Annemiek van Vleuten knows what today means for women’s cycling. And the 39-year-old Movistar rider certainly made it count, attacking alone on the Planche des Belles Filles to secure a win in the yellow jersey, and with it, the first edition of the relaunched Tour de France Femmes.
Despite the unrelenting dominance and apparent serenity of Van Vleuten’s path to Tour de France glory this weekend, Van Vleuten’s career – and even her race – has been one punctuated by comebacks from adversity, much like the history of her sport.
In 2016, the Dutch rider was on course to win the Olympic road race in Rio when she crashed horrifically on the final descent of the Vista Chinesa. Instead of a gold medal and a trip to the podium, Van Vleuten spent the aftermath of the race in intensive care with severe concussion and three fractures in her back.
In the years after what could have been a devastating setback, Van Vleuten set about becoming the best bike rider in the world. Since 2016, she’s won three Giri d’Italia, one road world championship, two time trial worlds, a European road championship, two editions each of Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Strade Bianche and La Course, a Tour of Flanders, and a redemptive Olympic time trial gold.
In October 2021, she crashed out of the wet and wild inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes, breaking her pubis bone in two places. Her response? Starting 2022 by winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Liège.
A broken wrist in a post-classic training crash in April was then followed by a crushingly dominant performance at the Giro d’Italia Donne earlier this month, where she won two stages, the points classification and the overall title.
Van Vleuten’s capacity for improbable comebacks was needed more than ever during the opening stages of this week’s historic Tour de France Femmes, which she had entered as the red-hot favourite.
Stomach issues at the start of the week saw her “super close” to quitting the race altogether. Unable to eat and devoid of energy, the 39-year-old looked sluggish, constantly wrestling her bike, losing handfuls of time to her rivals when the road veered upwards.
But, if we’ve learned anything in the last six years, it's that Annemiek van Vleuten doesn’t stay down for long. Yesterday, on the road to Le Markstein, she completely decimated the field, attacking closest rival Demi Vollering 62km from the finish to effectively wrap up the yellow jersey.
Today, the Movistar rider waited until six kilometres from the finish on La Super Planche des Belle Filles to launch her stage-winning move.
Even then, it hadn’t been plain sailing up to that point.
After a few mechanical difficulties, a long chase back to the bunch, a spell where she came under pressure from Vollering on the way up and down the Ballon d’Alsace, and finally a short-lived acceleration from Elisa Longo Borghini, Van Vleuten restamped her authority on the final climb, bridging up to team-mate Paula Patiño before taking off on her own and swiftly catching the last rider standing of the break, Mavi García.
Despite a spirited attempt from SD Worx’s Vollering – clearly the best of the rest behind the dominant Dutchwoman – Van Vleuten was simply too strong on the steep slopes of the Planche and its fearsome gravel finish. She may have suffered slightly on the dirt roads of stage four – today was a different world, dominated by a rider from another planet.
As with Marianne Vos, it is fitting that one of the sport’s defining racers marked this historic moment for women’s cycling by winning, and winning in yellow too.
Van Vleuten’s latest comeback is now complete – and with it, she has written yet another chapter of cycling history. And one that will almost certainly prove invaluable to the sport’s future.
When it comes to the growth and success of women’s cycling, hopefully after this week no more heroic comebacks will be necessary.
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.