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Despite suffering from a broken elbow, she picked up at the UCI Road World Championships last month, Van Vleuten was keen to have an outing in the rainbow stripes before the year was out, particularly after her last stint as world champion was blighted by the COVID-19 disruptions.
With racing opportunities dwindling quickly after the worlds, the new three-day Romandie race was the prime opportunity for the Movistar rider to race as the new world champion on terrain that she enjoyed.
Best of all, she goes into the race with little expectations of her form and nothing to prove.
“Already before the World Championships I was checking I think five times to UCI calendar if there were more races than only Romandie. I felt that I was still keen to race and especially keen to race without pressure,” Van Vleuten said in a press conference ahead of the race. “If I would now have a Tour de France-pressure race coming up, I would not have been keen but it’s also super nice to race here in Romandie.
“I could have chosen to let my elbow completely recover, but you also know this like a super nice opportunity to race in the rainbow jersey. The last time when I was world champion [she won in Yorkshire 2019] was a year with COVID. So, I know how special it is to race in the rainbow jersey. I could not wait to race and I was just super keen to be here and it’s super nice to see my team also again.”
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Van Vleuten broke her elbow during the world championships following a dramatic crash shortly after the start ramp in the mixed team relay. She looked dazed and shocked immediately following the crash, which appeared to happen following a problem with her chain.
Her participation in the road was thrown into doubt but she made a decision to ride in support of Marianne Vos. However, she found herself in a chasing group following the final climb that made contact with the leaders inside the final kilometer.
A last Hail Mary attack was enough to seal her possibly the best victory of her career. During the road race, she struggled to stand up on her pedals due to the pain it caused, but that has changed as her elbow has gotten better.
“That was really a roller coaster. My elbow, it’s surprisingly already less painful. After the road race, I didn’t have any reaction in my elbow. So it was not that I got more swollen, so that’s also why I’m here and every day the feeling it gets better,” she said. “Now [I can go] a bit out of the saddle in training. I had a lot of coffee and cake rides but I tried a bit to go out of the saddle.
”It’s nice I can enjoy my victory without thinking all the time about my broken elbow, but it needs some time. Four or five weeks and it’ll be fine.”
Given the physical rollercoaster that she has been on over the last few weeks, Van Vleuten is cautious about what she can achieve at the Tour de Romandie. However, she’s shown that even when she’s not in her best shape she is a formidable opponent so her rivals will write her off at their peril.
“I know that I’m not in the best shape anymore,” she said. “I expect here for myself that I can race here with my heart without too much pressure. I will just enjoy three days of racing in a beautiful area, and we will see. If I’m honest, I’m not super focused for this race, but I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be able to race with my team.”
The Tour de Romandie is one of many new additions to the women’s calendar over the past few seasons. The three-day race sees the riders tackle a hilly parcours with stage 2 sending the peloton over 2,000 meters with the summit finish on Thyon 2000.
For Van Vleuten, another hilly race is a welcome addition and she thinks that the increasing number of climbing-focused events will change the look of the peloton.
“I’m happy that we have got a bit a little bit more different races on our calendar. And this Tour de Romandie is important,” she said. “It was hard to find hilly races, in the women’s calendar, but it’s getting more and more. So, it is more also for different kind of riders, we have different races, which is important. The field gets more focused on different types of riders that we see developing. It’s not that one type of rider can win everything.
“I think it’s important, because if you start also with setting the bar so that you never have races that are uphill, then girls are also not forced to train for more uphill races. So yeah, it’s a bit like yeah, if you don’t organize it, the level stays a bit more like [away from] climbing. The more climbing races you get, I think also the level and also some riders will develop for that kind of races. So, I think it’s important to have different races on our calendar.”