presenting annemiek the greatest
ceratizit challenge 2022, analyzed
The 2022 Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta (Ceratizit Challenge for brevity) was expanded from four stages in 2021 to five stages for this edition. Questions coming into the race included whether Annemiek van Vleuten could complete the trifecta of Giro Donne, Tour de France Femmes and Ceratizit Challenge in a single season? She already has the three titles in the same 12 months but not the same calendar year. Would the Movistar Team be able to sustain her challenge with a TTT that doesn’t suit them on paper?
Another discussion point was would the sprinters be able to sustain the more climbing intensive stages, and if not who would challenge the favourites of Elisa Balsamo and Emma Norsgaard? Or would SD Worx mount a challenge on GC with a team that’s resplendent with talent, but equally so stacked with talent that competing goals could upset the team dynamic.
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In terms of parcours, stage one started proceedings with a Team Time Trial on the Northern coast of Spain near Bilbao; with the race culminating via a stage taking in 17 laps of a Madrilène circuit. In between there were three undulating stages, including one stage which was at the UCI maximum length of 160km.
These stages saw Trek launch Elisa Longo Borghini into the Red Jersey with a stunning TTT, then van Vleuten blew the rest of the field away and made a mockery of both mine and her own doubts, per Sporza, where she said that due to the lack of difficulty of the parcours, the Ceratizit Challenge would be the most difficult race of the triumvirate for her, someone who thrives on difficulty, to win. The 25 second deficit to Elisa Longo Borghini was never enough and after two stages she had a two-minute lead on everyone else barring the former red jersey wearer. From then on, and arguably even from the start-sheet, Annemiek’s overall victory seemed like a foregone conclusion. Apart from a fleeting moment on stage four where Anna Kiesenhofer threatened to take a stunning solo stage and was in the virtual overall leader, it was practically a procession (from the outside at least- I’m sure perception and reality are nowhere close).
This brings me to the key question, is Annemiek van Vleuten the greatest GC rider of her generation? How can she be beaten?
Maybe it’s my naïvety, maybe it’s hopefulness, but I had initially highlighted the TTT as a potential weakness for Movistar, and an area where strong teams like SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo could make huge gains. For reference, there’s been two women’s TTTs this year, one being the CIC-Tour Féminin Pyrénées, which had a slightly longer route at 27.4km. The discrepancy between first and second places was over a minute and the race organisers employed a different way of handling such a difference, where the first team got their actual time; second place (irrespective of actual time) would be given “winning time plus five seconds”; team three, the same but plus ten, and so on. Thus minimizing the gulfs of time and to keep the race competitive from there on.
The other comparable instance of a team test was the WWT-ranked Vårgårda WestSweden TTT, which was almost double the distance at 35.6km and saw Trek-Segafredo win by 38 seconds from SD Worx. In comparison, the Movistar Team finished tenth, 3 minutes and 21 seconds in arrears and only one member of that squad (Katrine Aalerud) was on the start list for both that race and Ceratizit Challenge, so there could have been a lack of experience for the team that they’d have to overcome to guide Van Vleuten to eventual glory.
If not the TTT, then maybe the other stages, would they afford van Vleuten the opportunity to gain enough time on her rivals? Many suggested that the distance from the final summit to the finish of stage two would inhibit her gains, and allow her rivals to stick with her or close the gap if they were dropped. As it happened van Vleuten annihilated the rest of the field as soon as her teammates had finished their work and she picked her moment to attack the field - not through a savage, decisive single move, but through raising the pace to an infernal level and almost bludgeoning her rivals into submission and turning the lights out on their hopes of glory.
It’s the hallmark of a sportsperson at the top of their game that they can decide ‘at will’ when to make their mark on the competition - like a boxer picking the round in which they will deliver the knockout punch. There’s an air of inevitability, that there will be a point at which van Vleuten attacks, and that once she’s gone, her opponents are on the receiving end of a ten-count. Coupled with that is the inexorability of it as well. It’s one thing if you get caught by surprise, or if there’s a tactical masterclass that involves playing 4-D chess, but there’s a cold simplicity to the tactics: at one point on a climb, start riding as fast as you can and ensure no-one else can cope. It’s not a surprise when she does it, but it is always stunning how effective it is.
Furthermore, any victories on stages have an energy of being granted to the victors at van Vleuten’s whim, that she allowed Grace Brown to escape with Elise Chabbey on stage three (mostly because they were no threats for the overall victory) even though she could have chased and kept the group together - despite teammate Arlenis Sierra having been dropped.
Such talk of Annemiek would feel alien to pundits in 2011, when the then 28-year-old was known as a rider who could perform in the classics and as a sprinter. Her best results of the Giro in that year were a series of three top-10s on sprint stages. The climbing stages had her best result of 68th.
In the intervening eleven years, she has morphed from being a sprinter to an indomitable force with an irrepressible nature. Many cite her work ethic and level of training as one of the reasons why she is so great. She regularly trains with the Movistar men’s squad - even if she finds it uncomfortable in that it pushes her out of her comfort zone. Even after her exploits and exertions from stage two of the Ceratizit Challenge, she went out the following morning for a 50km jaunt. It’s true that she has a hunger for riding her bike and trains incredibly hard — but, on the other hand, show me a professional cyclist who doesn’t train hard.
There must be something else that sets her apart from her contemporaries. She’s almost supernatural in her abilities. Physiologically speaking she has a very high base-level; per CyclingTips she had tests performed on her at Papendal [the national sports centre of The Netherlands in Arnhem], which showed she had a particularly special combination of power and a high VO2 max (both important measures when it comes to prerequisites that a cyclist needs to be successful). Whether it’s work ethic, natural ability or a combination of the two that sets her apart; she is undoubtedly a level above her contemporaries.
If one wants to beat her, it’s almost impossible; certainly if it’s a stage race with a mountain involved. The only stage race she’d struggle to win is in terrain flatter than Qatar. The races she has targeted, on which she has come up short, were both one-day races. One in the summer of 2021, where Anna Kiesenhofer took a solo victory ahead of a chasing/not-chasing bunch who thought the break was caught, and realised their error when it was too late. This denied van Vleuten a road race Olympic gold medal, in a Games where the Dutch team had almost indescribable bad luck.
Outside of that, she was beaten at Strade Bianche in 2022, when she was unable to shake Lotte Kopecky from her wheel and a combination of sprint-speed and race-craft saw the then Belgian champion take victory on the line in Siena. It is possible to catch her on a bad day (relatively speaking), but you will never catch her on a bad week. Relying on her bad day coinciding with both a day on which the overall victory can be fought, and your best day is a foolish endeavor. The woman simply cannot be beaten in a stage race.
To win just the Giro Donne, or just the TDFF, or only the Ceratizit Challenge in your career would be an incredible achievement. To win all of them in your lifetime would be a step above but to manage all three in the same calendar year is remarkable beyond the realms of most mortals. But then Annemiek is no mere mortal as I have shown, and for her the trifecta is the cap of an incredible career ahead of her planned retirement at the end of 2023.
Some would argue that nominating the Ceratizit Challenge as a Grand Tour is asinine, as it lacks both the length and difficulty to be considered in the same bracket as the Giro Donne or the Tour de France Femmes, and that to do so is just piggybacking from the men’s peloton and letting their conventions dictate conventions for women’s cycling.
To an extent I agree, however in terms of prestige and caliber of rider competing in the race, it is comparable to the other big races. It is classified as Women’s WorldTour, and if anything the duration of the race increases the difficulty level - if you make a mistake or a miscalculation then there’s limited time in which you can rectify it. The onus is on all riders to be note perfect throughout and that makes for a more open race. In years to come it may perhaps become the undisputed third Grand Tour but for now it’s the closest thing we have and to still target three big races and win them all in the same year is an achievement worth documenting. All this to say, van Vleuten is a generational talent beyond compare - when she retires, she’ll leave a power vacuum for the other riders to fill in terms of stage racing.
I will leave you with one final thought. Word has it that Movistar were planning to honor van Vleuten in the same way they did for Alejandro Valverde, namely by making a bespoke white kit, where it would list all her accolades and accomplishments. However, to encompass the incomparable career that Annemiek van Vleuten has had, would mean La Passione would have had to have made a boiler suit to fit it all in, rather than the traditional bib shorts and jersey combination we are used to.