In a year that has been anything but ideal, with all racing stopped for more than four months by the COVID-19 pandemic, reigning world road champion Annemiek van Vleuten once again proved herself to be the most formidable racer in the women’s pro peloton by defending her Strade Bianche title last Saturday.
Words by William Tracy; Images by Twila Federica Muzzi
Normally taking place in March, when rain and cool conditions can make for a grueling day of racing, Strade Bianche had a different flavor this year. August temperatures under the Tuscan sun flirted with 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees F.). Combined with humidity and gravel roads made especially dusty by months of summer heat, conditions were more demanding than ever.
“I couldn’t see anything because of the dust,” van Vleuten said at the post-race press conference. “It was quite different from the racing conditions in March, but still beautiful…and super hard!” But the adverse conditions seemed to play to van Vleuten’s strengths. “Everything that’s hard is good for me, because it’s bad for my opponents,” she said following the race. “I love the heat. It’s good for me, because all the girls suffer more.”
Racing for Mitchelton-Scott in the Giordana NX-G Road Suit, with mesh panels on the sides and underarms, certainly helped her thrive in the heat. Made in Italy, this kit is built to handle the high temperatures of the Italian summer.
Van Vleuten’s victory was far from a sure thing, though. With some 50 kilometers to go in the 136-kilometer classic, she did not think winning would be in the cards after her Australian teammate Amanda Spratt made it into a lead group of 11 riders. And when Spanish veteran Mavi García (Alé BTC Ljubljana) rode away solo from that group and amassed a sizeable lead, more than three minutes at one point, it looked like it was García’s race to lose. But that was when van Vleuten, two minutes behind the chasers, turned on the afterburners.
After bridging up to her teammate’s group she powered away solo on the final uphill gravel sector to catch García with just under 7 kilometers to go. The two stayed together until the final climb, the stone-paved Via Santa Caterina, where van Vleuten proved she was the stronger of two very tired women by attacking up the dauntingly steep final kilometer to the Piazza del Campo in Siena.
Crossing the finish line 22 seconds ahead of García, her white Giordana world champion’s jersey stained tan by the clouds of dust, van Vleuten became the first back-to-back winner in this race’s young but storied history. It also continued her win streak, dating back to her world championship title last fall, to six in a row.
That van Vleuten could close a multi-minute gap solo, and in such adverse conditions, is a testament to just how dominant she is in the peloton right now. And Strava accounts showed that she completed the final 25 kilometers faster than most of the riders in the men’s 50-percent-longer Strade Bianche, including classics specialists Greg Van Avermaet and Michal Kwiatkowski. Even after months away from racing, and at age 37, van Vleuten is more dominant than ever and poised to rack up many more victories in this truncated season.