if you blinked

women's ronde van vlaanderen 2021

If you blinked, you wouldn’t necessarily have missed it; such was the pace on the agonizingly steep slope and harsh cobbles of the Paterberg after nearly 140 kilometers of hard racing. It was hardly a surprise to anyone who has ever watched much (or perhaps any) of the last decade of women’s cycling. Once it happened, the suspense of an otherwise beautiful (in the anxious, attritional way that often defines the Tour of Flanders) race was largely gone, and the outcome all but decided. 

It was an all-in move at the last major obstacle in the course, and the last readymade opportunity to avoid a group sprint at the finish. It was a few moments of sublime brilliance from a rider at her imperious best, putting her rivals to the sword. And above all else, it was a reminder that despite a few months in which she has appeared excellent but decidedly human and fallible, Annemiek van Vleuten remains perhaps the world’s best racing cyclist. 

By the time the broadcast begins showing live images, several would-be breakaways have been attempted, chased down, and reintegrated into an increasingly nervous peloton hurtling through the 152.4-kilometer parcours.

Owing to the narrow roads and tight, sudden corners of Flanders, De Ronde is, even more than most races, an exercise in positioning and tactics as much as aerobic endurance and skill on a bike. 

This is especially true in the lead-up to any of the race’s 5 cobbled sectors or 13 climbs. Each resolve-testing obstacle is preceded by an equally important test of tactical awareness; inattentiveness could mean getting caught up in a crash, and indecisiveness often means missing a race-winning move. 

The fight for relative “safety” at the front leads to a constant churn in the peloton, which becomes increasingly stretched as riders fatigue. As the process repeats itself prior to each climb, the pack is whittled down in installments. 

Good riders are spat out of the back as though completely inconsequential. Great ones manage to hang on, but the process of maintaining a good position extracts a physical and mental cost, which grows from imperceptible to debilitating over time until all but the strongest are distanced. Before the race can be won and lost on the famous cobbled climbs near the end of the parcours, the seeds are sown in these innumerable small battles.

With eight of the previous ten winners in the start list, numerous other contenders present and no breakaway to chase, the tension is palpable as the race enters its final third. When Van Vleuten attacks on the Kanarieberg with 45 kilometers to go, it looks for a moment like the race might explode into action. 

After ghosting past the front of the peloton on the roadside, she strikes immediately; out of the saddle and gripping her brake hoods, rocking the bike violently. 

Team Jumbo-Visma’s Marianne Vos, a legend of 162 professional victories (most recently Gent-Wevelgem the previous weekend) moves immediately to close her down. In doing so, she is followed by a group of favorites, splitting the peloton. After taking a quick moment to recover, Van Vleuten redoubles her efforts, dragging the favorites clear of the rest, reveling in the carnage and chaos unique to a race that has been detonated by a rider on good legs.

However, a gap is only as durable as the willingness of the riders in front to ride and protect it. If the group fails to work together and the pace slows, the group behind won’t stay dropped forever. After a subsequent attack from Liv Cycling’s Soraya Paladin and SD Worx’s Amy Pieters fizzles, the leaders begin looking around at one another, and the group behind catches up.

Trek-Segafredo’s Audrey Cordon-Ragot, the French national champion, exploits the brief lull that follows to launch an attack of her own. After a grueling ascent of the Taaienberg with just under 40 kilometers remaining, the peloton slows, allowing Cordon-Ragot to grow her lead. 

Even a rider of Cordon-Ragot’s considerable time-trial pedigree would readily acknowledge that a 40-plus kilometer solo break in the Tour of Flanders is unlikely to succeed. Rather, her role is simply to be one of several cards that Trek could play. Attacking forces riders from other teams to make a choice. They can allow her to ride away, which is of course, out of the question, or they can expend energy doing the work necessary to bring her back, ultimately strengthening the position of her leaders, Elisa Longo-Borghini (who won the 2015 edition of the race) and Lizzie Deignan (who won the 2016 edition. Crikey.) 

However, as Cordon-Ragot’s lead stretches to 22 seconds, and then 38, and then stabilizes around 50, it begins to feel as though she might be able to last until the race’s final two climbs, the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, with 17 and 14 kilometers remaining respectively. 

Could she maintain a lead against a group of the sport’s heavy hitters over two of the most famous, race-deciding cobbled climbs in the history of the sport? Almost certainly not, but cycling is a strange sport, and stranger things have certainly happened. And if she manages to crest the Paterberg with a gap, a mere 13 kilometers of mostly-flat terrain would stand between her and immortality as a monument winner.

But immortality is reserved for a select few, and cycling’s gods are also its gatekeepers. Anna van der Breggen of SD Worx, another of the sport’s all-time greats, springs into action with 29 kilometers remaining, setting a strong pace at the front of the peloton and almost immediately devouring half of Cordon-Ragot’s lead.

Paladin attacks once again and finds herself in an unenviable position, caught between a hard-charging peloton and a lone rider out front. If she can manage to bridge to Cordon-Ragot, the two could forge a temporary alliance and attempt to stave off the pack together. She gets close, but never quite reaches her would-be companion.

By the time the race reaches the Oude Kwaremont, both riders have been caught, thanks largely to the efforts of BikeExchange’s Sarah Roy, the Australian national champion, who empties the tank leading the chase. 

Just before they begin the climb, last year’s third-place finisher, Belgian national champion Lotte Kopecky of Liv Racing suffers a horribly timed mechanical issue. Quickly swapping bikes with Paladin, she hops onto her teammate’s machine, clips in, and frantically tries to rejoin the peloton, paced by Alison Jackson. It’s a horrible reminder that apart from form and fitness, classics riders are also prisoners of fate. After hours of careful positioning on one of the world’s most treacherous courses, Kopecky has been done in by a dropped chain. 

The Kwaremont begins with paved tarmac before giving way to an almost-comically uneven cobbled surface and steep initial gradient, which eventually levels out into a cobbled false-flat. The famous climb frequently features as the point of the final selection in both the men’s and women’s versions of De Ronde. Hoping to strike a similarly decisive blow, Van der Breggen again applies pressure, ratcheting up the pace as the group hits the cobbles, dropping much of the remaining group, including Deignan and Vos.

Sensing the other favorites suffering, BikeExchange’s Grace Brown attacks, immediately creating a gap. Van Vleuten tows the group back to the Australian and immediately moves to the front, turning the screw. She understands that this is a critical moment, and will not fail to capitalize on it.

Van Vleuten, always among the world’s strongest riders for much of the past decade, is trying to recapture the form that augured her to ascent to eye-watering levels of dominance in 2019 and 2020, before being suddenly derailed. 

Having won or finished on the podium of nearly every race she targeted for the better part of two years, she appeared headed for a dominant repeat win in last year’s Giro Rosa when disaster struck. While wearing the leader’s jersey during the race’s penultimate stage, she was caught in a crash with several other riders, fracturing her wrist.

She somehow returned a week later, riding in support of her compatriot Van der Breggen’s race-winning effort at the World Championships, and managed to hold off Longo Borghini to finish second herself. 

A few weeks later, while attempting to break free for a solo victory at last year’s Tour of Flanders, she found herself marked by Van der Breggen, working dutifully for her Boels-Dolmans (now SD Worx) teammate Chantal van den Broek-Blaak. The two exchanged pleasantries and amused smiles, but the message was clear: Van der Breggen was strong enough to prevent Van Vleuten from riding away, and fully intended to do so. Van den Broek-Blaak won the race, soloing to victory over a minute ahead of the 15-rider group containing Van Vleuten and Van der Breggen.

When Van Vleuten’s season ended a few weeks later, without any further notable results, she began preparations for this year with her new team, Spanish outfit Movistar. The season began inauspiciously at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race she won the year prior. Van Vleuten was caught out in a split heading into the Molenberg, and eventually finished more than two minutes behind the winner, Van der Breggen.

Then came Strade Bianche, a race Van Vleuten had dominated in 2019 and ‘20. While working in what she hoped was a race-winning alliance with Vos, she found herself brought back by a group including four SD Worx riders, among them (of course) Van der Breggen and Van den Broek-Blaak, who went on to win the race. Van der Breggen finished third, narrowly edging Van Vleuten from the podium. 

Now, after several months of frustrations, things are looking up. It’s the second time in a few days that Van Vleuten has found herself at the sharp end of a race finale, fresh from a midweek win at Dwars door Vlaanderen, a smaller Flemish classic which often serves as a prep race for the Tour of Flanders. The race has reached the Paterberg, and it is evident that Van Vleuten is the strongest by some distance.

The Paterberg is short, but more than makes up for its lack of distance in steepness, with an average 12.5 percent gradient punctuated by a vicious 20 percent section in the middle. Van Vleuten attacks early in the climb, and it is clear in an instant that this one will stick. Even though the gradient makes the riders appear as though they are in slow motion, and the camera’s foreshortening lens butchers the viewer’s perspective, it is evident that she is tearing the group to shreds, and the gap is growing. 

This is the moment.

If you blink, you probably won’t miss it, but why are you blinking right now of all times, anyway? 

It is as much a display of obstinance as athleticism. She bucks against gravity’s insistence, yanking furiously on her handlebars, trying to extract every last bit of power to drive against her pedals. 

Grinding, rattling and slaloming her way up the cobbled slope, she reaches out and pushes against the roadside barrier with her left hand to steady herself. When the gradient briefly drops to “only” 8 percent, she jumps out of the saddle and sprints, grateful to be able to gather actual momentum. By the top of the hill, she is well and truly out of reach, having bruised if not quite broken the collective spirit of her competitors.

She readies herself for the descent and subsequent 13-kilometer time-trial to the finish. Hands in the drops, back flat, turning over the biggest gear her bike affords, she is resolved to win or fall off of her bike trying. A two-time World Champion in the time-trial discipline, she has every reason to feel assured of her ability to bring this one home.

Behind her, the chase group is floundering. Cooperation comes in fits and starts, but is half-hearted, and never lasts long enough to make meaningful headway toward bringing Van Vleuten back. Cohesion is crucial when attempting to maintain a gap to a group behind you, but doubly so when trying to chase down a rider ahead of you who is nearly close enough to reach out and grab victory. 

The gap hovers between 10 and 15 seconds until they reach the final few kilometers. Now, the group begins taking false turns at the front, glancing sideways at one another and preparing to sprint for the minor placings, resigned to the reality that their target has escaped them.

It’s over.

Van Vleuten eases, allowing herself to luxuriate in the moment as she coasts toward the finish in Oudenaarde. She sits up proudly with 50 meters to go, raising her hands toward the sky before gesturing toward her European Champion’s jersey, framing the Movistar logo with her fingers. For the first time in ten years, she has won De Ronde

Lisa Brennauer of Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling comfortably wins the sprint for second, beating out Grace Brown who rounds out the podium. Van Vleuten is visibly thrilled, but by the time the podium ceremony rolls around, the entire thing has a bit of a perfunctory feel, perhaps exacerbated by the lack of a cheering crowd and the usual pomp and circumstance. 

It’s fitting in the end, because however the last several months might have gone, Annemiek van Vleuten is nobody’s idea of an underdog. This isn’t a Cinderella story - it isn’t even her first coronation. 

Later this month, she will contest the Ardennes classics: Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne, and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. She won Liège in 2019, but has never won the others, having podiumed each twice. These are gaps in her palmares that she will almost certainly hope to rectify. 

To be Annemiek van Vleuten is to devour races, but always remain ravenous for the next one. As much as anything else, it is this insatiability that defines her. As much younger rivals like Van der Breggen and Van den Broek-Blaak write brilliant final chapters, winning races with one eye on their coming retirements at the end of the season, Van Vleuten forges ahead, seemingly unmoved by the passage of time.

For now, she will spray the champagne, smile, and enjoy the moment, but will not lose sight of the fact that this was not an upset. Rather, it is a result in line with expectations, as warranted by her ability, racecraft, and otherworldly tenacity. Nobody wins every time out, but to be Annemiek van Vleuten is to try.