Analysis: Annemiek van Vleuten still a level above in final Giro d’Italia Donne

Gap is closing, but few can match world champion’s attacking style

Clock14:34, Friday 7th July 2023
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) has won three stages of the Giro d’Italia Donne so far, and looks set to secure her fourth overall title on Sunday

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) has won three stages of the Giro d’Italia Donne so far, and looks set to secure her fourth overall title on Sunday

Prior to the start of the Giro d’Italia Donne, there were questions around how Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) might fare over the week in Italy. She hadn’t won anything in the spring, and she’d been pushed hard by Demi Vollering (SD Worx) in the Vuelta Femenina, holding on to win the overall but failing to take a stage. Just before the start in Chianciano, she’d been beaten in both the road race and the time trial at the Dutch national championships.

A week ago, it seemed like the rider who was going to the Giro might not be the dominant Annemiek van Vleuten we’ve become used to. With no huge climbs on the course and plenty of strong competitors on the start list, the Dutch woman looked beatable.

Now, there may be two stages remaining, but the world champion’s grip on the maglia rosa and the race as a whole seems unshakeable. She has won no fewer than three stages, and with a lead of almost four minutes going into two flatter stages in Sardinia, it seems very unlikely that she won’t secure her fourth Giro Donne title come Sunday afternoon.

Van Vleuten’s success in and control of this race is undeniable, and the numbers seem to point towards a totally imperious ride, but has the racing actually been as domineering as the results would lead us to think? Well, that’s a harder question to answer.

Let’s start with the obvious: yes, Annemiek van Vleuten has been the best rider in this race. You don’t win three out of six stages so far and build up a lead of four minutes by chance. But the interesting thing to consider is what it is that makes Van Vleuten the best.

In previous stage races, it’s been her climbing. When the road went up, especially as the elevation ticked over 1,000m, Van Vleuten was usually able to just ride away from her competitors. Attack early, hold steady whilst her rivals faded, and put chunks of time into everyone.

In recent races, that approach has been tested: she was beaten by Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step) on Thyon 2000 in the Tour de Romandie, and then at the Vuelta, both Gaia Realini (Lidl-Trek) and Demi Vollering bettered her on climbing days. The climbing gap is certainly closing.

That said, there is still something that puts Van Vleuten a level above almost all the rest of the peloton, and what has put her in the lead at this Giro: her aggression. Without high mountains where she might naturally excel and be able to assert her dominance, she’s had to race differently this week in Italy.

What has that meant? It’s meant attacking, and this is something Van Vleuten does better than anyone. Not necessarily because she is stronger or faster, but because she is braver, bolder, knows when she needs to attack and isn’t afraid to do it. Whether that’s attacking on a small climb on what should have been a puncheur’s day, or playing the tactical game with Gaia Realini and Juliette Labous (dsm-firmenich) on stage 7’s hilltop finish, Van Vleuten has been more aggressive, and simply better at attacking.

It’s clear to see that it’s this that has made Van Vleuten better, not just her strength of climbing. On the Passo del Lupo, the maglia rosa tried to attack early but was followed by Realini, and brought back after the climb. On stage 7, once again Realini and Labous followed her on the final climb, and she had to attack again and again to finally drop them, and even then only finished 13 seconds ahead of the dsm-firmenich rider. She can still win in the end, yes, but it seems she has to work harder for it and rely on her tactical edge more so than her legs.

Who could have come closer?

For all that Annemiek van Vleuten has proved to be the best rider so far at this Giro, it is worth considering who she is - and isn’t - up against. Of course, Demi Vollering, who pushed her so hard at the Vuelta, is not here as she prepares for an assault on the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. Vollering is one of the few riders in the peloton who has proved she can match and beat Van Vleuten in terms of both pure ability and racing style, so her absence has been to Van Vleuten’s advantage.

The other rider who likes racing as aggressively as Van Vleuten is Elisa Longo Borghini (Lidl-Trek), and for the first half of this race, she was proving a worthy match to Van Vleuten. The pair went toe-to-toe on stage 4, taking on the climb-filled finally with panache to go clear of most of the GC riders and allow Longo Borghini to outsprint the race leader on the line.

It looked to be a rivalry that could spice up the whole race - the mainly medium climbs weren’t outside of Longo Borghini’s capabilities - but a heavy crash on stage 5 saw the Italian champion lose time, before abandoning the next day, leaving a gap behind Van Vleuten on GC and denying the race any more of their exciting battles.

It’s hard to say if Longo Borghini could have matched Van Vleuten on the remaining stages, particularly the hilltop finish in Alassio, but we can be sure that the Italian would have tried to be there, tried to follow her wheel, tried to challenge the maglia rosa.

Riders are coming closer to Van Vleuten in terms of ability - Realini, Labous, Marta Cavalli (FDJ-SUEZ), Niamh Fisher-Black (SD Worx), they all climb at a very similar level to the Dutchwoman - but a gap still exists in terms of attacking and aggression. Climbing well is not quite enough until you can put in that one big attack to go clear. Many have been trying, particularly Fisher-Black with her repeated attacks whenever the road went up, but no one has quite succeeded like Van Vleuten in this race.

With two stages still to go, Van Vleuten has already roundly dismissed any doubts over her ability to win, and win convincingly. She is a level above the rest of the peloton, but perhaps just no longer in the way that we think. Her superiority in the climbs may wane as she approaches her final races, but what the world champion will never lose is her propensity for aggressive racing, her ability to attack at the right time, in the right way.

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