Annemiek van Vleuten: I can leave the sport proud

Decorated Dutch rider ready to come full circle with final outing at Simac Ladies Tour

Clock08:00, Wednesday 6th September 2023

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Annemiek van Vleuten waved goodbye to the World Championships in Glasgow

When Annemiek van Vleuten set off for the opening prologue of the Simac Ladies Tour on Tuesday afternoon, it was something of a full circle moment for the Dutch rider, who will officially retire at the end of this race.

Sixteen years ago, in 2007, a 24-year-old Van Vleuten was stagiairing for a small team and, after taking part in a few criteriums, she was ready to line up for her first stage race. That race was the Holland Ladies Tour, the race we now know as the Simac Ladies Tour.

For the rider who has now won several world titles, as well as all three women’s Grand Tours and most of the major Classics, her first stage race couldn’t have been less of a success. Van Vleuten didn’t even make it through one day, crashing on the opening stage and having to abandon her burgeoning stage race career when it had hardly even started.

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

“My skills were not so good yet!” Van Vleuten laughed, looking back at that race in an interview her Movistar team shared ahead of her final race.

Though the memories of her first Simac Ladies Tour are perhaps not positive ones, it seems fitting that this should be the place where she closes a curtain on her illustrious career: back where she started, at home, on roads she knows best.

“It’s good to end my career there, and it’s also very close to my home,” she said. “For my feeling, it had my name written all over it, with the prologue near to my home, and also the last stage is close to my training area in Arnhem, also really close to where I grew up and where my mother still lives in Vorden. So it just feels like a nice way to say goodbye.”

Though Van Vleuten’s final season has been far from an indulgent lap of honour - she was still chasing big goals in the calendar’s most important races - her goodbye has already been a long and emotional one, starting perhaps on the final day of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift back in July.

It was a race she wanted to win, to defend her title from 2022, and end her Grand Tour career on a high. In the end, as it is for so many athletes, there was no fairytale ending for Van Vleuten. She was bettered in the climbs by young star Demi Vollering (SD Worx), and then slipped off the podium in the final time trial.

Read more: Changing of the guard between Demi Vollering and Annemiek van Vleuten on the Col du Tourmalet

Any disappointment, however, was soon mixed with other emotions as the 40-year-old entered the final phase of her career.

“The team, how they were waiting for me at the finish line [of the Tour de France time trial] was heartbreaking,” Van Vleuten recalled. “And it continued actually at the World Championships. People said ‘thank you, thank you’ to me for just chasing my goals. That so many people enjoyed my style of racing and say that they will miss it, that is super special for me to hear, and also emotional.”

Appreciation for what they’ve done is perhaps not something most athletes feel until most of their career is in the rearview mirror, and it seems the same is true for Van Vleuten. Reflecting ahead of her final race, she appeared to be taking in what she has achieved.

“I can leave the sport proud. So thank you to all the people that say thank you, because it means a lot.”

Leaving a legacy

As well as ending her career proud, Van Vleuten leaves the sport in a much different place than she found it, whether that’s the development of her team, Movistar, being part of the inaugural Tour de France Femmes, or trying to encourage healthier mindsets within the sport.

Her journey with Movistar in particular seems to be one of the things Van Vleuten is most proud of. She joined the team in 2021, in its fourth year of existence, and has helped to transform the squad from a small, mainly Spanish outfit, to one of the most successful GC outfits in the WorldTour.

“I’m really proud if I see the journey we took as a team with Movistar, and where we came from. I’m sometimes still a bit laughing about how we did the first races and how inexperienced our team was, and how super, super experienced we are now. Especially the biggest thing they developed is how to defend a GC. Nothing needs to be said anymore, everyone knows, and that’s the biggest thing.”

With new additions in recent seasons like Tour de France stage winner Liane Lippert, upcoming Brit Claire Steels, and young Australian talent Sarah Gigante, it’s clear that Movistar are looking to a future without Van Vleuten, and her achievements will continue to influence the team.

“There’s more talent in this team than the riders are aware of,” she said. “Sometimes it starts with believing in yourself as a rider to get the best out of yourself.”

What’s next after retirement?

Whilst it’s not difficult to imagine Van Vleuten taking up a role in the sport - whether that’s as a DS like her old rival Anna van der Breggen, or somewhere else within cycling - the 40-year-old first and foremost wants to take a break. It’s no secret that her performances come as a result of hard work and lots of training, and some respite from that has been something she’s pointed to since she announced her retirement.

After her career ends on Sunday at the Simac Ladies Tour, Van Vleuten has very little lined up, and that’s how she wants it to be.

“I would really like a sabbatical and a year where I can say yes to some shorter projects and orientate myself a bit, find a new project where I want to be, to develop new qualities,” she said. “I signed up for a course at the International Olympic Committee for athletes that are going to stop like me. It’s a short course of eight things where they try to challenge you a bit to think about ‘what did I actually learn in my career, what qualities do I have, what would I like to develop even more in the next part of my career’.

“I will really enjoy that I don’t need to go out training when it’s raining in the Netherlands, when it’s cold, when it’s shitty weather. I’ll have a bit more freedom. I was married to the bike, so now I have more freedom to go wherever I want, not having the anxiety of losing your form and your shape.”

It’s hard to predict what Van Vleuten’s final race will bring; after winning the Tour of Scandinavia, it’s clear she’s still in race winning shape, but perhaps a more relaxed end is on the cards. One thing is clear, however: she’s going out full of pride and positivity.

“I think the biggest compliment people can give me is that I inspired them with some of my wins, that they find the ways to find energy again to look forward and set positive goals and not get stuck in negativity.

“I’m super proud that I was part of this journey, it’s been the most beautiful way of ending my career.”

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