Van Vleuten’s team took fifth in the team time trial on stage 1, and then the Dutch rider rode to a dominant victory on stage 2, beating her closest competitors by over two minutes on the race’s hilliest stage.
However, returning from a five-week block away from competing, the 39-year-old was not sure how she would perform starting the race in Spain.
“I had no clue,” Van Vleuten said at the finish. “After the Tour de France, I had some time off at home, and then I went back to training. I just came back from altitude, so you’re always a bit insecure [about] how you are.”
The Ceratizit Challenge’s ‘Queen’ stage came unusually early on in the race, which also added to Van Vleuten’s uncertainty.
“Especially as it’s the second day, like in the Tour de France I attacked on the seventh day, then everyone’s a bit more tired,” she explained. “Now everyone was still fresh, and I hadn’t seen them for five weeks, my competitors.”
In reality, it seemed the Women’s WorldTour leader had little to worry about, as she rode away from Demi Vollering (SD Worx) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) on the penultimate climb and soloed to the finish.
Though a strong individual performance, Van Vleuten was full of praise for her team, who set the pace into the base of the climb before her winning move.
“There was really good teamwork, and that makes it more special, this victory. We set it up as a team, we started to make it hard on the third climb, so that made it special today, that they set it up for me to attack.”
Before the race, Van Vleuten said the lack of big climbs and long stages may make it harder for her to target, and explained how the team therefore worked to make the stage more difficult.
“Because it was a shorter stage, 100km — we are more used to a 150, 160 — so then I knew it should be hard from the gun. That’s why I needed my teammates to make it hard on the third climb already, we decided, so that before I attacked they were already suffering.”
With a minute and 54 seconds lead on GC with two easier days remaining, Van Vleuten may well have wrapped up the overall on Thursday, but she is not taking her lead for granted.
“I knew that this was the hardest stage, but I also know it’s never over until Madrid,” she said. “We take it day-by-day, but I know stage 4 is really going to be windy. I raced there before in the World Cup in 2011 in Valladolid, I know how open it can be there so it’s also a dangerous stage.