Road

Annemiek van Vleuten puts rainbow jersey defense atop her 2020 goals

With no other races on the 2020 UCI women's schedule yet, Annemiek van Vleuten is preparing for her worlds defense in September.

The only race in Annemiek van Vleuten‘s sights at the moment is the only event currently on the UCI’s 2020 racing calendar for women: The UCI world road championships in Aigle-Martigny, Switzerland in September.

“As an athlete, I like that I have a goal in September,” van Vleuten said. “I don’t want to think about if it’s very realistic, for now.”

Van Vleuten spoke to a roundtable of journalists on a Zoom call on Monday morning from her home in The Netherlands. Like other riders, she has not been able to race since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sport. Instead, van Vleuten has been logging long training miles in her homeland, which still permits cyclists to train outside.

Van Vleuten said she struggled for several weeks after learning that the 2020 schedule was off; she had hoped to make a strong showing at the Tour of Flanders and the three Ardennes races. Like many athletes, however, once the dates of her targeted races came and went, van Vleuten began to ease off the gas in terms of training. 

“I love training but without a goal, I love it a little bit less,” van Vleuten said.

For van Vleuten, who won the world title in commanding form in Harrogate, UK last September, the “rainbow curse” has never cast quite a spell as it has during the global coronavirus pandemic. Even more dispiriting was the fact that the Dutchwoman said she had the best winter of her life, both physically and mentally. She traveled to Colombia for high altitude training in late November and late January; sandwiched between those two trips to South America was a stint in Italy in early January for the Mitchelton-Scott men’s team training camp.

A video series produced by Mitchelton-Scott, called What It Takes, chronicles van Vleuten’s early season training and then her stunning victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in late February. However, there was no script for what the rider said in the second episode of the series, which aired on March 5.

Annemiek Van Vleuten
Van Vleuten took a commanding victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, her one race of 2020 so far. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

“I made a joke,” she says in the video. “Worst case scenario, if the races will not be there, I had an amazing winter.”

Within days, van Vleuten’s glib remark became reality, and seven weeks later, the worst-case scenario is still unfolding. With sponsor dollars drying up as the economy veers toward collapse and the absence of racing undermining any remaining dollars, teams and riders are feeling the crunch in budget cuts and slashed salaries. Even as world champion, van Vleuten has not been immune.

On Monday she revealed that she took a substantial pay cut in order to help her team survive.

“The saddest thing is that our sponsor is in a bad situation,” she said.”I feel for the company, for sure, and it’s not nice to be world champ and get pay cuts. What made me really proud is that I feel that it brings us as a team closer together.”

At this point, van Vleuten has had time to process her disappointment and recalibrate her goals. One of the benefits of her stout winter of riding, she said, is that she filled it with training that suited her rather than with a very specific outcome in mind.

“One of the good things of my winter, is that I didn’t push myself so hard that it needed to pay off,” van Vleuten said. “I didn’t do stuff I didn’t like, I just had an awesome preparation. I enjoyed Colombia. The prep was so nice. It would have been awesome to show the jersey in good form, but at least I didn’t push myself that I needed that icing on the cake.”

Van Vleuten’s coach suggested that she approach the current time period, however long it may last, like a typical November. This means little to no intensity and permission to rest if she doesn’t feel like riding. Unlike a typical November, however, it’s sunny and the days are getting longer. 

In terms of actual dates on the calendar, van Vleuten has joined the chorus of professional women cyclists in demanding that the UCI provide them more guidance on a rescheduled race calendar. A member of riders’ association, The Cyclist’s Alliance, van Vleuten said that she wishes the UCI would have provided a women’s racing calendar blueprint when they announced the men’s. Nevertheless, she also sees the potential for a silver lining for women’s racing.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Tour de France can be organized and held first,” van Vleuten said. “Maybe the fact that they’ll announce our calendar later buys us time. It can be a bit more realistic with more information about what will be possible.”