Has the peloton closed the gap to Annemiek van Vleuten in 2023?

With no wins in nine races, Van Vleuten hasn't waited longer for a first season victory since 2016. What's up with the world champion?

Photo: Getty Images

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Annemiek van Vleuten has gone nine race days without a win in 2023.

That might not sound so much, but it is by Van Vleuten’s standards. The Dutch woman hasn’t waited this long for a first win of the season since 2016 when she took her debut win on her 24th day of racing.

Van Vleuten will hope that she won’t have to get through that many race days before she hits the top step and she looked like she was making progress at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday. Though she finished seventh, she put in a stinging attack on the penultimate time up the Mur de Huy that put a few people in trouble.

“The idea was that if I went on the Mur, maybe I could surprise people. And besides, if you go on the Mur, then everyone suffers, because it is so steep that in the wheel it is also difficult. It actually worked, because no one from SD Worx was there. I attacked like it was the finish, so all out,” Van Vleuten said of her Flèche Wallonne attack in a post on her website.

“On the Cherave I noticed that Demi Vollering was really strong. She was already driving a nice pace there and I had quite a bit of trouble with that. Then I knew it wasn’t my best day anyway. I can conclude that I am not bad, but that I was better in other years. I’m just not top notch and others are better. In combination, that leads to seventh place today.”

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In the past, an attack like that from Van Vleuten may have stuck — even at Flèche Wallonne — but she and her companions were reeled back in.

Van could end her winless run this Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. However, unusually for the Movistar rider, she won’t be the ultimate favorite for the race despite being the defending champion.

She admitted after Flèche that she wasn’t at her previous peak.

“After today I can conclude that I’m not as great as I used to be. I don’t know what that is about. It was very nice that Liane finished second,” Van Vleuten said. “That does offer ingredients to make a race for Sunday because maybe I should have it a little more. But we still have a few days to think about how we are going to handle it in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”

With just one visit to the podium this year during a stage of the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana, Van Vleuten’s 2023 season is a stark contrast to her 2022 campaign where she seemed practically unbeatable in hilly races and stages.

Last year, she won 13 of her 40 race days and finished second on another five occasions. There were only a handful of times throughout the entire year that she was beaten in a head-to-head contest, such as Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders in the spring, and the Tour de Romandie in October.

This year, the only time she looked close to winning was the queen stage of the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana.

Annemiek van Vleuten hasn't been her best this spring but she's still a threat
Annemiek van Vleuten hasn’t been her best this spring but she’s still a threat (Photo: Gruber Images)

It leaves the question, what has happened to Van Vleuten?

There’s no one answer to that question. Indeed, it is likely a combination of factors that has seen the Dutchwoman slide down the standings in 2023.

There has been an element of bad luck in some of Van Vleuten’s results, such as the crash she had shortly before the Muur van Geraardsbergen at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad or the crash she had at the Tour of Flanders at another key moment.

It’s not as though Van Vleuten didn’t have bad luck in 2022, but she was able to overcome it in a way she hasn’t been able to this year.

Secondly, it is tough — even for a rider like Van Vleuten — to maintain such a high level for a long time. Van Vleuten went deep last year to smash just about every major stage race, often obliterating her rivals.

She had to ride through illness at the Tour de France Femmes and suffered a broken elbow at the end of the season and still rode on to win the world title a few days after the crash that caused it. It’s not just physical, but mental reserves that are needed to bounce back.

That can take a lot out of a rider, and she could still be feeling the strain after such a big year.

It’s not all about Van Vleuten, though, and the rest of the peloton has been doing some work over the winter.

After she put the bunch to the sword so often last year, many riders and teams went into the off-season with the desire to beat Van Vleuten. FDJ-Suez was outspoken in its desire to take her on during her final season rather than wait for her to retire to search out the big wins.

With growing investment in the women’s peloton, particularly since the WorldTeam licenses were introduced in 2020, an increasing number of riders have been able to dedicate their full time to training and racing. This change has resulted in the strength of the peloton getting far deeper and the number of riders able to take the win in any race is bigger than ever.

Even with her hyper-focused approach to training, Van Vleuten can’t stop the passage of time. There are younger riders who are beginning to really flourish after time taken to develop at the highest level.

Perhaps Van Vleuten has slowed a little since her standout 2022, but the rest of the pack is taking big strides forward as well.

Demi Vollering, who was the person that could get closest to her at the Tour de France Femmes last year, is one such rider that has surged ahead over the winter. At 26 years old and just her fifth season as a professional, Vollering has more space to improve while Van Vleuten has likely mined the majority of her potential at this stage.

Is that to say that Van Vleuten won’t win at all in her final year? Of course not, but it’s likely going to be a lot harder for her than it was in previous seasons.

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