You don’t have to be Dutch to win the Olympic women’s road race, but it does help.
The women in orange have won the last two road race titles in Rio de Janeiro and London, and have a mighty 44-percent winning record over in the nine times it has been held.
Two in a row for a single nation was already unprecedented in the road race, but with a powerhouse team due to line up in Tokyo this Sunday, they could set an untouchable record of three on the trot.
Who would bet against them?
“I was not thinking about that one. I’m not busy with those kinds of results,” Dutch coach Loes Gunnewijk told VeloNews with a hearty laugh. “We going there with the two goals for the time trial and the road race, and then it’s nice if there is some history. But, otherwise, I don’t care that much about the hattrick. I just care about the races.”
Anna van der Breggen and Marianne Vos, the respective winners in 2016 and 2012, will form half of a formidable Dutch that is completed by Annemiek van Vleuten and Demi Vollering.
With a road race course that could provide some unpredictable racing, Vos and Vollering give the team options if it comes down to a sprint, while van der Breggen and van Vleuten have the potential to blow the race apart on the climbs.
Between them, they have four riders that could realistically win gold in the road race and also command two opportunities in the time trial a few days later.
As big a story as the strength of the team out in Tokyo, the story of who the Netherlands left behind is just as big. After contesting the last two Olympics on the road, Ellen van Dijk has been left off the roster, while neither former world champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak nor Lucinda Brand were in consideration.
“It’s not easy, because you can already almost select three teams who are capable to ride the Olympics, if I wanted to,” Gunnewijk said of picking her four for Tokyo. “I want to, but the fact is only four riders can go. In the end, I think they show themselves and I’ve picked the four strongest riders.
“I think if you look to all the reserve riders they can go, or they have the level to go. But on the other hand, these four are the strongest.”
The 24-year-old Vollering is the only debutant within the Dutch road squad after a superb season that saw her win Liège-Bastogne-Liège and La Course, and finish third overall at the Giro d’Italia Donne.
Vollering’s position on the team may have been aided slightly by the postponement of the Olympic Games by a year, but her rise through the ranks has been swift and she has more than earned her place.
“In 2019, she really showed herself in Trofeo Binda with the breakaway, and then she has made really fast developments. That went really fast, but it was really good. I think with the change to SD Worx, which is a strong team, she’s picking up all kinds of things.
“If you can already come become a third in GC in Giro and also all the other races so she’s winning or she’s we’re working for the team. She has a bright future in front of her.”
Working together and trading places
Having a strong team is one thing, but Gunnewijk’s other challenge is to ensure it works as a slick unit. Strong squads have been undermined by internal politics before, but the Dutch riders have regularly shown an ability to put personal ambitions aside for the bigger picture of the team.
Each one is well capable of taking gold on their own merit, but there will come a time when a call has to be made as to who is the leader. How and when that will be decided is not yet known, but Gunnewijk won’t be giving away any trade secrets before Sunday.
“Everybody has the same goal and you’re stronger together than four individuals. You can talk a lot, but the race is still the race, and in the race, a lot of things can happen. But there are a lot of cards to play for us,” Gunnewijk told VeloNews.
“It depends how everything is going, what the scenario is, how the race is going, and what the temperature will be. That’s one of our tactics that we will keep private. Everybody is really curious, and I understand that but…”
— Annemiek van Vleuten (@AvVleuten) July 19, 2021
As well as being concerned with her own team, Gunnewjik must keep an eye on the other nations. They’re not going to make it easy for the Dutch and she sees the USA, Italy, Germany, Australia, and Poland as big threats for the gold medal.
While the Dutch heading to an Olympic Games as the overwhelming favorites is nothing new, the experience will be a different one for Gunnewijk. The last time she attended an Olympic Games, she was there as an athlete.
Gunnewijk was part of the strong team that aided Vos to victory in London in 2012. After hanging up her racing wheels in 2015, she trained as a sport director and later joined the Dutch federation in 2017 as the junior women’s coach and assistant para-cycling coach. She stepped up as the elite women’s coach at the end of 2018.
“It’s different but the Olympics are special, so I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “I did London, 2012, so that’s already nine years ago, which feels like a long time. It was really nice and I’m taking those experiences with me.
“You know already how you like to prepare ahead of it and how to get selected. So, I’ve learned a lot from that process. I’m taking that now with me as a coach. Of course, your role is different but it’s also good to be already a few years national coach, so you’re already growing in that role.”