Annemiek Van Vleuten (Netherlands) brushed off the disappointment of missing out on gold in the women’s Olympic Games road race to finally clinch a winning medal at the Games with victory in the time trial.
The Dutch rider finished second in the women’s road race on Sunday in a race that was fraught with tension, tactical uncertainties and miscommunication. Van Vleuten thought that she had won the road race only to find out that Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer had survived from the break.
On Wednesday Van Vleuten’s only delay in celebrating came as she waited for her final batch of rivals to come across the finish line but after dominating through both intermediate checks during the 22.1km test in Tokyo it was clear that she was simply on another level. Van Vleuten finished in a time of 30:13 with only Marlen Reusser finishing within a minute of her. Anna van der Breggen took bronze but for Van Vleuten the win was a historic moment in her career.
Five years ago she crashed out of the women’s road race in Rio in dramatic and brutal fashion, and after missing out in this year’s road race it looked as though one of the most decorated riders of all time in both men’s and women’s cycling might bow out without an Olympic title to her name. The pressure was certainly on Van Vleuten and the Dutch after their ride in the road race but Van Vleuten distanced herself from what she described as negativity and instead drew on the positive aspects of her ride.
“I knew after the road race that I was in super, super shape and everyone was talking about everything else and what happened there,” she said after the medal ceremony.
“Almost no one was talking about the performance that I had there. If that performance had won me the gold medal then they would have been saying I’d had an amazing race but I closed myself from social media and we had an evaluation in the team. The message that I kept remembering in my head after the road race was that I was in super shape and that I was better than ever. I didn’t check Twitter, I didn’t check any social media, I just took that message into my preparation.
“It was a new challenge to park the negativity that was around me. That was the challenge. It could have put me down, it was a danger maybe, but I worked with coach and you need good mental qualities.”
When asked what the medal meant to her a delighted Van Vleuten, 38, simply put that her victory was part of her journey as a rider.
“I’m not a perfect athlete but I have a gold medal. I always thought that you needed to be a freak to win a gold medal but I’m not a freak. That’s not necessary and today is a really nice bonus in my journey. I can’t believe this medal is around my neck and it’s very special to be an Olympic champion.”
“I heard I was the fastest but I knew that the fastest riders were behind me. I just kept myself in my zone. It is a really good example of being in the flow. When I look back it felt like just five seconds.”
Van Vleuten was asked if this would be her final Olympics, or if like Kristin Armstrong, she would carry on competing into her forties and potentially seek further Olympic titles in Paris in 2024. Van Vleuten pointed out that she has a contract with her trade team, Movistar, for at least another year and that any talk of retirement or hanging up her wheels would only be discussed once she felt that her level had begun to tail off. Considering she described her time trial as her best ever level, retirement could be some way off just yet.
“I love it so much and the reason I will stop is when I feel like my level has gone down,” said Van Vleuten. I thought that I was on a plateau but I can say today that I was on my best-ever level. I can still see improvements but we nailed it today.”
A multiple world champion, and a winner of almost every race and accolade in women’s cycling, the Olympic title was one missing event from her extensive palmares. Competing in her third Games after London in 2012 and Rio in 2016, she was asked what it meant to complete her quest.
“It’s more for the people around, busy with lists of what’s missing in my career,” she pointed out.
“I knew that if I went home from here with the silver medal in the road race I would still be a happy person. This medal doesn’t make me a more happy person. It’s super nice and I’m super proud and super happy. For the people around me, they will say that I have everything but that’s not important. I enjoy the moment.”