Annemiek van Vleuten has dominated women’s cycling in recent years, but so far this season the 39-year-old has yet to win a WorldTour race.
That’s not to say that Van Vleuten’s standards – or form – have slipped, rather that the standard of the rest of the peloton has come up to meet her.
With her arch-rival, Anna van der Breggen, retiring at the end of last year the natural conclusion for many was to assume the Movistar rider would walk all over the rest of the peloton; a platoon that seemed to be just one or two levels behind the dominant pair in the past.
As the 2022 season unfolds, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that while Van Vleuten and Van der Breggen were in their own league, the rest of the peloton has been rising to their level.
The depth of the women’s peloton has been steadily increasing in direct correlation with the number or riders who are paid a living wage to race their bikes. Since the two-tier system was introduced in 2020, more teams are able to work together into the latter stages of a race and prevent Van Vleuten from pulling off her trademark long-range solo moves. This season, we have yet to see the Dutch rider make such a move at the highest level.
This year’s Strade Bianche exemplified that, with SD WorxCanyon//SRAM, and Trek-Segafredo all firing off riders in the final 10km and forcing the Movistar leader to cover them, leaving a fresh Lotte Kopecky able to follow her as she launched up the Santa Caterina climb.
Such was Van Vleuten’s confidence in her ability to operate alone that when her contract was up at the end of 2020, rather than join such a team, the Dutchwoman revealed that she deliberately avoided WorldTeams who already had stacked rosters, preferring for the strength of the top riders to be spread out within the peloton.
That’s not to say that Van Vleuten herself has lacked team support this season, but Movistar has had to come up to meet their leader. Last season, while her rivals had teammates to help them in the final stages of races, Van Vleuten would often find herself covering attacks alone. Now in her second season with the Spanish team, it is clear that having the former world champion (as well as prolific sprinter Emma Norsgaard) in their ranks has forced growth in the team.
Throughout the spring Katrine Aalerud, Aude Biannic, Jelena Erić, and Arlenis Sierra have been particularly impressive. Despite that, however, their leader of her has not followed through on the results we have been used to seeing her collect in recent seasons.
She may not have won a WorldTour race yet but Van Vleuten has still shown that she is able to fend off the top competitors in the women’s peloton this season. At Omloop het Nieuwsblad she managed to take the edge off Demi Vollering’s sprint enough to take the win despite dragging her young compatriot to the line. Ella’s ability to repeatedly attack and recover to follow other moves is what makes her the champion rider that she is. Usually, the harder the race, the better for Van Vleuten.
Indeed, she has been quoted as lamenting the fact recent races have not been hard enough for her to make a difference. However, at La Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, she conceded that the strongest rider had beaten her on the day. On her own website, Van Vleuten said that it was the hardest she has ever ridden up the Mur de Huy.
“This is the very first time I’ve gone so deep on the Mur,” she said. “It was completely black before my eyes. It was never done until the finish line, so I kept giving everything, even when Cavalli passed me. You never know, maybe she’ll fade, but unfortunately she didn’t.
It is still early in the season, and by Van Vleuten’s own admission the short, sharp climbs of the Classics don’t suit her. The next part of the season, which will see stage races and longer climbs included in the parcours, will determine whether it is down to the races rather than the rider. However, with the likes of Cavalli, Vollering, and others now coming to the fore, she may well have some company at the top.