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The final “Grand Tour” of the season ended on Sunday, and within the peloton racing up and down the streets of Madrid sat the red leader’s jersey on the shoulders of Annemiek van Vleuten. All she had to do was finish in the lead group, or even a group or two behind, and the race was hers. For someone of her experience, it was an easy thing to do. So as Elisa Balsamo sprinted to victory, Van Vleuten effortlessly crossed the line, the winner of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta.
The red jersey is the third major general classification title for Van Vleuten in 2022. Whether she is attacking until she’s alone or just riding her rivals off her wheel, the Dutchwoman has a knack for winning these races with one massive solo attack that wraps up the GC for good.
Women don’t have “Grand Tours”. According to the Wikipedia definition, a Grand Tour is a stage race that lasts more than 14 days. The longest race on the women’s calendar is 10 days, the Giro Donne, but for the first time this year, the women competed in three WorldTour stage races that hold the same, or similar names, as the men’s three-week races. Two of the three either ended or started on the same day as the men’s races, and in the same place. So for the sake of argument let’s just say three Grand Tour jerseys were up for grabs in 2022.
The fight for the first Grand Tour started at the end of June, and pretty early into the 10-day race the pink jersey was in the hands of Van Vleuten. Stage 4, which was not originally billed as a general classification day, turned into the defining stage of the race when Van Vleuten attacked with 40 km to go. This started her bid for pink, but the race was over after she won stage 8 by almost a minute.
Van Vleuten went solo on the eighth stage, leaving her closest rivals in the overall Marta Cavalli and Mavi García behind. Even a crash on the final descent didn’t impact her ability to take a huge chunk of time out of the race.
The next jersey up for grabs, and potentially the most valuable of the season, was yellow. Every general classification rider in the peloton had their eye on the Tour de France avec Zwift, and after her performance at the Giro, Van Vleuten was the one to beat. There was some hope that Demi Vollering and Marta Cavalli would give her a good fight, but in the end, Van Vleuten won the race with a solo breakaway on stage 7.
A nearly three-and-a-half-minute GC lead didn’t stop Van Vleuten from attacking the very next day on the final climb La Super Planche des Belles Filles. She won both stages and ended up winning yellow by three minutes and 48 seconds.
Next was the red jersey of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, but this time it looked like Van Vleuten might not win. The course, in her own words, wasn’t hard enough. But by the end of the second stage, the Dutchwoman was leading the overall by nearly two minutes, and, as the race was only five stages, there wasn’t enough road for anyone to challenge.
Nearing the end of her penultimate season, Van Vleuten will be hanging up a pink, a yellow, and a red jersey on her wall. All three jerseys won with solo attacks that left the rest of the race minutes behind.
It’s hard to imagine Movistar replicating the same kind of success come 2024, but the Spanish team has signed Liane Lippert – second at the recent Tour of Scandinavia and just off the podium at the Ceratizit Challenge – in the hopes that Van Vleuten herself can coach the German national champion in her ways.
In case there was any doubt, and there wasn’t, Van Vleuten has cemented herself as the best female stage racer of the age. She has won the Tour of Norway, the Boels Ladies Tour, three Giros, and two Vueltas. Nearly every win has come from solo attacks.
The sport will lose a true legend when Van Vleuten hangs her final jersey at the end of 2023, but what is exciting is the fight for second at all three Grand Tours this year has been close. There’s a whole bunch of riders contesting the other two steps of the podium.
When it comes time to race for jerseys in 2024 the race really will be wide open.