Sometimes you come up with a truly unique idea for an article, and at other times, you’re merely adding your voice to the noise, in the hope that someone out there cares to read your version of events. It’s most definitely the latter in this case. As it should be. One of the greatest riders of our time is stepping away from the sport after an incredible, unrivalled career, and celebrating her by adding more voices to the appreciation party is a truly fitting tribute to a legend of the sport. So here’s mine.
Images: Justin Britton
‘The longer the better, the harder the better, I have to embrace the scary thing. Everything that's hard and that's scary and that's shit - it's good for me.’
It takes a brave soul to live by these words. Not everyone could adopt such an open-minded and accepting attitude to hardship and adversity. They are words that express the mindset of a winner. Ultimately, they are proof of the psychological fortitude of Annemiek van Vleuten, and they both epitomise and summarise the truth of her long and decorated career in cycling: that she suffered willingly, and with the sole intention of bettering herself as an athlete and a person. And that everyone else around her had to bloody well do the same, or face defeat.
During the course of her career, Van Vleuten had to live with criticism over her dominance, and have those around her feel they could do nothing in the face of it. But she was unlocking the answer all along, simply by putting herself through the most pain. Whether she was doing so purposely or not, through her unequivocal commitment to self-improvement, she has set an example for women and girls in every field of sport, and even in the wider world, of how to face up to challenges, and overcome them. Sheer bloody-mindedness. Though, that's not the sum of her as a person. Far from it.
We are told time and time again that adversity, and how we face it, is what defines us as human. Annemiek van Vleuten actively sought out adversity in an effort not simply to win, or even to be the best in a sport, but to be the best version of herself that she could possibly be. She put obstacles in her own way, and surmounted them. To reflect on her methodology, and its success, is to draw back the curtain somewhat on what it means to be human, and to strive for personal achievement, in whatever form that takes. It’s not been an easy process. And it probably explains why it’s taken a couple of weeks for this article to see the light of day. Let’s go back to the beginning.
Sunday 10th September 2023: the end of an era
(It’s not hyperbole, when it’s actually true).
As Annemiek van Vleuten hangs off the back of the peloton on the final stage of the SIMAC Ladies Tour in Arnhem, she soaks in the atmosphere, waving to the crowds who have turned out in force to pay tribute to the rider as she calls time on her glittering career in the pro peloton.
It's an emotional day for many, not least the woman herself, of course. Saying goodbye, at home, for the final time, is a day she will likely remember for a long time. Looking on, fans and admirers applaud and reflect in their own ways, about the impact she has had on them - and there cannot be a fan of women's cycling out there who hasn't felt her impact, on some level.
For my part, I was overwhelmed by just how emotional I was about the departure of this great competitor. In many ways, she had defined my experience of women's cycling; the essence of what it meant to be a gritty yet gracious competitor, she set the high bar by which I judged the rest of the women's peloton, be it unfairly or not - it was impossible not to draw comparisons. But it was also a high bar for the sport, that was to push the women's peloton in terms of their professionalism and competition, and the new generation of riders owes a great deal to her, for that.
There are many words you could choose to describe the woman who has won four World Championships (two road races and two time trials), four Giro Donnes, and the inaugural Tour de France, among countless other victories: professional, uncompromising, gracious, ruthless, generous, inspiring. You can divide these words largely into ‘on’ and ‘off’ the bike modes – where she’s uncompromising and ruthless on the bike, she is generous and gracious off it, thus subverting the expectation that women can’t ‘have it all’ – busting myths that to get ahead in your career, you must be hard, and unbending; perhaps even selfish or cruel.
Annemiek van Vleuten knew how to dominate whilst she was engaged in her version of ‘work mode’. Yet where she was hard as nails on the bike, outside of that, she is a truly great person and an inspiring individual. It was difficult not to like her, even as she steamrollered the hopes and dreams of every other rider that stood in her way.
Because to the majority of the women’s peloton for the past 15 years, Annemiek van Vleuten has been primarily an adversary. Racing is racing, and first and foremost, it’s about trying to win. And Annemiek van Vleuten has provided the greatest obstacle to winning road races that has been seen in the past decade.
For me, when I began seriously following women's cycling, making the most of the increased opportunity thanks to improved coverage, she was at first a source of frustration, for the reasons mentioned above. Van Vleuten's dominance has been a point of contention amongst cycling fans over the course of her career, as she swept the board in many races, crushing the competition wherever she went. It began to be ‘anyone but Van Vleuten’ when choosing who to support in any given race. Dominance is hard to take in any sport and it’s human nature to cheer for the underdog; to will a less obvious candidate to rise to victory against the odds and against the key players.
Yet you had to admire Van Vleuten’s sheer bloody-minded drive. She was the cannibal of women’s cycling, the epitome of an elite level athlete, and yes, it might have been boring at times to onlookers hoping for exciting, evenly-matched contests, but was that Annemiek’s problem? Like hell it was.
The Iron Lady
Annemiek van Vleuten had the single-minded goal to improve herself and in doing so, she has pushed the women’s peloton to up their game. To train as hard as her, work as hard, and to try and beat her at her own game. Of course, she was an extraordinary bike rider, but she was also a grafter – she put in the hours, she worked on every element of her racing, and she forced others to examine their own performance and try to find ways past her. If they wanted to beat her, they w0uld have to suffer more than her. And as she explained in her own words, in the quote at the top of the piece, she was willing to suffer a great deal; in fact, she thrived upon it.
This played out in every race she rode – what Van Vleuten may have lacked in suplesse she made up for in guile, and her unmistakable style on the bike was like a visual representation of her work ethic: to watch Annemiek wrestle her machine up a steep gradient was to feel humbled by the sheer will of the woman. She rode with suffering as a goal, rather than a by-product. She dominated gravity into submission, yet her physical abilities were matched, perhaps even surpassed, by her iron will - the mental fortitude to know that not only had she been through this pain before, but endured it, and overcome it, would see her hang on where others fell away. It was perhaps her greatest strength, even beyond that of her prodigious talent on the bike.
This is why my favourite win of hers remains her incredible victory in the 2022 World Championship road race in Wollongong, because to win that day, carrying a fractured elbow from a crash earlier in the week, she had to do so against the odds, despite her formidable reputation. I wrote about what I loved above that win here, and it remains to this day one of my favourite ever bike races.
The irony of it all is that, without Van Vleuten in the peloton, the current dominant force in cycling may go unchallenged next season. The fact that she single-handedly provided an answer to SD Worx both in one-day racing and stage racing over the past couple of seasons is testament to her greatness. Without her yin to provide much-needed balance, the yang of SD Worx becomes a distinctly more insidious prospect. Thankfully, in no small part due to the tenacious example set by Van Vleuten over the years, there are many riders now rising through the ranks who can hope to at least put up a challenge.
While her rivals may be glad to see her go, they will surely miss the challenge that was part and parcel of having Annemiek van Vleuten in a race alongside them. She brought the best out in others with her uncompromising approach to racing and her incredible natural talent, and she has inspired countless people, from kids, to young cyclists, to fans.
The outpouring of emotion across social media is testament to the impact she has had across the sport, and it was clear above all, the high regard in which she is held by the rest of the peloton. Fans and riders alike said their goodbyes. Jayco-Alula, formerly GreenEdge, made a post honouring their former rider, using the hashtag ‘GraciasMiek’ coined by Movistar to acknowledge her immense contribution both to the team and to the sport. And she, in turn, showed her gratitude, presenting every Movistar staff member with a rainbow jersey, all featuring a few personal words. Mutual respect, among the people who mattered most on the final leg of her epic journey. Articles proliferated about her impact, both personal and on the sport, and fans shared stories of meeting her, having her sign things, countless selfies shared, all featuring the smiling face of a champion.
Embrace the scary thing
So we return to where we began, to remind ourselves that Van Vleuten only achieved what she achieved because she was willing to do everything it took and more besides. And it’s a stark reminder of what many of us have to face, when confronted with our own challenges. Doing the hard thing is hard. That much is clear. How you react to that hard thing, is what defines you.
From my own perspective, each step into the unknown I have taken on my uncertain career path has been a leap of faith. While it may not hurt me physically, the mental load is great, and that in itself has had some consequences. Safe to say, it’s a different level of hard thing - and each person's definition of what is 'hard' will vary and is equally valid - but for me, putting myself out there, asking where in the past I might have just sat in silence, ignoring imposter syndrome and gritting my teeth and not giving up in the face of turbulent times have been just some of the ways that my version of ‘embracing the scary thing’ has manifested so far, and for the most part, when I have pushed beyond my limits, and stepped outside of the comfort zone, it has yielded results.
It goes without saying that it’s nothing like the same level of punishment though, and that’s why I’m not an elite athlete, but we all have our own pain thresholds, physical or emotional, our own limits for what we can withstand, where we usually draw the line and remain in our comfort zones, and what constitutes ‘shooting our shot’ above and beyond what we would normally aim for. Finding those limits and deciding when to push beyond them is an individual journey. But we are all on one, in one way or another.
As suspected, this piece has blurred the boundaries somewhat between a simple celebration of the career of an exceptional athlete, and a personal reaction to said athlete’s retirement, so in closing I’ll simply say this: the words of Annemiek van Vleuten remind me that to get somewhere you want to be, you have to push through tough times. The tough times may be a stumbling block, but to ‘embrace the scary thing’ is to live, and to thrive, and to go beyond the safe and the comfortable, and to get over those stumbling blocks and forge ahead. And I think that’s something we can all relate to, on some level.
Happy retirement to a legend, and thank you, from the heart, for reminding us all that to get where we want to be, sometimes we must all be a bit more Annemiek.
Sometimes you know a piece isn't quite finished but you can't quite put your finger on why. Usually I'm pretty cavalier with the publish button but this time I refrained for a few hours. Couldn't work it out, so published anyway.
It came to me in the bath, relaxing after what's been a tiring week and wondering how I can be more Annemiek tomorrow, and frankly the idea of embracing the scary just... didn't hit right.
Then I remembered the whole kernel of the Annemiek dichotomy which I guess could be distilled down into 'killer on the bike, sweetheart in real life' (go with me, it's close enough!) Because after all, not every day is a race day (insert your real life equivalent here).
So next time you want to channel the best of Annemiek but it's one of those days where the hard stuff is too hard and the shit stuff is too much of a mountain to overcome; on those days, be more Annemiek, off the bike. In short, you can still channel a champion, just by being nice. We don't always have to be on World Championship form. Most days, just being nice, is enough.
/no for real this time