favorite in the time trial and road race in Flanders. Despite her undoubted talents and recent domination, neither victory is a foregone conclusion.
While van der Breggen may have eliminated herself from the chrono, van Vleuten must still take on Swiss time trialist Marlen Reusser and former TT world champion van Dijk. The Flanders course, which is mostly flat with some long straights where power is key, suits Reusser and van Dijk more so than it does van Vleuten. The likes of Lisa Brennauer and Lisa Klein of Germany will also be ones to watch.
However, van Vleuten is a rider that you can never dismiss — especially at the highest level — and Reusser and van Dijk will have to watch their backs.
In the road race, there will be plenty of strong nations looking for glory, including the USA, Italy, Great Britain, and Belgium. Despite this, van Vleuten’s biggest challengers are likely to come from within her own team.
The Dutch have dominated the road race in recent years, winning the last four and six of the last 10. The team will have four former road race champions in its line-up, any of which stands a chance of staking their claim on the rainbow bands in Leuven in just over a week.
History tells us that a Dutch rider is likely to win again this year but it doesn’t say which one and the Dutch rarely ride with a single protected leader in mind, and why should they when the team is so strong. Van Vleuten is the most on-form rider at the moment within the squad, but an element of luck is needed for her to come out top dog Sunday.
There are some major challenges in finding a double rainbow, but van Vleuten is not one to shy away from those.