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Annemiek van Vleuten Interview part 2: "If you don’t have fun then you can’t be good"

Last week, in the first part of my interview, Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten described how it felt to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the operation in 2009 that enabled her spectacular 2010 season, how much she enjoys racing with Nederland Bloeit, especially giving rivals an impossible choice when she and Marianne Vos make it to the final stages together, and why she won’t ever be targeting the general classification of the Giro Donne.

In Part Two, we talk a bit more at her life off the bike, how she’ll be preparing for the 2012 Olympics, whether she's consider moving to a different team, and who she’d like to win the 2011 World Championships – apart from every single Dutch rider, of course!

Before we start, here's a recent documentary featuring Annemiek, by TV Gelderland - it has clips with her racing, winning and talking - even if you don't understand Dutch, the racing clips are good to see!

It was only recently that Van Vleuten started having Olympic dreams – although she doesn’t say it herself, there is such a high standard in Dutch women’s racing, that only the very best can even hope to get a slot on the team. Even at the start of this year, she wasn’t confident she could make it. "I thought it would be hard to improve, because last year was so good, it would be hard just to stay on that level. But I think I showed that I can manage it – and that was good for my self-confidence"

In August she will travel to London to get a feel for the Olympic circuits with the Dutch national team, for the Olympic test event.

"I’m not going to race there because they cancelled the women’s race, but the men are racing, and that is also an opportunity for us, to go as the national team – for half an hour before the men start they keep the route free so we can explore the course."

It’s not only the road race that Van Vleuten will be concentrating on. Her goal for the next year is to improve her Time Trial. She finished in the top ten in every Time Trial stage she raced last year, but her plan is to get even better.

"I want to improve my Time Trial for the Olympics, maybe there are possibilities for that. I suffered a lot before because of my leg, but they told me that after my operation it will get better and better and better. Every year my leg gets better, so maybe there are possibilities, so I want to try that and improve my Time Trial."

"Maybe my disadvantage is that I’m more a generalist than a specialist, but if you really want to win, for example, time trials in the World Championships, you have to be a specialist. The dangerous people if you want to beat them, are the ones focusing only on that."

Working towards this goal has involved something new for the Nederland Bloeit team – working in a wind tunnel for the first time. "We all did not know what to expect, it was really fun to be there, to focus on the details and to experience how much you can improve by changing small details on your bike, it was interesting." Her next plan is to put what she learnt into practice, training on her time trial bike, and seeing what she can do at the Dutch National Championships in June.

Another thing she’s doing differently in her training this year is using a power meter, something that she doesn’t think can improve performance by itself, but makes training more interesting and more effective.

"For the time trial I like it, it’s a nice gadget to train with, it makes it more fun to train. I’m always curious about how things work, I’m research-minded, I’ve got a university degree [in animal sciences, from the world-class programme at the University of Wageningen], so it really fits. I like the information and to search in the data for how the sprint works, how much effort I was making, to improve that."

She has also been working on improving her sprint. In the Tour of ChongMing Island – a totally flat stage race in China, where the rain and the wind affect the racing far more than the parcours - she was on the podium for two stages, and came second in the overall general classification behind Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, ahead of many of the specialist sprinters.

Looking back, it shouldn’t be so much of a surprise – Van Vleuten also has a good sprint, although when races come to a bunch sprint, it’s her team-mate Marianne Vos who usually shines. Sprinting for herself was a new experience – and she had excellent support, both from her DS, Jeroen Blijlevens, whose own 1990s sprint career included 10 stage wins across all three Grand Tours, and from one of the best lead-out riders in the women’s peloton, Sarah Düster.

"I talked a lot about sprinting with Jeroen that week – it was an opportunity to practice, and work with Sarah. It was the first time I had someone to help me in the sprint – you see you can get on the podium when you have someone who can help. It was a lot more easy thanks to the work of Sarah. She really fits in our team because she’s always there when she needs to be there , no excuses, she is really strong and you can also laugh with her!"

This year, Nederland Bloeit has changed its profile. Last year it was an all-Dutch team aside from Belgian rider and Dutch-speaker Liesbet de Vocht, but this year it’s more international, with German Düster and the Swiss pair of Emilie Aubry and Patricia Schwager joining the team from Cervélo, and young British rider Emma Trott. This has meant the dynamic of the team has had to change – or at least the language they use, from Dutch to English. "We always make a lot of jokes in the team, and to do that in English was harder, but now I think we are used to it. It is nice to have other influences in the team, to learn from more people. The most important thing is that they fit into the team."

Annemiek’s place in the team is an interesting one – in almost any other team, she’d be the team leader and the superstar rider, but of course, she’s riding alongside MarianAvv_by_av_5_mediumne Vos, who has already won two of her seven World Champion jerseys across three cycling disciplines this year, and who gets a lot more attention – and high expectations. How does this feel – and has Van Vleuten considered moving teams where she can be the clear team leader?

"Actually I like not being the superstar, I like it that the pressure is more on her, especially for example, for the Worlds, there’s a lot of pressure, and she can handle that - I really don’t have a problem that she’s more in the spotlight. It’s good, I like the way it is now."

"Last year I had the chance to go to other teams and I thought about it, but I thought I was not prepared enough to be the team leader, because I haven’t cycled for many years. Maybe after this year I will be more prepared for it, so it could be that I go to another team, but I have such great fun with Marianne, racing with her and racing with the other team members - and I don’t see so many teams around me this year that I would like to be in. This year was a really good decision for me, and next year we’ll see what happens."

When she’s not racing and training, Van Vleuten lives in Wageningen, in the Gelderland province. She likes to cook, trying out new recipes on her housemates, to read, and when she’s not in training, go out for a drink with her friends.

"I’m still living in the city where I studied, and a lot of friends from university still live here, so I like to go out with them. In October, in the off season, I like to go out sometimes. I did it a lot in my student time, so for one month a year I’ve got the possibility to enjoy that again. After one month I’ve seen that, done that, but I also like that – have some fun."

It’s not just her friends that keep her in Wageningen, but the beautiful area, and the access she has to the surrounding countryside.

"I’m a nature lover, I really like it, I live in maybe the most beautiful place in Holland, I stay here because of nature.", she says. "In the winter season I do a lot of mountain biking and cyclocross, just for training, not for competition. When it’s raining, I’m not the girl who is cycling indoors, I take a rain jacket and my cyclocross bike and do some training here in the forest and I really like it - being in the mud is no problem for me."

She is also kept busy, off her bike, with her blogging. She has always blogged, but this year she has a new website, and combines her blogging with her twitter account. Knowing people are following her adventures keeps her motivated to update the site. "Sometimes you have to think about what you want to have on the Worldwide web and what not, but I think people like to get more personal information about you than just that you were second or third, they can read that on cyclingnews."

I can’t resist asking a personal question. My failsafe way of recognising which Nederland Bloeit rider is attacking, on the little films of races we get to see, is that Van Vleuten is the one with visible ear-rings. Are they lucky ear-rings? No, she laughs.
"If you look at the pictures from last year they were different. I like to wear ear-rings, to give a little feminine touch, but they have no special meaning, when I lose one of these, I’ll buy some new ones."

So if they’re not lucky ear-rings, does she have any pre-race rituals, or superstitions?

"No, I don’t think so, just my normal preparation, there’s nothing strange about that. I wouldn’t like to have one, because sometimes it’s not possible, and you panic. I’m too normal, too down-to-earth. We’re all down-to-earth in our team, almost no one has that."

I ask her what her tips would be for people who want to take up cycling, what she thinks are the important things. Having previously played soccer, and ran in training, she already had good aerobic capacity from exercising her heart and lungs when she took up cycling. But that’s not what’s key, to her.

"Have some fun! That’s the most important thing. If you don’t have fun then you can’t be good – you have to like it. It’s important not to buy a really expensive bike but to have one that really fits you – just start on a cheap bike, enjoy it, meet some friends through cycling, join a nice team with nice people who can give you good advice and get a trainer, or a training plan. Just do something to make some different exercises."

My final question is who Van Vleuten thinks we should be watching out for in this year’s World Championships, and of course, it’s the Dutch – Marianne Vos, Kirsten Wild, Loes Gunnewijk if there’s a breakaway – and of course, Van Vleuten herself. Outside of her own team, who else should we be looking for? She names all the big riders – the Italian team, Arndt, Cooke, Pooley, Johansson, but if it’s not a Dutch rider, the one to watch out for will be Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, who would be Van Vleuten's non-Dutch choice for World Champion... "But we are going to do everything we can to go for a Dutch victory !"

No matter what else happens this season, Annemiek van Vleuten has already equalled her 2010 achievements – and if her doctors are right and her physical capacity does get better and better over the next few years, it’ll be a fun ride, watching where her career takes her next. A few times during our conversation, she’s said "carpe diem" – seize the day – and it’s clear she’ll be doing just that, with both hands.

Interview: Sarah Connolly;

Photos of Van Vleuten by herself and racing, copyright to and used with the very kind permission of Anton Vos - bedankt, Anton!

Photo of Van Vleuten on bicycle with spectators, Sarah Connolly