Are Dutch riders destroying cycling? What should the Women’s WorldTour do to give the other riders a chance?
These are questions meant in jest and gentle good humour. Mostly. Because between them, at the Giro Rosa Netherlands natives claimed seven of the 10 stages and the top two spots in the general classification.
Mitchelton Scott’s Annemiek van Vleuten didn’t defeat her opponents so much as demolish them. It only looked even vaguely competitive thanks to the presence of Anna van der Breggen, without whom the gap to a closest challenger would have been knocking on for seven minutes. No rider except “VDB” came within sixty seconds of Van Vleuten in the time-trial, and she was the only one to beat her in any meaningful way on the road, denting her lead to the tune of a whole 17 seconds on stage 9.
Stage five was a massacre. Precisely as planned, Van Vleuten attacked from the bottom of the final Torri di Fraele climb before subjecting herself to 21 minutes of what she described afterwards as “epic epic epic suffering.” With all due respect, Annemiek, if that was how you felt, how do you think it was for everyone else?
Marianne Vos won four stages – actually on the historically low side for her at the Giro Rosa – and proceeded today to live up to her billing as strong favourite for La Course. Although Amanda Spratt did her best to stay away, she was up against an unstoppable force in Vos, who made it for wins out of five for her country in that competition.
Between them, the trio have won on 18.5% of the days they’ve raced this year, not counting general classifications or other jersey-related, within-race competitions. And this isn’t even an especially good year for those three. They closed out 2018 at a whisker under one race win every four days.
It isn’t boring, not at all (apart from the time-trials, obvs). We’ve watched Vos’s power charge to pip Van Vleuten’s team-mate Lucy Kennedy to the line approximately 26385 times and we’re not even close to playing it to death. Still the other riders must be wondering what they need to do to beat them.
Get better at cycling might be a correct answer. It’s not an especially helpful one, though, leading inevitably to the question of how? Altering the way they squads are arranged might make a difference. Rose Manley, host of The Cycling Podcast Féminin, says few teams are currently built around a single rider the way Mitchelton Scott are: “Van Vleuten is the out and out leader, everyone else has their role to play to support her.” While others might like to emulate that, most squads “don’t have the luxury to pick just one leader. There’s an element of flinging as many riders as possible at a race.”
Another important factor is how much time they devote to training for specific races, as opposed to racing in events to which they’re less suited. Whether it’s a matter of resource or commitment, says Manley “I don’t think anyone else spends that amount of time at altitude.” It’s not without its downside, however, and “Van Vleuten talks about how much of a sacrifice it is [to live her existence] in order to be the cyclist that she is.” However, as women’s cycling becomes more professional and such sacrifices better financially compensated, it’s a trend we can expect to spread through the women’s peloton.
The likes of Ashleigh Moolman and Kasia Niewiadoma, in particular, can take comfort from time being on their side. Women seem to not only avoid a precipitous drop-off in performance but actually continue improving well into their thirties. Annemiek Van Vleuten, Manley points out, “is 36 and at the peak of her powers.”
One thing we can be sure of is that this period of dominance won’t last forever. No empire ever does. When this one finally falls the sport will be all the stronger due to the efforts the other riders and teams will have made to topple it.