Being Dutch, Annemiek van Vleuten probably isn’t the best person to ask for a strong opinion about the pros, cons and pitfalls of road furniture in cycle racing.
“I think it’s OK,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it’s very dangerous.”
Cobbles be gone! It’s to this land of roundabouts, bollards, bergs, côtes, kerbs and sleeping policemen that the peloton will turn in mid-April as it heads to Limburg, the little dangling dollop of the southern Netherlands stuck between Belgium and Germany, for the Amstel Gold Race.
This year, for the second time in succession, the women’s peloton will race on the same roads on the same day as the blokes. The Amstel Gold Race Ladies Edition now rolls out of Maastricht just 20 minutes after the men and is scheduled to conclude on the same finish line, 1.8km after the race defining Cauberg climb, a few hours later.
This is van Vleuten’s patch; the world time trial champion and La Course winner finished third behind Anna van der Breggen and Lizzie Deignan last season in a race that she and her fellow Dutchwoman Marianne Vos had been demanding of organisers for years.
“They put a lot of effort in and the women’s race really adds something to the race, and that made me also very proud,” she says. “Maybe the women’s race was a little more interesting than the men’s race, too.”
Organising just one race in this part of the world is no mean feat. The men’s parcours looks like the childhood scribbles of a toddler given a handful of wax crayons and a blank piece of paper much smaller than its imagination, all multi-coloured loops and seemingly random repetitions to cram 260 kilometres and 35 bergs into an area not much more than 20km squared.
Threading a concurrent 120km women’s event featuring 17 climbs through this tangled mess is quite an achievement of timetabling and cartography. The women’s race had been on hiatus since 2003, only its third edition, after the two races came perilously close to clashing.
“I wasn’t worried about that,” van Vleuten says. “That was women’s cycling 15 years ago. It’s super different now. There are more teams that take responsibility, the racing is faster, it’s more professional. So that wasn’t an argument anyone could use any more.”
TV viewing figures for the Rio Olympic Games, where as many Dutch tuned in to watch the women’s road race (won by van der Breggen) as they did the men, banished another excuse not to restart the women’s event. Van Vleuten and Vos’s cause was also helped by the influential involvement of 2002 winner Leontien van Moorsel, now course director.
Today the Ardennes Week can become a target in itself. Before 2017, the only women’s event on the calendar was the Flèche Wallonne: a big race but not enough for a rider to build a spring around. With Liège-Bastogne-Liège organiser ASO adding a women’s event to La Doyenne last year too, the women’s calendar now echoes the men for these eight days in April.
In her first attempt at the Ardennes Trio, van Vleuten finished third, fourth and fifth. Following a peck on each cheek from the ‘Ronde Misters’ – two Dutch men chosen from over 15,000 applicants to be the ‘podium boys’ of the new event, showcasing another way to approach gender equality in the sport – last year’s winner van der Breggen went on to claim the hat-trick.
“It’s super cool to say we have the Ardennes Trio,” van Vleuten says. “A shout out to Flanders Classics who have been organising women’s races for years, but it’s cool that we now have the Ardennes.”
After the track world championships and an altitude camp in Tenerife, van Vleuten returned to racing at Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders. At the latter she finished a remarkable third despite dislocating her shoulder in a crash, giving post-race interviewers a wonderfully pithy analysis: “you think your race is over… and then it popped in, and I got my bike and continued.”
Switching to the technical parcours of the Limburg region is no problem for the Women’s WorldTour. The ins and outs of all its lanes are familiar from the Holland Hills Classic – a one-day race in late May which disappeared from the calendar with the arrival of the women’s Amstel – and the traditional Limburg final stage of the late summer Boels Rentals Ladies Tour.
“We had already a lot of races in that area, but they were not shown on TV,” van Vleuten says. “I think the whole peloton has raced a lot on those roads, so we know them by heart.
“Know your corners very well, that’s helpful, so you know where to be in front. You need to ride at the front at the right moments, that’s the key factor.”