It takes a lifetime to attain the kind of fitness Annemiek van Vleuten has. Her achievements have grown consistently and include stories of adversity. Today in Wollongong the most dominant rider of 2022 has become the world champion.
– By Rob Arnold (Photos: Zac Williams)
On a day when Wollongong welcomed road cycling to town in amazing style, with all kinds of weather and wonderful scenery, it’s difficult to summarise all that Annemiek van Vleuten’s win represents. It’s a victory that will be remembered for a long time, one that takes a season of success to a whole new level.
If you missed the race when it was broadcast live, that’s a shame. It was sport and scenery and ultimately bravado and determination that we got to see.
At the very end it came as a surprise. An attack so strong that it would prove to be The Winning Move in a race that was combative and compelling from start to finish.
The ceremonial opening sequences along the coastline after the neutral start in Helensburgh could have felt predictable, knowing that the quest to showcase the beauty of the region was a priority for NSW. Fly a helicopter over the northern suburbs of Wollongong and you have fantastic viewing.
It had to be good if it was to compete for eyeballs with the AFL Grand Final. It would be a laughable TV ratings battle, because one event demanded attention all around the nation. But cycling provided a showcase of a region while the stars of the peloton ensured the focus remained on the racing action.
If you were watching the footy and didn’t witness how the photos you see here came about, please take a moment to find the replay. But here’s a tip: don’t just fast-forward to the winning moment. Yes, it was a definitive display of power, strength, tactical genius, and also pure guts and determination, but what makes it special is that although she was a favourite everything turned in the days leading up to this race when even starting seemed like it would be a conquest.
With a broken elbow, against all the odds, she won. The salute came. Then the shock of victory set in. It seemed absurd to think she would even start the race, but van Vleuten is no ordinary rider. She has seen it all, done it all, won it all and continues to impress even when it seemed certain the win was out of reach.
“I was waiting and waiting,” she said, “but they didn’t get me.”
That’s how the race ended. But that’s not the full story.
To understand the race and all that Annemiek did would take a long time to tell.
This year alone were victories in all three of the major events / initiatives of women’s cycling: Giro, Tour, Vuelta… and now worlds. It was an amazing season before the trip to Australia. But she won in Spain. Was on the plane later that day. And around the world she flew.
In top shape and confident about the TT, things didn’t go perfectly on the opening day of competition. The result was a surprise, but there was the Mixed TTT to come and the chance to try again.
We know how that ended. If there was one scene of this championships on regular replay, it was the crash sequence of van Vleuten shortly after leaving the start house on Wednesday.
The pain is obvious. The disappointment spelled out in detail as she sat there on the road, in stunned disbelief.
How did that happen?
We all wanted to know. And we also all wanted to know: is she okay?
She stood. She composed herself. She went to medical. And the diagnosis wasn’t good.
Before the race today, the big question for many following cycling was: would she even start? Or rather, could she?
Others wouldn’t consider it. But Annemiek van Vleuten is one of a kind.
She was on the start line. She wore orange (out of habit?) and it was a skinsuit (out of intent: to be fast, to be as ready to race as she could be).
Then, along the coastline it was noted that she wore a colour that wasn’t in keeping with the national team’s jersey. A solution was required. Between the Sea Cliff Bridge and the arrival for the climb up Mount Keira, van Vleuten stopped and put on a team-issue Dutch jersey. (Over her skinsuit. Although, according to some reports, it was questioned if a full change was possible to achieve the best outfit… a longer story for another time.)
And then the race rolled back into town, safely down the range through Kembla Heights and onwards to Cringilla and some wide roads leading back to town. Soon the laps of the circuit would begin.
Six times they raced up and over Ramah Avenue. It hurts once. It hurts more when you’re at race pace. And then it hurts more when it rains. It hurts more when you’ve got a broken elbow and cannot ride the way you like.
“My legs were exploding on the climb,” explained van Vleuten. “Normally I would like to get out of the saddle.”
Not this time, not the next… or the next, etc.
Time after time, she lapped around still near the front, still responding to attacks. Still doing what she’s done race after race, year after year, accident after accident… and yet it seemed logical that her energy was best invested in looking after a fit and extremely capable team-mate.
To think, the Dutch team had the option of having AVV work for MV (or vice-versa, even with injury) and … lo, it resulted in a win. You’d think, based on history, of course it would. The Dutch always win. (Remember the Sydney Olympics!? Ah yes, another dose of NSW sporting/cycling history with an orange tint.)
But this win today, it was different. It is different. It is unique and it is indeed a showcase of cycling, the region, and the abilities of a rider who surprised many, including herself, with her winning move.
“It was hell with my elbow. I couldn’t go out of the saddle. My legs were exploding on the climb. Normally, I really like to go out of the saddle… I had to also follow a different plan from what I wanted today.
“I wanted to attack at Mount Keira before my elbow fracture, but with this situation, we established that Marianne was the leader, and I was playing domestique with my broken elbow – but now I’m world champion!”
– By Rob Arnold
(Note: Updated with new images. Big thanks to Zac Williams, a superstar photographer and a pleasure to work with.)