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She’s a fierce competitor in every race she starts, she has an almost 100% win ratio in 2020, and she’s a dominant force in women’s cycling. But Annemiek van Vleuten is so much more than that. She’s a lover of life, an adventurer, loyal in her friendships, inquisitive, happy and grateful in an almost childlike manner with everything this bike racing adventure brings her. She’s always curious to improve herself in what she loves and does best: racing her bike.
Meet the world champion who went from adversity to adversity to the best she has ever been at age 37.
“I came into cycling very late,” Van Vleuten starts as we drive to the Dutch national championships together. “The bike didn’t even play a role in my life until my final year at university. I studied animal sciences and specialized in zoonoses and epidemiology at the University of Wageningen, the town I still live in.
“I had an amazing time at university. The friends I made there are still my friends. We continued living together in our student house for over seven years after graduation. It shows how much fun we had. It’s also important to me to have friends outside of cycling. We are still very close after spending those student years together.”
When it comes to years on the bike, Van Vleuten is actually still a newbie. She first enjoyed life to the fullest as a student, including all the extras that come with those formative years.
“I did many extracurricular activities for our student council and had parties until late at night,” she recalls. “Doing all that would have been impossible if cycling would have been my main focus in those years. I am glad it wasn’t because my student time was an important time in my life. It was an utterly carefree time and is a memory I still cherish.”
Van Vleuten finished her degree but didn’t think about continuing in the world of science. She ended up in an office doing research into the labor market but the freedom of bike racing was calling. She only needed a way to make it work financially.
“The scientific world didn’t appeal to me,” she says. “I loved taking all these classes in physiology and epidemiology but being locked up in a room to complete my thesis was the worst part of my student years. Completing a PhD would have been exactly that: locked in a room for years.
“The office job I then got wasn’t all that great too and the day I handed in my resignation letter my then-boss told me he had never seen me happier at work. I had started cycling by then and cut my hours at work from 32 to 24 already to ride more. I still lived in the student house and hardly had any monthly costs which enabled me to quit and pursue my dreams and see how far cycling would get me.”
Van Vleuten had played a little football during her college years but a leg injury put an end to that. Cycling and swimming were the only sports she could do so she joined the student cycling and swimming clubs.
“I needed a way to keep that student party weight under control,” she says. “Any sports putting too much strain on my legs were off the menu so I ended up in the pool. Even if I had a massive talent for swimming, I would never have become a top athlete. The monotone and inside nature of the sport doesn’t appeal to me. It would have become a job, a burden. I have a huge respect for triathletes but training multiple times a day and being in that pool at 7am? No, not my thing.
“People wouldn’t expect it but I am a bit lazy at heart. Cycling is a way to be outside and to hang with other people. From that student cycling club, I ended up at the WV Ede cycling club and that’s where it all started.”
It was at the club in Ede, on a local track next to a freeway, that Van Vleuten realized she had a talent. The trainer at the club sent her to the Papendal training institute for some tests and the scores matched the ones of the best female riders at the time.
“We were on that track at night because we all had day jobs to go to,” she says. “With fluoro vests and lights on the bike we did some intervals and I could follow the men of our club. Tests at Papendal confirmed I naturally have a high VO2 max and power. The student kilos meant that it didn’t result in a good watts-per-kg but that’s something I could work on. The other factors were genetic.
“I was triggered to continue on this path and see where it would lead to.”
This was in 2007. Her rise to fame gradually started. On her way she was met with many setbacks. Three surgeries were required between 2009 and 2013 to end her problems with blocked iliac arteries on both sides. She also lost her father to cancer before her rise in the cycling world began.
But to Van Vleuten adversity is not the end of the story — it’s always the beginning of a new chapter. She has a view on life she calls “omdenken” or “reverse thinking”, where she always tries to get the best out of a situation instead of being stopped by the pain and sadness it causes.
“With every situation you can either sit on the couch and do nothing or you can try and make the best of it and focus on the things you can actually control,” she explains. “My development was hampered by those surgeries and I was turning 30 when I had the last one. I was also held back in the team I was riding for.
“In the first years of the Rabobank era I had time to grow in the shadow of Marianne Vos but then both Anna van der Breggen and Pauline Ferrand Prévot joined. We became a super team with 1, 2 and 3 in the Giro. There was no need for me to start climbing for example. We already had so many climbers on the team. I was sidetracked.
“Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time with the team but I wasn’t triggered anymore to get better or learn new things. I did what I did and it was fine for the team management.”
In 2011, before joining Rabobank, Van Vleuten won the Tour of Flanders, Open de Suede Vargårdå and GP Plouay in the same season. In 2012, her first of three with Rabobank, her victories included the Dutch road title plus stages of the Emakumeen Euskal Bira. A handful of smaller victories followed in 2013. In 2014 she won two stages of the Giro Rosa plus three stages and the overall at the Belgium Tour.
She was building an impressive palmares that many would be jealous of, but Van Vleuten is someone that needs mental and physical challenges to motivate herself. She found that in climbing, a road she started down a year before the 2016 Rio Olympics.
After seeing the course in 2015 she knew she had to climb better to make it onto the Dutch team, like she did in London 2012 where she helped Marianne Vos win the Olympic gold. Come the Rio road race, Van Vleuten had improved her climbing so much that she was able to climb her way into the race lead. With 12 km to go she appeared to be riding to a gold medal. But then she overshot a right-hand bend and crashed out in horrific fashion.
“Many people remember my crash during the Rio de Janeiro Olympic road race and see that as a turning point in my career,” Van Vleuten says. “It’s actually not. The turning point was the race before the crash. I was the best climber of the world that day and that was something I was determined to build on after that crash. I became hungry for more.
“I was always told I couldn’t climb and you start to believe that. I feared the Cauberg but in 2016 I attacked on the Cauberg. Me! An uphill attack! Even on the eve before the Olympic race I was ready to support Anna [van der Breggen] but things clicked that day. Gradually my confidence grew and I started working with a sports dietitian and trainer to work on my climbing.
“At Mitchelton-Scott they had the faith in me I missed in those final years at Rabobank. Finding yourself in an environment that supports you and has faith in you makes you work even harder.”
Nobody has to tell Van Vleuten to work hard. The motivation comes from within. She is not necessarily a rider who needs competition or wins to motivate herself to work hard. She is motivated by trying to find the small improvements she can still make. That’s what got her through the quarantine period in such grand form this season.
“I knew I had the talent and I wanted to get everything out of myself,” she says. “I still do every single day. That’s my biggest and only drive. I must admit that finding the small ways to improve myself are more and more difficult to find. At the beginning you make these big leaps forward and those are hugely motivational. Now I have to look a little bit harder to find those gains. But I can still find them.”
She also tries to find ways to get out of her comfort zone. Training is something she enjoys but she needs the mental and physical triggers to keep putting in the long hours. She found that spark in Colombia, a new adventure that started after a conversation with her Mitchelton-Scott teammate Esteban Chaves and team PR manager Taryn Kirby.
“[Chaves] said I should try a training camp in Colombia,” Van Vleuten says. “Taryn had also been there before and told me it’s not as dangerous as the country’s image suggests. My neighbours have an adopted son from Colombia so I felt it was all meant to be. My mum didn’t really agree. She just asked me to go back to Spain like I always did but being on [Mount] Teide on Tenerife with all the cyclists kept me in that bubble. I needed to experience new things.”
She booked a ticket to Colombia in 2018 but had to postpone her journey after a horrible crash during the Innsbruck world championships where she broke her leg but still managed to finish the race. That setback, after the iliac surgeries and the Rio crash, only increased her motivation to try this adventure in Colombia. She always finds motivation in adversity.
“At the world championships in Bergen [in 2016] I had traded jerseys with [Colombian rider] Diana Peñuela but I didn’t really know her,” she recalls. “Here I was at the airport in Amsterdam thinking to myself why I actually wanted that out-of-my-comfort-zone experience so badly. I had all those preconceptions about Colombia too but the moment I landed in Colombia and was welcomed in Manizales that feeling was gone. I was so welcome they even held a press conference for me.
“I rode with the locals and got dropped by old guys on mountain bikes in the climb to 4,000 metres above sea level. I used my ‘reverse thought’ process again and knew that if it hurt so badly it was probably good training. And I wasn’t bothered by people passing me on the climb. I was there to improve myself and enjoy the country, its people and its culture. It was a hugely enriching experience. I even learned some Spanish. All these new experiences energize me.”
After her move to Mitchelton-Scott and the Rio Olympics Van Vleuten rose through the ranks of women’s cycling. Since 2016 she has won 43 races including time trial and road race world titles, the Giro Rosa twice, and many WorldTour races like Strade Bianche, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Boels Ladies Tour. Her 2019 world title in Yorkshire with a solo attack of a 100 kilometres is a memorable moment. It also resulted in fierce criticism about her race weight.
“Weight is always an issue in this sport and being the top athletes, we are … we always balance on the line,” she said. “The weight I had in Yorkshire was something I can hold for two weeks. I love eating too much. I know it wasn’t a great advertisement and I never want to be that person advocating extreme weight loss to be successful. But we do have two standards in cycling. If a man looks like that before the Tour de France, we praise him for being ripped and sharp and ready and if a woman does the same for a big race, she has anorexia.
“Anorexia is a very serious, dangerous, and destructive illness that I have seen in my vicinity. There are women and men balancing on that very thin line and that’s why I feel team doctors should have a say in whether a rider can race. That is not about weight only but also other variables like DEXA scans [to determine body composition] or blood values. If racing poses a danger to a rider’s health, the team doctor should stop them from racing. I feel that’s part of the professionalization of the sport.”
At 37, Van Vleuten feels she is stronger than ever. The motivation from within is her strongest weapon. She has a naturally inquisitive nature and is happy when the improvements she tries work out.
“When I feel that I am not curious anymore or when that will to take my bike out of the shed to train a few hours is gone, the spark is gone,” she says. “The fire is quenched. That means this adventure ends but it’s also a new beginning to start experiencing other things. I would love to get more people, more women riding. Riding together and having a coffee halfway is a great social and healthy thing to do.
“Yes, I see myself doing those coffee rides in the future. Bike riding is just fun and it will always be that way for me.”