The Best Form of Defense Is Attack: Annemiek van Vleuten at the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta By Amy Jones

The first edition of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta came about the year after the inaugural La Course and was a similar type of race—a women’s event tacked onto a city-center circuit race on the final day of the men’s grand tour. Unlike its French counterpart, however, the Ceratizit Challenge—or Madrid Challenge as it was formerly known—has grown in length and stature since its inception.

Now four stages long and incorporating challenging, mountainous parcours, this year’s edition was one in a series of three stages races in quick succession for the women’s peloton. Beginning with Ladies Tour of Norway in early August, followed a week later by Simac Ladies Tour in Holland before the Ceratizit Challenge began just a few days later.

Annemiek van Vleuten cemented her position as the strongest woman in the peloton by some margin at this race. If the mix up at the Olympic road race galvanized her into her gold medal time trial ride, it has positively catapulted her into the latter part of the season.

With her nearest rival, Anna van der Breggen, appearing to enter the latter part of the season—and her career—with a slower build up, van Vleuten took the overall at both Norway and Ceratizit. It’s not that the 38-year-old Dutchwoman had nobody challenging her; rival teams and the best of the peloton were there to take it to her as best they could—it just wasn’t enough.

The racing played into the Movistar rider’s hands in Spain. A breakaway containing Swiss national champion Marlen Reusser went up the road and gained almost two minutes on the peloton, meaning on the second stage’s 7.3km hilly individual time trial van Vleuten had a carrot to chase in the shape of Reusser.

After the stage, van Vleuten claimed not to like stage racing as much as one-day races: “I don’t like defending,” she said. “I struggle when I have to use that defending attitude in stage races. In my heart, I’m an attacker, I don’t like racing conservatively.”

Nobody would ever accuse the former world champion of racing conservatively. Van Vleuten is renowned for her sustained solo attacks and constant attempts to snap the elastic and get away from the bunch to use her superior time trial skills. The following day, on stage three, she did exactly that.

“Tomorrow, I have nothing to lose and everything to win,” went the European champion’s warning shots after the time trial. “I just hope other teams think like that, so we won’t give it as a present to Marlen Reusser, make things hard for her to win and offer a good show for people watching on TV tomorrow.”

Far from giving Reusser a “present,” van Vleuten cast herself as the Grinch Who Stole the GC, escaping from the peloton on a climb after a technical descent and going solo with 40km to go. An elite group containing Elisa Longo Borghini, Kasia Niewiadoma, Elise Chabbey, Marta Cavalli, Floortje Mackaij, Kata Blanka Vas, Liane Lippert, and Reusser couldn’t reel the Women’s WorldTour leader back in and she won by a margin of 2:48.

Annemiek Van Vleuten celebrates stage 3 of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta 2021 (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

It may not have been the spectacle that van Vleuten hoped to give viewers but she took up the role of attacker with textbook aplomb to claim the general classification lead going into the final stage. She eventually won by the 1:34 margin she ended with on that day after Reusser failed to gain time back on stage 4.

It wasn’t purely the van Vleuten show at the Ceratizit Challenge. Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky’s return to racing after crashing in the Omnium in Tokyo saw her win the final stage and provided a taste of her form going into a home world championships on a course that suits her.

Elsewhere, SD Worx’s young Hungrian talent, Kata Blanka Vas—straight off the back of fifth place in the U23 race at the mountain bike world championships the week before—put in impressive rides on stage 3 in her first road race outside of nationals for 2021. Days after her 20th birthday, Vas claimed ninth overall, the best-placed rider on her team.

Third-placed on the general classification, Elise Chabeby of Canyon//SRAM continued her campaign to transition from worker to leader. The Swiss rider’s style is not dissimilar to van Vleuten’s and Reusser’s—all three examples of the fact that riding aggressively pays in women’s cycling.

Reusser herself is looking like the biggest threat to van Vleuten for the time trial at the world championships. After taking silver in Tokyo in that event Reusser has built on her form to put herself on the map as one of the strongest riders in the women’s peloton right now.

With few races remaining before the fight for the rainbow jersey gets underway, the time trial looks to be van Vleuten’s for the taking and, although the course may not suit her, she can never be discounted for the road race either. The question is: who can stop her and will they pull it off? 

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