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ANNECY, France (VN) — Annemiek van Vleuten remembers a specific scene from her first Giro Rosa, the premier stage race for professional female cyclists. It was 2010 and van Vleuten, then 27, was a domestique for Marianne Vos on the Dutch national team.
On the sixth stage, the route sent the women’s peloton up the mighty Passo Stelvio.
“I remember that I suffered,” van Vleuten said. “I remember riding up the Stelvio and thinking, ‘Maybe I am not going to be a climber.’”
This was long before van Vleuten became perhaps the best climber in the women’s peloton — in fact, van Vleuten did not enjoy climbs back then.
Van Vleuten was dropped, yet she showed promise, finishing in 16th place, 11:49 behind winner Mara Abbott and five minutes down on Vos. Other riders who finished in van Vleuten’s group that day were future stars Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (16:06) and Anna van der Breggen (15:39).
That performance feels like eons ago, given van Vleuten’s recent exploits on the world’s toughest climbs. Now 35, van Vleuten is the peloton’s top rider on long, sustained climbs. Last July she soared to an impressive victory atop the Col d’Izoard on the opening stage of the 2017 La Course by Le Tour de France. Only two riders from the men’s race — Warren Barguil and Romain Bardet — posted faster times on the climb that day, according to data from Strava.
Van Vleuten’s climbing legs were on display last week during her dominating victory at the Giro Rosa, her first overall victory at the 10-day stage race. Van Vleuten seized control of the race by winning the uphill 15.3km stage 7 time trial to Diga di Campo Moro, 2:29 ahead of second-place Moolman-Pasio. Two days later she roared to the summit of Monte Zoncolan in the lead, adding another 40 seconds to her advantage on second-place Moolman-Pasio. Van Vleuten completed her dominance by on the final stage, attacking over a category 1 climb for another stage win.
Her margin of victory for her first Giro title: 4:12.
“It’s one of the most beautiful victories because when I did that first Giro I never thought I’d be able to win,” Van Vleuten said. “It started only two or three years ago when my team made me believe I could win.”
Van Vleuten continued her winning ways on Tuesday, defending her La Course title on a climb-heavy route between Annecy and Le Grand-Bornand. The race came down to a battle between her and van der Breggen, regarded as the best rider on flat and hilly terrain. Although van der Breggen gapped her on the final summit, van Vleuten mounted a valiant charge on the rise to the finish, making a victorious pass in the waning meters.
The two victories brought considerable confidence to van Vleuten’s Mitchelton-Scott team, which is now ranked second in the UCI Women’s WorldTour standings behind Boels-Dolmans. Amanda Spratt, Mitchelton-Scott’s other climbing ace, said van Vleuten’s presence takes some pressure off of the team because they know they have a rider who can win.
“We know we have a rider who can win, and it’s exciting to have that goal,” Spratt said. “Everyone on the team, the girls and the staff, everyone gets excited for that goal. We were focused and motivated because we knew we could win.”
Van Vleuten traces her current climbing dominance back to 2016 when her impressive ride at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics elevated her status within the global cycling community. Van Vleuten and Abbott dropped the peloton on the Vista Chinesa climb and began the descent to the finish. Van Vleuten gapped Abbott on a series of hairpin turns, only to crash in one of the course’s tight corners.
As the TV cameras rolled van Vleuten slammed face-first into a curb and crumpled on the tarmac. She lay motionless on the pavement as Abbott and others rolled past. Days after the race it was revealed Van Vleuten had suffered a concussion, three fractures to her spine, and massive bruising to her face.
Still, the performance was a sign that van Vleuten had ascended into the elite ranks of the peloton’s top climbers. In interviews, she credited her improvement to a variety of important training changes that were aimed at the 2016 Olympics. She had abandoned training in the gym and dropped weight in her upper body. She participated in altitude training camps and pushed herself on the climbs. The focus was on Rio.
“I saw the [Olympics] 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,” van Vleuten told VeloNews this spring. “From then on, I stepped up.”
Van Vleuten’s next major goal is the UCI road world championships in September. This year’s course in Innsbruck includes a sizable climb near the end of the circuit. Between La Course and the world championships, van Vleuten will take a break from racing before building back up.
Despite her talents on the climbs, van Vleuten admits the uphills still hurt. She may ride uphill faster, but the pain remains the same.
“Even on the Zoncolan I was suffering a lot,” Van Vleuten said. “People think if you’re good it’s easy, but I still suffer. I can now win there before I was suffering in the back.”