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Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women No3: Annemiek van Vleuten

Maria David Sponsored
3 Mar 2021

The top-ranked rider on the UCI Women’s WorldTour in 2020 has some big goals for 2021

Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women

To celebrate International Women's Month, we have partnered with Zwift to tell the stories of 31 inspirational women across 31 days

Words: Maria David Photography: Chris Blott

For most of the general population, Annemiek van Vleuten came to prominence during the 2016 Olympics in Rio when we gasped in horror as we watched the Dutch rider tumble head-first over her handlebars to lie motionless on the ground after misjudging a downhill right-hand bend while leading the Women’s Road Race.

Fortunately, Annemiek’s injuries did not prove to be life-changing, though she did suffer severe concussion and three fractured vertebrae.

What was truly impressive, however, was how Annemiek got back on her bike and won the Belgium Tour less than five weeks after her accident.

Many described this as an amazing comeback, but Annemiek says she doesn’t believe in comebacks, pointing out that she was already achieving great things that season and was simply building from there.

‘I don’t believe in coming back stronger after a disappointment,’ Annemiek says. ‘For me, that’s something that the media makes up. I don’t need the disappointments to be at a higher level.

‘At the Rio Olympics, for example, it was not the crash that made me come back stronger. It’s always annoying that people say that I came back because of the crash. At that time I was motivated and I showed there that I was one of the best climbers in the world.

‘So this gave me energy and made me eager and hungry to continue to get even stronger, train harder and focus more on climbing.’

I think that’s the secret as to why I am stronger than my competitors – it’s because I dare to search for my limits and go out of my comfort zone

Fast-forward to 2020 and at the age of 38 Annemiek finished the year as the top-ranked rider in the women’s UCI world rankings. Although she failed to retain her World Road Race Championships title at Imola, she was racing with a broken wrist and still managed to finish second.

A year earlier, her 2019 title came after a 105km solo breakaway on hilly Yorkshire roads that drew comparisons to Eddy Merckx in his pomp back in the 1960s and 1970s – the kind of dominant performance we seldom see nowadays.

Clearly Annemiek is not afraid to push the limits. On the back of that dominant Worlds performance in Yorkshire, she embarked on a cycling tour with some of the male pros in her former Mitchelton-Scott team, including Adam and Simon Yates, riding 1,800km from Portugal to Andalusia in Spain.

Although she says this training was beneficial, Annemiek is clear that it wasn’t that she was training with men per se that made her stronger.

‘Training with guys is overrated. I did a total of eight days with Mitchelton-Scott. And this year at the training camp with [new team] Movistar, it was just nice to join them for three or four days.

‘But it’s not training with guys that is the secret to having good results. I think it’s more a sign that I am not scared to go out of my comfort zone. For sure, joining the guys can be a bit scary. They go a bit faster than I want, and I cannot tell them to slow down – they need to train too.

‘But you have to search for your limits, and that’s something the guys can help me with. I think that’s the secret as to why I am stronger than my competitors – it’s because I dare to search for my limits and go out of my comfort zone. Riding with the guys is just an example of that.’

So where does Annemiek get her grit, determination and ability to deal with setbacks from? Watch footage of the closing kilometres of that epic Worlds win in Yorkshire and you’ll see Annemiek pointing at the earrings she was wearing as the camera zoomed in on her. These were an 18th birthday gift from her father, and she is known to wear what she calls her ‘lucky earrings’ at big races.

‘My dad died in 2008 after a long illness, and I had to deal with that, and see my mother cope with her loss,’ Annemiek says. ‘My parents showed a lot of strength mentally, and I have taken my inspiration from them.’

Find the rest of Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women here

As a result, whenever Annemiek wins a big race she always shares that celebration with her mother.

This year’s goal is to compete in the rescheduled time-trial and road race at the Tokyo Olympics. Annemiek is preparing for that and the Women’s WorldTour season with her new teammates at Movistar.

Based on her 2020 performances and her unfinished business from the Rio Games in 2016, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more outstanding performances this year from this extraordinary athlete.

For more from Zwift this International Women's Month, visit here.