If few female riders, in recent years, have been knocked down as hard and as infamously as Annemiek van Vleuten, none have gotten up again quite so impressively.
The Movistar star’s 2021 season ended in spectacular and painful fashion at the inaugural women’s Paris-Roubaix. Successive crashes on slippery cobbles left her with a broken shoulder and double pelvis fracture.
As she took to the narrow roads of rural Belgium for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, her first one-day race of 2022, Van Vleuten gave no indication of lingering injury, or that she had started the season as anything less than her strongest self.
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It was a power performance in more ways than one - not just physiologically dominant, but psychologically too.
Firstly there was the confidence Van Vleuten displayed throughout the first phases of the race. The Dutchwoman is not known for her patience yet Saturday saw her sit back and settle in, allowing the superficial sideshow of the Omloop’s early miles to unfold around and in front of her.
First there was the break of the day. Six riders Emily Newsom (EF Education-TIBCO-SVB), Kylie Waterreus (Lotto Soudal Ladies), Svenja Betz (IBCT), Fien Delbaere (Multum Accountants Ladies Cycling Team), Anastasia Carbonari (Valcar-Travel & Service), and Laura Tomasi (UAE Team ADQ) built a lead of four minutes before being inevitably reeled in with 40 kilometres left of the race.
After a period of respite, between the rough cobbles of the Haaghoek and the first proper climb, the Leberg, Swiss champion Marlen Reusser (SD Worx) launched the first significant attack from the favourites. Reusser was followed by Liane Lippert (Team DSM), Anna Henderson (Jumbo Visma) and Ellen van Dijk (Trek Segafredo). The quartet quickly built up a lead of one minute, with the kilometres falling fast.
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But the peloton, commanded by Annemiek van Vleuten kept its collective heads. Her Movistar team-mates, along with riders from Canyon-Sram and FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope held the gap to the break steady, before beginning to reel it in.
The four maintained a meaningful 30 second lead as they began to climb the Muur. As Henderson fell away on the steepest section, Van Vleuten decided it was time to ditch the deadwood from the peloton.
Demi Vollering (SD Worx) was the only rider who could go with her, they gathered up Anna Henderson on the descent, before being joined by Belgian champion, Lotte Kopecky on the approach to the Bosberg.
Seven riders at the front then, but not for long. Again, Van Vleuten saw fit to take charge. A steady, seated acceleration, rather than an explosive one, was enough to leave all but Demi Vollering in the dust.
Although it made tactical sense for Vollering, with team-mate Kopecky behind, to simply sit in Van Vleuten’s slipstream, and save herself for the sprint, there was nothing more she could manage. Even in the wheel, Vollering was gasping for air.
Despite not, on paper, having the faster finish, Van Vleuten was so sure of her strength that she seemed content to carry Vollering to the line. For almost twelve kilometres she rode like that, showing no sign of frustration at her compatriot’s failure to take a turn on the front.
Into the final few hundred metres, with a lead of close to a minute established, and victory all-but certain for one of them, a showdown sprint was assured.
Van Vleuten kicked early, with three hundred metres to go. As she dived into the final, left-hand bend, it looked briefly like Vollering might just manage to stay on terms, until that looked like nothing of the sort.
Dominance has a new definition this evening.
Behind the remains of the chase were swallowed up by the peloton, and Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM) won the sprint for third.
Highlights: Van Vleuten powers her way to Omloop success with astonishing show of endurance
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