Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
It’s barely been three days since the Tour de France Femmes wrapped up atop the Planche des Belles Filles. Is that too early to start thinking about next year’s race?
Maybe, but one person who has 2023 on their mind already is yellow jersey winner Annemiek van Vleuten, and the 39-year-old has some notes.
Naturally, as the Olympic time trial champion, she would like to see a race against the clock included. But aside from that, one thing she has been vocal about is her desire to race up an iconic Tour climb like Alpe d’Huez.
“Actually I would hope, because next year will be the last year [for Van Vleuten, who is retiring], that we can maybe have Alpe d’Huez,” she told the press after her win. “Being Dutch, that would be super cool to have that back. Also, in the history of the Tour de France Femmes it was also a big battle on the Alpe d’Huez. So it would be really cool to have that back.”
Such mountains would give, and possibly take away. Some have argued that the Dutch rider’s style of racing and strength in the high mountains would seem to create a certain inevitability around her taking the win, yet the Tour can not truly be the Tour without such icons.
It is possible, even probable, that Van Vleuten would run away so emphatically with the win that it would make a mild mockery of the rest of the bunch. Much as she did on stage seven this year. But Van Vleuten’s dominance, while more predictable than some would like, is elevating the level of those who are coming up behind her.
To put it simply, she deserves a shot at Alpe d’Huez.
Van Vleuten has unequivocally confirmed her retirement at the end of 2023. Her career spans 14 years and myriad achievements of a stature that most riders can only dream of. She is also the master of the comeback. From her horror crash in the road race in Rio to standing on the podium in Tokyo with silver in the road race and gold in the time trial.
Even during the Tour de France, she went from battling a stomach bug that left her barely able to pack her own suitcase to attacking after 60km and winning by a margin of 3 minutes and 26 seconds on the first of two back-to-back mountain stages.
Such is her longevity that she has won Flanders twice, ten years apart. She is a two-time world road race champion and two-time time trial world champion.
She says the span of her career and her age are the keys to her success. At the Tour de France Femmes, when faced with questions around just how she manages to do as she does, her message to fans and colleagues alike was “don’t try this at home.”
“I’m a bit older than the other girls, so can do a lot of training,” Van Vleuten said after winning stage seven. “I want to make something clear. It’s not that my colleagues don’t train as much as I do. It has something to do with training years.”
When the going gets tough, Van Vleuten thrives. She pulls off crazy and gutsy moves such as riding away from the peloton after 45km at the world championships in Yorkshire in 2019 never to be seen again. Moves which, while they may leave people groaning that she has neutralised the race, are incredible feats of athleticism and must be celebrated as such.
As of last weekend, she is the first woman to do the Giro-Tour double for 22 years and she already threw down the gauntlet for the Vuelta in her post-race press conference on Sunday.
Outside of racing, Van Vleuten has long been a vocal advocate for her sport and is keen to emphasise the need to enjoy riding when racing for a living. Having witnessed 14 years of development within women’s cycling, she is as experienced as anyone in the progress that has been made, and what is still missing.
Her aim for 2023, she has stated, is to play a role in the growth of her team, Movistar, in order to leave a legacy of professionalism.
She, like many others, will have dreamed of flying up the famous switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez one day, possibly wearing yellow, definitely on her way to winning the stage. In the closing season of such a monumental career, it is only fitting that she should be afforded the chance to live out that dream.
When she retires she will leave a legacy, and a gaping hole at the top of the sport. The competition to fill that hole will be fierce. That’s the Annemiek effect, she brings up the quality of the entire peloton as they strive to solve the conundrum of how to beat her.
She has blazed a trail for those riders who might be just one or two switchbacks behind her. They will have plenty of time to catch up to her elevation after 2023 but for now it is still the Age of Annemiek and to watch her own the race on the closest thing to a stadium our sport has would be a fitting end to a fantastic career.