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Annemiek van Vleuten concludes ‘dream’ 2022 season at Tour de Romandie

She might be nearing her retirement, but Van Vleuten is still getting better. Was 2022 her best season yet?

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Annemiek van Vleuten wrapped up an astounding season with second overall at the inaugural Tour de Romandie Féminin last weekend.

The Movistar rider wasn’t her usual all-dominating self — which wasn’t surprising given that she broke her elbow last month — but she still had the measure of nearly all of the field, except for Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio who romped to the overall title.

Romandie was Van Vleuten’s first appearance in her new rainbow stripes after taking her second road race world title with a stinging late attack two weeks ago. After locking in fewer than 20 race days in the rainbow jersey following her 2019 win, Van Vleuten was keen to don her new kit before the season ended, broken elbow or not.

“It was super nice to be here and show the jersey at such a nice race. For sure, you always want to win, but let’s be realistic I broke my elbow two weeks ago. I’m really happy that I could race this race and that I’m not badly injured and that I can really enjoy this amazing season,” Van Vleuten said following the final stage into Geneva. “Actually, this started already in Romandie with getting this beautiful clothing, getting the beautiful bike in the rainbow colors. It was a nice afterparty from a really great season.

“It was a dream season and now it’s time to realize it and let it sink in because you always continue in cycling so it’s important in the off-season to step a bit back from your focus mode and now it’s finally time to relax and enjoy the off-season.”

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Since her career really took off back in 2016, we’ve gotten used to Van Vleuten winning just about anything that she’s put her hand to. However, the 2022 season may just be the best yet. Not just for the victories that she’s taken but the way that she did it.

Her year has been so good that Van Vleuten admitted that she sometimes has doubts about her decision to retire at the end of next year. Though, she’s keen to impress that she definitely will call time on her professional racing career at the end of 2023.

When she does leave the sport as a competitor, it will be the end of a huge era in women’s cycling. It will also be the start of a new one as women’s cycling continues to grow and develop.

Getting better and better

Much of Van Vleuten’s career at the top of the sport was marked by a tough rivalry with her compatriot Anna van der Breggen. The duo seemed to push each other to greater and higher heights in recent years.

Van der Breggen decided to get out of the sport early and retired aged just 31, but Van Vleuten pushed on and has not taken her foot off the gas. Though her rivalry was a nice show for the fans, it was never really what drove Van Vleuten. What pushed the now 40-year-old to keep progressing was this insatiable desire to improve herself.

With a historic calendar ahead of the peloton for 2022, this season was an opportunity for Van Vleuten to show just what she was capable of. In total, this year saw her take some 13 victories, a tally that is only matched by her 2018 season. She’s managed that tally in fewer race days and across a tougher range of races. It’s easy to imagine her having added more to that had she not suffered a broken wrist in a training crash shortly after winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Some of Van Vleuten’s wins this season have come through her sheer strength, which has seen her ride away from her rivals with apparent ease. At both the Giro d’Italia Donne and the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, she was untouchable when she got to the big mountains.

She won by almost two minutes at the Giro, claiming two big mountain stages along the way. It looked as though her dream of doing the Giro-Tour double might be over when a stomach bug struck her early at the Tour. However, her rivals failed to capitalize on her early struggles, and she rebounded with gusto for the final weekend to win by almost four minutes.

The wins have not all come in such dominating fashion, and some have been about mind over power. Her Omloop Het Nieuwsblad win over Demi Vollering stands out as a good example of that as she had to outkick the faster Dutchwoman in a two-up sprint to the line. However, her worlds win really stands out above them all.

With a broken elbow that she had picked up from a huge crash at the beginning of the mixed team relay a few days previously, Van Vleuten was expected to work for Marianne Vos, and she did just that. Prior to her crash, Van Vleuten had been dreaming up an over 100km solo attack in Wollongong, but it was clear from early on that she wasn’t at her top level.

Unable to get out of the saddle, she couldn’t follow the other climbers when they attacked on the ascents on the finishing circuit, nor could Vos. In the end, she had to rely on her wits and a daring all-out attack in the final meters to take the title. Van Vleuten described it as possibly her greatest-ever victory. Who are we to disagree?

It didn’t always work out for Van Vleuten this year and, outside of the injuries, there were times when she was outgunned by her rivals. She’s not infallible and her competitors have some time over the winter to work on closing the overall gap to the 40-year-old.

With just one season of her career remaining, she’s going to be going all out to finish in a blaze of glory.