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Van Vleuten bookended her classics campaign with victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In between, she racked up three runners-up spots at Strade Bianche, the Tour of Flanders, and Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne, plus a fourth place at the Amstel Gold Race.
Over the years, Van Vleuten has become accustomed to winning nearly everything she’s put her attention to, and so her spring may have looked a touch disappointing until her win in Liège.
However, she says that her form is as good as ever and the peloton has closed the gap to her, saying in her post-race flash interview at Liège that winning had “become harder” in women’s racing.
“I know that it’s my best spring ever, also if I look to my numbers, to the power output I have in training but also in races, also the times on Strava for example: I was never so fast on the Mur de Huy, but someone was faster than me,” Van Vleuten said.
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“I can notice that the level is growing. I’m also better but there’s more girls that are able to win. It’s the development we want to have. It’s not so easy anymore to win but it also makes every win more beautiful if you really need to fight for it.”
Through all of the near-misses this season, Van Vleuten has kept a smile on her face. She has never looked, or sounded, disappointed with what she’s got out of each race and has always had a good word to say about her rivals.
Asked after Liège whether the first place was something of a relief after so many second places, Van Vleuten dismissed the idea. She is excited to see the level of the bunch get ever higher and relishes the challenge of competing against stronger riders.
“It’s not a relief. Also, without a win I would go home as a happy person because I know that I had the confidence from the Mur de Huy in Flèche that I’m in a really good shape,” she said in a post-race press conference. “It’s a bit more easy to keep the journalists calm because then I get less nasty questions like yesterday that I always get second.
“I don’t have that feeling but I got that question and I was laughing about it. I know that I had my best spring campaign ever, so I still believe in myself and in my level. Maybe people in the Netherlands got a bit spoiled that it was so easy to pull off the wins. It’s become harder. We should be happy about it becoming harder to win because it makes winning more beautiful.”
The growing level of the peloton was in Van Vleuten’s mind as she made her plan of attack for the race. She knew that it would take much more than it had in previous years to get a winning gap and aimed to make two big moves over the final two ascents of the Côte de la Redoute and the Côte de Roche-aux-Faucons.
She briefly linked up with SD Worx’s Marlen Reusser following her first big attack but could not get a substantial advantage. It wasn’t until the tough slopes of the Roche-aux-Faucons that she snapped the elastic, catching and then dropping FDJ’s Grace Brown before going it alone.
“It’s also one of the reasons to go on La Redoute in combination with the Roche-aux-Faucons because the strength in the peloton is so high,” Van Vleuten said. “In 2019 when I won solo from La Redoute, I didn’t expect that today because the level is too high now that you can go with one attack. That’s why the plan was to go on La Redoute and then again on La Roche-aux-Faucons.
“My strength is to make more people tired and get rid of the explosiveness of other riders so they can’t attack me.”
As she has had several times this season, Van Vleuten had several riders capitalizing on her effort and sitting on her wheel. Following her first attack, Reusser latched on to Van Vleuten’s wheel and allowed the Dutch rider to do the work.
Asked about it afterward, Van Vleuten said it didn’t annoy her and she rather felt it was a vote of confidence in her abilities.
“I always try to turn things around and see it as a compliment that they see me as their biggest competitor. It means that they are also aware that I’m in a good shape. I try not to get annoyed by things I can’t control,” she said. “It’s something I learned from my therapist that I should only focus on things that I can control. That’s making the best out of the courses. If they’re in my wheel, then they’re there. I don’t get annoyed about it. I’m already trying to get the situation changed and get it in my favor.”
Van Vleuten never looked under strain as she rode solo to the line, but she was keen to impress afterward that it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“Maybe for the TV spectator it looks like I’m the strongest, but I just have the feeling that I’m destroying myself there,” she explained. “At the top I look back and see what the result was of my efforts. It hurts like hell. I really go all out there so I can’t go any faster. At that moment I don’t feel strong. I just feel like I destroyed myself. I also try to keep in mind that if I destroy myself on La Redoute that I’m also destroying the other ones.”