UCI Road World Championships: Annemiek van Vleuten celebrates greatest victory

"It took me some time to realize that I had pulled it off because I was waiting for the moment when someone would tell me it was a joke."

Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images

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WOLLONGONG, Australia (VN) — Annemiek van Vleuten pulled off what many people had thought was impossible by winning the road race at the UCI Road World Championships just three days after fracturing her elbow.

Van Vleuten hit the deck in the opening meters of the mixed team relay after a mechanical problem caused her bike to stop abruptly. As she sat on the ground in shock from the catastrophic end to her race, it looked as though her worlds would be ending.

She was later diagnosed with a fractured elbow and her participation in the road race was in doubt. The doctors cleared her to race, but she only made the call to start Friday evening, just hours before the race was set to begin.

“I think maybe it’s my best victory from my whole career,” a clearly emotional Van Vleuten said in her post-race press conference. “With the whole week that I’ve been through and also, it’s quite a story, I think. Maybe it’s an inspiration for everybody that if you break your elbow still miracles can happen if you race. I’m still speechless, I still cannot believe it. I was still a committed domestique today. I was not thinking about my own chances, only in the last kilometer.”

Van Vleuten’s crash on Wednesday appeared to be the final nail in the coffin of a world championships that just wasn’t going to plan for the Dutch woman. As always, she came into the event in Australia as a favorite for at least one, if not more, rainbow jerseys.

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With her impending retirement at the end of next season, this was going to be her last chance to secure a year in the jersey of world champion. She got off to a stuttering start in the time trial where she slumped to seventh in what she described as a “shit” day on the bike.

The mixed team relay was an early chance for redemption, but it went more wrong than she could have imagined and it looked as though it would snatch away any chance to take a result, let alone a jersey, from Wollongong.

“I was super disappointed after I broke my elbow, and I was waking up every morning and thinking ‘what a nightmare is this world championships’ because when you realize that all your plans that you had for these world championships with attacking with 125km to go that it was all gone. I felt so sad,” she said.

“After I broke my elbow, there was not one second that I thought it was possible to win this world championships. All my dreams were finished after I broke my elbow. It’s also what I immediately said to the soigneur, I felt my elbow was not feeling really good. I said, ‘all my chances for this world championships are gone, all my ambitions are now gone.’ You could also see in the race that I was not super good. I could not follow the girls on the climb. In the end, I was the strongest it the team and I managed to get into the group and I took the moment.”

All for one

It was clear from early on that Van Vleuten was, unsurprisingly, not her usual self. Prior to her crash Wednesday, most expected her to rip up the race over the Mount Keira climb before the finishing circuits with the rest then forced to try and bring her back before the line.

In the end, she put in a conservative ride over the big ascent, helping to keep the race together for the Netherlands’ other leader Marianne Vos. It made for a much steadier start to the day and the race did not explode until well into the circuits where several nations, including Italy, Switzerland, and Germany started forcing moves off the front of what remained of the peloton.

Both Vos and Van Vleuten struggled with the accelerations over the two steep climbs and had to chase back on when the road flattened out. As the race hit the climbs for the final time, a group of five riders pushed clear again.

Van Vleuten was in the first chasing group and could be seen searching for her teammate as she crested the climb. Vos was in another group just slightly further back, but Van Vleuten decided to stay where she was rather than drop back after seeing who else was missing from the group.

“I was super proud to be at the start line with my teammates. I was sure that we were 100 percent committed to go for Marianne. We really had one goal,” Van Vleuten said. “On the lap before [the final], I was waiting for her to come back. I also didn’t see Australia there so I thought she would be surrounded by Australians hopefully and they would bring her back.

“I just decided not to ride for the group and just wait for her. I had the feeling that when she came back she would have the chance to win the sprint, for sure.”

In the end, Vos’ group was unable to regain contact but Van Vleuten’s caught the leading group of five inside the final kilometer. She hardly hesitated as the catch was made, striking out from the back of the pack to take the whole bunch by surprise. By the time she had passed them, she built up too much momentum for them to reel her in.

Perhaps burned by her experience at the Olympic Games last year, where she celebrated the victory only to learn that Anna Kiesenhofer had been up the road and she’d taken silver, Van Vleuten didn’t know if she should believe that she had taken the victory.

“It took me some time to realize that I had pulled it off because I was waiting for the moment when someone would tell me that there was someone in front or it was a joke. Still, I cannot believe it because when I attacked I thought for sure the sprinters would catch me,” she said.

“I knew that I had a small chance, but I went for it because for sure in the sprint I wouldn’t have a chance with my broken elbow and a lot of sprinters in that group. So, that’s also why I wasn’t celebrating at the finish because I had the feeling that it cannot be true. I’m still speechless.”

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