Annemiek van Vleuten cut a slightly intimidating figure behind the Giro Rosa podium this year. Each day, before receiving either the points of mountains jersey, she would roll through crowds of hangers-on – none of them accredited, but allowed in nonetheless – before warming down on the rollers.
Though she smiled politely, she wore a look of extreme focus which combined with her wet hair, pulled tight away from her face, to gave her the look of one apart, someone slightly slightly distant.
In Baronissi, after Stage 7 she playfully told me she was feeling rubbish with no chance winning the general classification, before answering more conventionally. Even if my questions were poor the interaction did nothing to change my misconception.
When I saw Van Vleuten waiting for the final podium in Torre del Grecco there was a change. There were no rollers and the distant look was replaced with a huge smile as the Orica-Scott rider chatted animatedly with Cevélo-Bigla’s best young rider, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.
“I am really proud of this Giro,” she told me, not letting her smile slip and with no hint of the contained answers given some days earlier. “I had only one off day. Last year in Rio I was the best climber and I was really strong here too. I couldn’t drop them, but I surprised myself and it is also the first time I have gone for GC, so it was a new experience dealing with the pressure and to focus for ten days.
“There was the mistake on the fourth day and I am sad about that, but I am really happy about two stage wins. This Giro Rosa has inspired me and my team mates to come back even stronger and I will come back next year.”
Finding herself on the wrong side of a split in the peloton during Stage four around Occhiobello arguably cost Van Vleuten overall victory. The 1.59 she lost that day was 20 seconds more than her final deficit, though had she not erred the race would have taken a different complexion. Eventual winner Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) told me she only had to follow through those final stages, such was her advantage.
Giro prologues have previously been a bit of a speciality for the Dutch rider, winning in both 2015 and the previous year, when she bagged another stage and eighth overall, until this year her best GC result.
Traditionally the woman who wins the Giro is a climber, and no one saw Van Vleuten as that. However before her horrific crash on a descent during last year’s Rio Olympic road race, she had been in charge on the climb to Vista Chinesa, attacking with American Mara Abbott towards the top.
“I think that is why I targeted this Giro, Rio inspired me as a climber. Before I always thought I could not go uphill, that I was too heavy. I was always suffering on the back, but in Rio I was the strongest, so my team said I should target the Giro.
“To be honest I was a bit concerned about descending before I came here, but I felt fine and on this Giro I was not scared, I just had to get rid of a little bit of anxiousness.”
Throughout her career Van Vleuten has been seen as an all-rounder, the kind of woman who can do well on all but the hilliest parcours, so what changed to bring about this result?
“I always did gym work and I was told I would not be more heavy from it, but actually I lost a lot of kilos quitting the gym and it helped me riding uphill. I did it in a good way, so I still have my power, but three or four kilos really makes a difference.
“But the biggest thing is that I train fucking, fucking hard. I went to altitude and worked very hard. That is what made the difference.
“I am really proud of what I achieved here and like Rio, it inspired me and I will continue for at least two more years on my bike.”
We will never know whether Van Vleuten would have won this year’s Giro Rosa, but it would have been entertaining had she not lost time.
Whatever, she should be seen as a favourite for this week’s La Course, and we can look forward to her trying to exchange the jerseys she won this year for a pink one during the the next couple of editions.