Words by Amy Jones | Photo by SWpix.com
Annemiek van Vleuten is now the second rider in history to have won the Tour of Flanders twice at a ten year interval. The 38-year-old Dutch rider took the victory in 2011, and again on Sunday.
It was her second win in five days — following Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday — but the European champion didn’t have the start to the 2021 World Tour campaign that we had come to expect of her.
Van Vleuten was looking unassailable last season, coming out swinging in 2020 wearing the rainbow stripes and maintaining a 100% winning record between February and August —albeit with racing on hiatus in between. Later, she looked set to win the Giro Rosa for the third consecutive year before crashing out of the race. A second place at the world championships in Imola — with a broken wrist— followed by a somewhat lacking latter half of the year closed out her final season with Mitchelton-Scott, the team she had raced with for five years.
Watching van Vleuten clip off the front of a race and time trial her way to the finish has become a recurring image in women’s racing in recent seasons. The former world time trial champion usually waits until the hardest point in the race before making her move, usually never to be seen again before the finish.
However, the start of the 2021 season was different, punctuated by consecutive victories and near wholesale domination from newly-rebranded SD Worx (formerly Boels Dolmans) with myriad champions past and present on their roster. The team looked like they had returned to the Boels Dolmans of 2016-18, winning the first two WWT races and cleaning up in the lower categories too. So far this season, the team has had six wins from six different riders.
Meanwhile, van Vleuten, in her new home, Movistar, looked like she was struggling to adapt. She missed a crucial split in Omloop het Nieuwsblad and where once she made closing down a huge gap at Strade Bianche look easy, she was barely anywhere to be seen this time around. Clearly noticing something was missing, she took herself off to Tenerife for some altitude training, skipping the next two rounds of the WWT. Fittingly, her closest rival, current world champion Anna van der Breggen, also opted out of the same race period to train in the high mountains.
In the pair’s absence, the racing continued to be as aggressive and unpredictable as women’s racing so often is. Trek-Segafredo appeared to pick up the mantle from a waning SD Worx with Elisa Longo Borghini winning Trofeo Alfredo Binda off the back of a textbook team effort.
Noticeably this season, in the second year of a mandated minimum salary for World Tour teams, more squads are riding cohesively as teams than ever before rather than one or two stronger riders navigating their way alone. Liv Racing and FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope are prominent examples. Who knew that paying riders a living wage allows them to become better riders?
It’s easy to overstate van Vleuten’s dominance over the peloton, her racing — often deservedly — invites hyperbole, yet she is not unbeatable. If the parcours isn’t tough enough or she isn’t able to deploy her trademark solo breakaway then she is no more likely to win from a bunch than anyone else. At both Dwars door Vlaanderen and Flanders, she didn’t completely steam-roll the rest of the bunch as she has in the past.
At Dwars door Vlaanderen, Kasia Niewiadoma of Canyon//SRAM pulled off a feat that was seemingly impossible in seasons past as she latched onto van Vleuten’s wheel and held it to the line. Likewise, at Flanders, although van Vleuten did shake off the rest of the group to take yet another solo victory, it was with a much smaller margin than she’s been used to.
The dominant Dutchwoman might have won the last two races she started but the peloton are not only savvy to her tactics, they are now more capable of countering them. Whether it’s the result of a shorter off-season or added depth as a result of (steadily) increasing professionalisation, the rest of the peloton are coming up to meet her and the racing is all the better for it.