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Opinion: Wollongong worlds Annemiek van Vleuten’s best-ever victory

Van Vleuten has won a lot in her career, but her second world road race title was something special.

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WOLLONGONG, Australia (VN) — Annemiek van Vleuten described winning her second road race title at the UCI World Road Championships just days after breaking her elbow as the best of her career, a high bar given what she has achieved.

Just this year, Van Vleuten has won the Giro d’Italia Donne, the Tour de France Femmes, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Looking further back, she’s claimed world championships, Olympic titles and much more.

However, her victory in Wollongong was something special, even by her standards.

“I think maybe it’s my best victory from my whole career. With the whole week that I’ve been through and also, it’s quite a story,” Van Vleuten said after collecting her rainbow jersey. “It took me some time to realize that I had pulled it off because I was waiting for the moment when someone would tell me that there was someone in front or it was a joke.”

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Van Vleuten has become used to the sublime and ridiculous throughout her career, but her win in Wollongong took that up another level, even her teammates needed time to realize what she had just done.

“I don’t know anymore, I don’t have words for it. Nobody expected it, she didn’t expect it. I think the whole world didn’t,” a stunned Ellen van Dijk said after the race. “She honestly never expected it, I can’t believe it. She is a special human being, but she keeps surprising everyone, so I wonder what is next.”

Van Vleuten had been the overwhelming favorite for the rainbow jersey in Australia this weekend with many expecting the Dutchwoman to soar clear on Mount Keira. She’d dominated almost every race she had been in since the spring and didn’t look like she was letting up with her rampaging victory at the Vuelta a España.

However, it looked like the Van Vleuten train was about to go off the rails in Wollongong and the rainbow jersey was slipping from her grasp. It started with a disappointing performance in the time trial last weekend, but her catastrophic crash in the mixed team relay looked as though it would be the end of her hopes.

Even when doctors cleared her to compete Saturday, her prospects of winning seemed limited. Van Vleuten herself believed she didn’t stand a chance of glory and had agreed to go all in for Marianne Vos.

“After I broke my elbow, there was not one second that I thought it was possible to win this world championships. All my dreams were finished after I broke my elbow,” she said.

Van Vleuten has previous form bouncing back from injury to win again quickly or racing while injured. Earlier this year, she broke her wrist in a training crash following Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April and she won her first race back at the Giro d’Italia Donne.

Back in 2016, she broke her back in a horror crash at the Olympic Games after sliding out on a corner. Less than a month later, she won two stages of the Lotto Belgium Tour and claimed the overall title.

In 2018, she broke her knee in a crash during the worlds road race and helped to set up her teammate Anna van der Breggen for victory and still finished the race in seventh place. Two years later, she would take the silver medal in the road race at the world championships in Imola a week after breaking her wrist in a crash at the Giro d’Italia Donne while in the race lead.

Even compared to those comebacks, her turnaround in Wollongong has been nothing short of remarkable. It wasn’t just the fact that she rode through such a painful injury, which was impressive in itself, but the way that she won.

Van Vleuten appeared to be on the ropes several times as attacks flew off the front over the two climbs on the Wollongong circuit. Unable to get out of the saddle without a serious amount of pain, she kept being dropped by her rivals. However, she clawed her way back each time.

It looked as though the final nail had been hammered on the last lap as a group of five went clear over the last ascent. Her small group managed to grind its way back, but she had some very strong sprinters in her group, including Lotte Kopecky.

The cards were stacked against Van Vleuten, as they had been all day, but somehow she still pulled out a royal flush.

“I don’t know how she did that. We couldn’t really think about this and that this could happen, it’s just amazing what she did,” Vos said afterward. “Of course, it’s fantastic to have her doing the job but when she came into the position in the final, it’s just amazing.”

Of all the big victories that Van Vleuten has pulled out over the years, this one has to be her greatest.