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Annemiek van Vleuten on Tour of Flanders: ‘In the Flemish races you need a bit of luck’

The Dutch rider is back in Belgium to try and win a record-breaking third women's Tour of Flanders.

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HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Annemiek van Vleuten believes she’s in even better form ahead of the Tour of Flanders than she was in her all-dominating season-opening races.

The Movistar rider has been at altitude in Tenerife for the last three weeks, clocking up the hard miles ahead of a De Ronde title defense, and raced at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday to get the race legs spinning again.

Form won’t be all she needs this Sunday, and van Vleuten adds that a little bit of good fortune is also a key part of winning the Tour of Flanders. With shorter climbs compared to the Ardennes races later in April, she wants to make the race as hard as possible to give herself the advantage — an ominous prospect for her rivals.

“If I can judge from my training, I think I’m even a bit more fit than I was. In the Flemish races you need to be a bit of luck and also with some team tactics it needs to fall into place,” van Vleuten told VeloNews at her team hotel just outside of Ghent. “In Liège-Bastogne-Liège, I know that it’s a little bit easier for me because the climbs are like four-minute climbs.

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“Here we have to do it with two-minute climbs it means that the race needs to be hard before I can make a difference. The longer climbs suit me. Liège suits me the best and it actually doesn’t suit me here. But if it’s raced hard, it can all come together for me.”

Van Vleuten has a pretty good win record coming into this weekend’s Tour of Flanders. With four races under her belt, she has won two — Setmana Ciclista Valenciana and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad — and finished second in another — Strade Bianche.

Kicking off the year in winning ways was unexpected for van Vleuten as she was still using crutches off the bike in December following the Paris-Roubaix crash that left her with a broken shoulder and pelvis.

“I think I surprised myself with my level. I try to be one to be a little bit more early in shape, which I nailed, I think, and with the last block, I think I even improved a bit more. I have the feeling if I start on a high level, I’m able to continue to grow in the season. Starting already at the high level was a bit surprising after the injury I had. Halfway through December, I was still walking on crutches.”

While van Vleuten feels she has upped her form while at altitude, she’d have preferred to be in the pack this March. However, there was no racing she felt she could get stuck into.

“I would have loved to have races in March that suit me but in the women’s calendar in the March period is like only sprinters racing,” she said. “Even Trofeo Binda is won by sprinter so that’s why the reason I choose to go back to altitude. I would have preferred to make my racing period longer, but unfortunately, the women’s calendar at the moment is no like no races that suit me in March so I was sent back to Tenerife by the calendar.”

Playing the game

The difficulty of getting away over shorter climbs was evident at Dwars door Vlaanderen with several breakaway groups unable to form a substantial lead to prevent a sprint finish. While van Vleuten had been able to attack to glory the previous year, wind on some key climbs made a repeat performance a difficult task.

Sunday’s Tour of Flanders is an entirely different prospect, at more than 30 kilometers longer and with a lot more climbing involved. Helping van Vleuten — and other climber-types that won’t want to bring sprinters such as Elisa Balsamo to the line — is the addition of the Koppenberg.

The Koppenberg, which is being included in the women’s race for the first time, is only 600 meters long but its maximum gradient of 22 percent will tire out the legs.

While van Vleuten comes into the race with the prospect of winning a record-breaking third women’s Tour of Flanders, she says there’s no pressure for her. After a big 2021, this season is about having a go and seeing what happens.

“It’s always nice to pin on the number one especially now I just realized like I won those coming back from altitude and winning Dwars and Flanders in one week is actually special,” van Vleuten said. “Now it’s for me this year is more about the year after Olympics, and I feel just excited to be now to pin on the number and to play the game with my team. It feels a bit like fun. We’ll see like if it works out.”

Van Vleuten is not the only option for Movistar this weekend with sprinters Emma Norsgaard and Arlenis Sierra there to mop up anything if a reduced bunch can make it to the line.

Though van Vleuten is well capable of tearing apart a peloton on her own, she’s excited about the opportunity to “play the game” during the race. Winning is nice, but the Dutchwoman likes to have a good contest on the road, too. She wants her victories to be hard-fought and exciting.

“I like to race to play the game and then I could also be satisfied with any results for myself,” van Vleuten told VeloNews. “For example, the second place is Strade, maybe it was sad that I lost but I was also proud to be there in the final, and maybe it was also good for women’s cycling.

“I’m sad that I didn’t win but on the other hand, I was maybe also happy for Lotte herself for sure and also for Belgian cycling and women’s cycling in general. It was, again, another good fight. That’s also something that gives me energy. It’s like, we are now on television but we’re also not disappointing.”