It was during the Drenthe races last year that Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten gave the first hints that she was a rider to watch, and that Nederland Bloeit would be much more than a team built around Marianne Vos. Coming second in the World Cup Ronde van Drenthe behind team-mate Loes Gunnewijk, then winning the Novilon Eurocup the next day was just the start – she went on to prove herself one of the dominant riders of the season, winning the Route de France and coming fifth in the women’s Grand Tour equivalent, the Tour de l’Aude (she should have won a stage, but for a mistake by the race organisers, but more on that below…) – with podium spots in many other day and stage races.
This year she has already won the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and been Road World cup leader after three different rounds, and looks to do even better than last season.
I interviewed Van Vleuten, and we talked about how her 2010 results surprised everyone, including herself, her goals for the future, the dynamics of Nederland Bloeit and much more.
Of course, the first question has to be, what was it like, winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen? Van Vleuten’s Nederland Bloeit team-mate, Sarah Düster, had been in a long break attempt with Lotto’s Ludivine Henrion, dropping her on the Molenberg – and it looked for a long time as though Düster would be able to stay away to the very end.
"At first we were really glad for Sarah – Marianne and I congratulated each other 20k from the finish – we really thought she was going to make it, and we were really happy, because we want everyone in the team to win – it gives so much energy to the team."
"Then, when we were on the lowest part of the Bosberg, we heard Jeroen [Blijlevens, the team DS] say something to Sarah, and that was the moment Marianne and I looked at each other and thought she was not going to make it. I was a little bit disappointed for her."
"After the Muur, the group split – I was in the front group with about 10 riders, and 2k before the finish we caught Sarah. That was the moment that Tatiana Antoshina attacked and I was already focused and thought I had to jump to her – it wasn’t my plan to attack there, but the rest of the group hesitated, watching each other, so I went alone."
"Antoshina was riding really fast, and that helped me – and I thought I could beat her, I was really confident in her wheel. Before the last corner I knew I could beat her in the sprint. So two metres before the finish, I could celebrate my victory."
Trofeo Alfredo Binda - & fast-forward to 13:45 for Ronde van Vlaanderen 2011
"Flanders is really the perfect example of why it’s an advantage for me to be in this team, why it is good for all of us, and we can profit from riding with Marianne, because if there are riders from our team in the final stage of the race, the other riders look at our attacks, thinking "If we chase them, Marianne will beat us in the sprint", and there’s a lot of doubt – and that makes it so much fun, it’s such a great feeling to be with team-mates at the end of a race and to play the game – it’s wonderful."
Winning Flanders was a signal that not only could Van Vleuten match her break-through 2010 season, where she was on World Cup podiums twice, but might even beat it. In 2010, at the age of 27, it felt to many like she had come out of nowhere because her palmares from her previous seasons hadn’t been anywhere near as strong. "I was a surprise to everyone, I think – and also to myself", she says.
But Van Vleuten’s spectacular step up in 2010 is easy to understand, in hindsight. Throughout 2009, riding for DSB, the team that became Nederland Bloeit, she had felt there was a problem with one of her legs, and was never able to ride as well as she felt she could. That year she was diagnosed with a narrowing of her femoral artery, caused by scar tissue, that was preventing proper blood flow to her leg, and it was operated on in September.
It wasn’t just the physical changes that made a difference to her – her year with DSB had given her new skills and knowledge that she could now put into practice.
"2009 was my first year with Marianne, and I learnt a lot, tactical stuff, how to be a more professional cyclist, and we had a really good team director to help with that. Although you could not see it in the results, because I was always suffering in the races, because of the leg, I learned a lot of things, and I could profit from that in 2010 when my leg was good – 2010 was the first year I had two legs."
2010 was also the first year she had cycled full time. Before that, she’d been working 32 hours a week, with the training and racing on top of that, and she never had the chance to relax, or see her friends or her family. So for the new season, she gave up her job – it meant living cheaply, on just her cycling wage, but when I ask if it was a scary decision, it’s clear she doesn’t regret it for a moment. The improvements in her quality of life – and of course, the improvements in her results – more than make up for the loss of her salary.
"I want to get the most out of my life – carpe diem", she says. And throughout our conversation, there’s a love of cycling that comes through, that seems integral to the Nederland Bloeit culture.
"We really do it for fun. In women’s cycling we don’t earn a lot of money, you really have to like the sport. Sometimes we are surprised, we’re in the dressing room and we hear some ladies saying "ah, we have to ride today, I’m too tired". It’s so strange for us, when they don’t like it, because we always like to race – all the girls in our team are like that, it’s so much more fun together.
"Last year in Tour de l’Aude, there were four of us who were always together. We really suffered on the climbs, but we were together all the time – always chasing together, always suffering together, always laughing together. Except for the suffering in the racing, it felt like a holiday, it’s great fun!"
The enjoying the racing together was evident on what must have been the strangest stage of the race, Stage Five. Team USA’s Katheryn Curi Mattis had made an escape attempt in the Pyrenees, with Cervélo’s Sharon Laws, and the pair were chased down by Van Vleuten and her Belgian team-mate, Liesbet de Vocht. The Nederland Bloeit riders caught Laws on the Col Xatard, and then at 12km to go, caught Mattis on the descent. Van Vleuten and De Vocht crossed the line together, all beaming smiles…. Only to be told that they hadn’t actually won the stage – the motorbike they’d been following had taken the wrong route, and while they were misdirected, Mattis hadn’t been, and had reached the finish line first. I can’t help asking Van Vleuten how it had felt.
"I could not believe it, it was so strange, because we passed Mattis on the descent, so you know that you’re 1 and 2, and then they tell you after the finish that you did not win, but you hadn’t seen her again, so strange. We followed the motor – it was crazy."
Her tone of voice is incredulous, but she’s laughing at the memories – it’s clear she’s not bitter:
"Yeah, I can really laugh about it, because in our team, it’s just sport, there are more important things in life than cycling. It’s beautiful, it’s nice, I enjoy it, but in the end it’s just cycling. For the evening after I was disappointed but it made me think ‘tomorrow there’s another chance’."
With her fifth place at last year’s Tour de l’Aude, and her performance across the stage races last year, I’m interested in whether she has ambitions for the general classification at the biggest race of the year, the Giro Donne. But before I can even finish the question, she’s laughing, and she has a VERY emphatic answer:
"No! Definitely not! It’s really not on my mind. I’m going to race there, it’s a beautiful race, and I’m going to enjoy it and maybe go for a stage victory – but the general classification is not something for me, definitely no, it’s too hard for me, I’m not a climber."
Enjoying the races is something that comes up throughout our conversation, and this is something Van Vleuten has been actively working on. Nederland Bloeit have been having psychological as well as physical training as part of their season preparations, and some of her learning has been about relaxing more and enjoying every part of the race – "and sometimes when the racing’s boring you can look around and see the beautiful places you come to with cycling." But she’s not expecting to be able to enjoy the Mortirolo and the other mountains of the Giro. "I have to say when I’m suffering on a climb I’m not thinking ‘It’s beautiful here’, I’m suffering so much I can’t look at anything any more!"
If the Giro general classification isn’t a goal, she laughs that she has ambitions for every other race. Winning at Flanders gave Van Vleuten the Road World Cup leader’s jersey for the first time – and she’s kept it after three races of the five races. Vos’ win at the Flèche Wallonne meant she took it from her team-mate, but after the Tour of ChongMing Island, with four races to go, Van Vleuten is back in the lead, with 188 points, 3 points ahead of Vos, and with Emma Johansson in third place on 153. Surprisingly, though, her main season objectives don’t include keeping hold of the World Cup jersey.
It’s another part of her and her team’s philosophy to always ride for the victory – it’s not in the Nederland Bloeit make-up to ride conservatively to keep a position, they’d rather ride aggressively to win, even if it means risking losing, than ever race for second. And it feels as though if another team-mate has a chance to win one of the remaining World Cup races, Van Vleuten will be happy to ride in support rather than chase her down for the points. The team will be aiming for winning the races – and if that gives her enough points to win the series, that will be a fantastic bonus.
This isn’t to say that she’s not very proud and happy to be back in the leader’s jersey. Both Jeroen Blijlevens and Marianne Vos had told her last year that she should be aiming for victories in the 2011 World Cup, both in the individual races and in the overall, but she had thought it would be hard enough to match her 2010 season, so it was amazing to realise she had taken a step up, and done both by the third race of the season. The first time she pulled it on, in Flanders, she wasn’t able to take it in, as she was still revelling in winning the iconic Classic. But in the Ronde van Drenthe, the only World Cup race taking place in the Netherlands, starting in the jersey was a very special feeling.
"My mum was watching the race, she was invited by the organisation, and that was really special for me, yeah, I was proud that I was wearing it and that she was there and could see me. I enjoyed it. It was also nice that after the race I had just enough points to continue wearing it for Flèche Wallonne, so I could go to the Drenthe podium and my mum was there, it was nice."
Her main ambitions for the year aren’t centred around specific races, but to keep on improving – to take advantage of everything she can learn from her team-mates and team, and from racing at the highest levels.
However, she has three very big races on her mind – the World Championships in Copenhagen, which she doesn’t think will necessarily suit her – and on home soil, in Valkenberg in 2012, which she is really looking forward to. And of course, next year there are the Olympics….. but more about that – and about what she’s like off the bike – in Part Two, right here!
Interview: Sarah Connolly; All photos property and copyright of and used with kind permission of Anton Vos