Van Vleuten takes a remarkable Worlds win despite a fractured elbow

The Dutchwoman was well out of contention, until she wasn't.

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WOLLONGONG, Australia (CT) – We probably shouldn’t be surprised by the things Annemiek van Vleuten can do on a bike anymore. Such has been the magnitude of her achievements over the past few years. But in Saturday’s elite women’s road race at the Wollongong Worlds, the 39-year-old Dutchwoman left all onlookers stunned with a most unlikely victory.

Van Vleuten had come into the race with a fractured elbow and looked a long way off her best. She was unable to ride out of the saddle when the road tilted up – as is her preferred style – and she would later describe the pain as “hell”. She missed two decisive splits on the Mount Pleasant climbs late in the race and looked to be gone from contention, along with her leader for the day, Marianne Vos.

And when a leading group of five was caught by a chasing group just 1.1 km from the finish, setting up a small-group sprint, Van Vleuten was still just off the back. But when she made contact with the front around 500 metres from the line, she did so at great speed, surging past the group despite her broken elbow.

The 11-strong group behind her hesitated, giving Van Vleuten enough time to hold on for a most unlikely road race world title; the second of her career.

Lotte Kopecky (Belgium) led in the chase group for silver, ahead of Silvia Persico (Italy).

Stunned to have won, Van Vleuten didn’t celebrate when she crossed the line. (Photo by Con Chronis/Getty Images)

Standing past the finish line with teammates Vos and Ellen Van Dijk, Van Vleuten kept shaking her head in disbelief. A week after a “shit day” in the individual time trial, three days after fracturing her elbow in a freak crash in the mixed team time trial relay, and after a race in which she looked significantly weakened by her injury, Van Vleuten had still found a way to win the world championships.

“I think maybe it’s my best victory from my whole career,” a thoughtful Van Vleuten said in her post-race press conference.

That’s quite a statement given some of her previous wins: her world title in 2019 after more than 100 km solo, a comprehensive victory at the inaugural Tour de France Femmes earlier this year, three editions of the Giro d’Italia Donne, an Olympic gold medal in the individual time trial …

“With the whole week I’ve been through, it’s quite a story I think,” Van Vleuten added. “Maybe also it’s inspiration for people, like ‘If you break your elbow, still miracles can happen if you race.'”

Remarkably, this is the third Worlds Van Vleuten has finished with a broken bone. At the 2018 Worlds in Innsbruck, Van Vleuten fractured her kneecap in a crash and still managed to finish seventh. In 2020 she broke her wrist in the lead-up to the Imola Worlds but still managed to finish second. And today, Van Vleuten was in pain for virtually the entire race, but still managed to win.

“I think the last kilometre was the only moment I didn’t feel pain in the elbow,” she said. “Especially on the climbs and when I had to go out of the saddle, that was the worst because then I had a lot of pain, because I can not put pressure on my elbow. But in the last kilometre, I even went out of the saddle and I was not feeling any pain. I just went 100%. ‘I need to go now. Full gas.'”

It was also in that final kilometre that Van Vleuten first started to think that maybe she could win the race.

“I was 100% committed domestique today, to ride for Marianne Vos,” she said. “After I broke my elbow I was not one second [thinking] it’s still possible to win these world championship. All my dreams were finished after I broke my elbow. And you could also see in the race that I was not super good; I could not follow the girls on the climb. But in the end I was actually the strongest of Team NL and I managed to get in the group and took the moment.”

Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Much of the 164 km race was spent with various small breakaways out front, leading a peloton that seemed happy to wait until the closing kilometres for any significant action.

Gladys Verhulst (France) led solo for around 30 km early on, including up and over the single ascent of Mt. Keira. Elynor Bäckstedt (Great Britain), Julie Van de Velde (Belgium), and Caroline Andersson (Sweden) took the lead as the riders approached the six city-centre circuits, leading for the best part of 50 km. Slovenia’s Špela Kern led for a few kilometres too, but it was when she was caught, around 46 km from the finish, that the tempo started to increase in a thinned-down peloton.

The home nation of Australia signalled its intent with four different riders attacking in quick succession: Amanda Spratt, Brodie Chapman, Grace Brown, and then Sarah Roy. Roy was the only of the four to get away, and led until the climbs on the penultimate lap. When she was caught, the real action began.

Liane Lippert (Germany) was the main animator, and by the top of the Mount Pleasant climb, 25 km from the finish, she was leading a group of five with Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark), Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (South Africa), and Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy). Van Vleuten was in a chase group, working for Vos.

Van Vleuten looked far from comfortable when the road went uphill. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

The lead group was caught with 13.1 km to go, inside the final lap, prompting Chapman to attack again. Marlen Reusser (Switzerland) followed soon after. But it was again on the final ascent of Mt. Pleasant that the finale really took shape.

Again it was Lippert splitting the bunch, and again it was the same four riders joining her over the top, with around 7 km to go – Niewiadoma, Moolman Pasio, Uttrup Ludwig, and Longo Borghini. Despite riding for Vos, Van Vleuten had gapped her team leader over the top and pushed on, joining a chase group in the closing kilometres.

“I didn’t see Australia there in my group so I thought [Vos] will be surrounded by Australians hopefully and then they will bring her back,” Van Vleuten said of her decision not to wait for Vos. “So I just decided not to ride with the group and just wait for her. Because I had a feeling that when she comes back she still has a chance to win this sprint for sure.”

Vos never made it back to the front. The group in front of Van Vleuten did, reaching the leading five with 1.1 km to go. It took Van Vleuten a little longer, but when she did, she caught the leaders unaware, ultimately riding to a most unlikely victory.

“It took me some time to realise that I really pulled it off because I was waiting for the moment that they would tell me like ‘No, there was someone in front’ [or] that it was a joke,” Van Vleuten said. “Still I can’t believe it. Because also I thought when I attacked ‘For sure the sprinters will catch me.’

“I knew that I had a really tiny chance if I go for it because for sure in the sprint, I will not have any chance with my broken elbow, with a lot of sprinters in that group. Also that’s why I was not celebrating at the finish, because I have the feeling that it cannot be true. I’m still speechless.”

Speaking to the press later, a disappointed Kopecky praised Van Vleuten’s move and said the group was too slow to react.

“Annemiek had just the perfect moment and I think, not only myself, but also the others just make the mistake that we didn’t react immediately,” she said. “But she came with speed from behind and it was just a very smart and good attack.”

Van Vleuten holding off the sprinters with her brilliant late move.

New Zealand’s Niamh Fisher-Black took the first-ever U23 women’s world title after finishing 12th in the combined field, in the chase group behind Van Vleuten. Pfeiffer Georgi (Great Britain) took silver (16th in the combined field) while Ricarda Bauernfeind (Germany) took bronze with 20th from the combined field.

Fisher-Black has previously been critical of the race-within-a-race setup of the U23 title, and while she stuck by her comments after winning the world title, she was delighted to have taken the rainbow jersey.

“My focus was on the race around me today and that race was to cross the line first, in the elites too,” Fisher-Black said. “This [the U23 title] was just something else to play in the mind and obviously nothing takes away from it. I’m wearing a rainbow jersey right now and nothing takes away from that feeling. It’s one of the most special feelings I think you can get in cycling. It’s what everyone dreams of: to wear a rainbow jersey. It’s an incredible step forward for women’s cycling and I’m proud to be the first U23 winner.”

 For Van Vleuten, meanwhile, she’s now ensured she’ll race her final professional season in the rainbow jersey.

“To take it this year is better than next year,” she said with a laugh. “Now I can enjoy it all the time. Also when I was world champion we had the COVID situation so I could not race a lot of races in my world championship jersey. To race in the rainbow colours makes me really proud.”

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