At 35, Van Vleuten isn’t slowing down

The Dutchwoman enjoyed much success in 2017, which has given her renewed drive to keep pedaling down the road at the professional level.

Winning La Course, the Boels Rentals Ladies Tour, and a world time trial title, Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) enjoyed the finest season of her career in 2017. With the calendar turned over to 2018, the Dutchwoman is aiming for an encore.

Putting together a strong campaign starts with the offseason and a winter of training. Van Vleuten has added an appearance at track worlds to her schedule, but beyond that, she’s sticking to the same routine that worked so well for her last year.

“I’m 35 and had a good season last year, so no reason to change something. Only, I’m targeting the world championships on the track, so that means my preparation will be slightly different,” van Vlueten told VeloNews in a phone interview from Australia last week. “But so far it’s the same. I had a holiday and started off the first month with some long endurance rides. I’ve done five weeks of training and now’s the Tour Down Under, so I don’t expect a great shape at the moment.”

Despite her low expectations, van Vleuten still managed to finish sixth overall at the Santos Women’s Tour this past week. Her teammate Amanda Spratt claimed the overall victory.

Van Vleuten is a contender on practically any parcours, but during the past season and a half she has emerged as an especially dangerous climber. She nearly rode to a gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, only to crash out of the race 11 kilometers from the line. Teammate Anna van der Breggen went on to win the race. Van Vleuten went to the hospital.

She recovered from the fall, however, and showed off her climbing prowess even more in her very impressive 2017 campaign.

Although her experience in Rio may appear to have been a catalyst for van Vleuten’s success, she insists her emergence as an uphill threat was simply a matter of adjusting her focus.

“A lot of people try to relate it, like after the crash I had an amazing season. But actually in the Olympic race season and on the Olympic day, I was already on a really good level,” she pointed out. “I don’t think the crash had anything to do with it. I saw the course in 2016 and realized that if I wanted to do anything, I needed to focus more on my climbing abilities and that made me into a rider that’s more capable of riding uphill. From then on, I stepped up.”

Her 2018 plans take Austria’s climber-friendly worlds profile into account.

“The Tour of Flanders will be my first big race, with other targets in the spring classics, like the Ardennes. Then the Giro d’Italia and the world championships. The world championships in Innsbruck is a course that really suits me,” she said.

“It’s very unique. It’s nice for the climbers. It’s a big chance for me to perform there really well. It’s a really selective course and that makes me even more motivated.”

Having spent a decade as a pro racer, van Vleuten acknowledges that she’s no spring chicken anymore. Given her recent string of successes, however, she’s enjoying the ride as much as ever. It probably helps that she has seen what she calls “huge” improvements in women’s cycling over the last 10 years. Although she says there’s still a long way to go, van Vleuten can trace significant progress from when she started racing.

“You see more crowds follow women’s cycling after the Rio Olympics, after the London Olympics. You see it more on television. Also at the Tour Down Under where I’m going now, I see that they step up every year and make it better and better,” she said. “People are following it and they ask now, they want to follow it on television. They are eager to follow it on social media. It’s big how it’s changing.

“It’s super nice for me to see, from 2008 with a lot of non-professional teams [and] now there are a lot of girls that get paid. Well, not a lot but way more than in 2008, when almost everyone had a job next to their cycling career. Now you see more and more girls can be full-time athletes. There’s still a lot to improve, because not everyone is a full-time athlete, but I think where we came from, from 2008, it’s good.”

Considering how much fun she’s having as one of the peloton’s top riders right now, van Vleuten isn’t planning to hang up the wheels any time soon. That’s a bit of a surprise even to her.

“I thought already in the London Olympics, ‘Oh, at Rio I’ll be 33 and then I’ll end my career and it’s time to do something else.’ But I still love it so much that stopping is not really on my mind yet. Especially the level I had last year makes me eager,” she said.

“I’m not really thinking about what to do after. But I’m sure it will be something in sports, that’s what I’m very passionate about, especially to work with young athletes.”

For now, it’s all about the racing for van Vleuten, who figures to be a rider to watch every time she pins on a number in 2018.