To say that Annemiek van Vleuten has been on a journey over the last five years would be quite an understatement.
Van Vleuten suffered the cruelest of blows after Sunday’s road race. After initially thinking she had just become Olympic champion, she turned to her soigneur and said “I was wrong” as she realized that another rider had crossed the line before her, Anna Kiesenhofer.
“When I crossed the line, I thought I had won,” van Vleuten told the media after the race. “I’m gutted.”
While her initial reaction to finding she had taken silver and not gold in Sunday’s road race may have been a disappointment, time has turned it into a feeling of satisfaction.
“It was my goal to appear at the start in my best possible form in Tokyo,” van Vleuten said on her website. “That worked out anyway, but we did not know Anna Kiesenhofer and greatly underestimated the super-strong winner. I blame myself for that, and we can all blame ourselves at TeamNL for that.
“Looking at the situation that had arisen in the race and how I rode, I can’t blame myself. I rode one hell of a race, where I dragged out a silver medal.”
Though there will be plenty of questions over the coming weeks about how the Dutch handled the race and how they let a rider slip up the road without their knowledge, there is a lot to be proud of for van Vleuten.
The result closes a chapter on van Vleuten’s career that began in Brazil back in 2016.
Many people will remember August 7, 2016, for the horrific crash that van Vleuten suffered on the Vista Chinesa descent that left her with three broken vertebra and a concussion. She had looked on course to claim Olympic gold at the time of the crash, but it was ultimately her teammate Anna van der Breggen that claimed victory.
For van Vleuten, the crash is not the defining point of that day in Rio. For her, it was the day that she proved to herself and the world that she had some serious climbing talent.
It was the day that she began her journey as one of the world’s best riders.
Van Vleuten was already a great rider going into those Olympic Games in Rio. She had won the World Cup in 2011, along with victories at the Tour of Flanders, Open de Suède Vårgårda, and the GP de Plouay-Bretagne.
However, working with sport director Gene Bates after her move to the Orica-AIS team at the start of 2016 helped to push her out of her comfort zone. It was partially through his guidance, and her own absolute determination, that van Vleuten found herself in a medal-winning position in Rio.
Rise to the top
I spoke to van Vleuten at the Qatar world championships, two months after those Olympic Games. Despite effectively breaking her back in Rio, she had returned to winning ways at the Lotto Belgium Tour a month after the crash by claiming two stages and the overall title.
As we talked, she had just finished fifth in the time trial and spoke of how disappointed she was with the result. I quickly pointed out that she had been laid up in a hospital bed and lucky to be alive just eight weeks later.
It was only then that she began to contemplate the journey she had been on, and she burst into tears. It is perhaps representative of van Vleuten’s determination and drive that she had pushed on to get back to full fitness and hadn’t taken stock of what she had been through.
From that moment, van Vleuten had asserted herself as one of the top talents in the bunch and she has gone on to win pretty much every race she could. Unlike in Rio, she went into the Tokyo road race with many people questioning if she could be beaten.
The answer was yes, but it took unusual circumstances to do it.
In some ways, that moment in Qatar was similar to what she went through in the road race Sunday. After the finish at the Fuji International Speedway, she was disappointed with what she hadn’t achieved rather than what she had done, and it was only with a little bit of time that she could realize what it meant.
“It’s my first Olympic medal. I’m proud of how I rode and at least I can’t blame myself,” she said in her blog a day after the event.
The road race will not be the final word in van Vleuten’s Olympic story and, at least for this year, there is still the time trial to come. Alongside her teammate van der Breggen, she is a major favorite for gold over the hilly course.
In her way will be the American pairing of Amber Neben and Chloé Dygert, who have made it a specialty of peaking for these major events, and a selection of other strong contenders.
However, whether or not she can take victory will come down to her own performance. There will be no unexpected rider up the road, and it is all about what she can lay down on the day.
At 38, this could well be van Vleuten’s final hurrah at the Olympic Games – through with Paris 2024 just three years away we shouldn’t count her out. If this is the last time we see her on the Olympic stage, silver in the road race and whatever comes Wednesday would still be a great way to close the book on that part of her career.