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The penultimate day of the Giro Rosa had the spectre of a fraught stage seven still looming as the aftershock of Annemiek Van Vleuten’s departure following a crash rippled through the race.
The Maglia Rosa hadn’t seen this much action since stage two in Civitella Paganico, passing from Elisa Longo Borghini to Annemiek van Vleuten, where it stayed until Friday. With the outgoing race leader on her way to the Netherlands to await surgery on her broken wrist, it was Kasia Niewiadoma of Canyon//SRAM who wore pink on the morning of stage eight in Castelnuovo della Daunia. By the end of the day, however, the Maglia Rosa had changed hands once again, this time on the back of Dutch national champion Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans).
Van Vleuten’s wrist operation will take place on Saturday, meaning that the Imola world championships are absolutely off the cards for the defending champion. Nobody ever wants to see a world champion unable to take to the startline to defend their title, but the question of who might take next year’s rainbow stripes is now suddenly far less certain.
The news that Annemiek Van Vleuten would not be able to defend her pink jersey was disheartening for all. Even the riders who benefitted from Van Veluten’s exit stage left were still at pains to extend their sympathies to the world champion, “it’s never nice when you as a rider go out because of a crash,” said Anna van der Breggen.
A Renewed Race
Sympathies aside, however, there was no denying that the dominating Duchwoman left the GC door, which many considered firmly closed after her solo victory on stage two, swinging wide open as she departed.
Undeniably, the abrupt absence of the formidable AVV from this year’s Giro Rosa has, in the eleventh hour, made way for some gripping racing. Speaking after a spicy stage eight, which included echelons and a brutal final climb, Anna van der Breggen said, “You really felt today that the fighting spirit was back for everybody.” The implication being, that with Van Vleuten’s near two-minute hold on the lead, the rest of the race was looking half-heartedly at minor places.
After an impressive attack from a select group on the final 6km climb to the finish which only Elisa Longo-Borghini of Trek-Segafredo managed to follow, van der Breggen moved up to first place on the GC and into the Maglia Rosa that had been occupied by her compatriot until the day before holding a 1:10 lead over Niewiadoma.
Prophetically, after stage three, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle Acquitaine) said, “people saying that the Giro is finished…the GC, I don’t think it’s finished.”
Hard to Beat
That anyone had suggested to Uttrup Ludwig that the GC was done and dusted after just three of nine stages is indicative of how dominant Van Vleuten has been in women’s racing over the last year or so. Already, by that point, the Mitchelton-Scott rider had a 1:22 lead over Anna van der Breggen, herself a formidable rival and former world champion. By the end of stage four, that lead would become 1:56 to Kasia Niewiadoma who moved up to second.
Before lockdown put paid to the comings and goings of humanity, including bike racing, Van Vleuten had only raced once in the World Champs kit she earned in Yorkshire, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February. When racing resumed in July, she took the win in all three one-day races in the Basque country.
Her winning streak came to an end, though, at the Dutch national championships where Anna van der Breggen took the win, this was followed by an anomalous 51st place in Plouay.
Before the Giro Rosa, Van Vleuten showed that she is actually a human being and not a cycling cyborg at La Course, where, in something of a tactical blunder, she towed a group including Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) and teammate Elisa Longo Borghini as well as Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) to the line where she eventually placed fifth.
The conundrum of how to beat Annemiek seemed set to plague the peloton for a while, although some were reluctant to exaggerate her hold over the Women’s World Tour. “You can’t just concentrate on one rider,” said Trek-Segafredo DS Ina Yoko Teutenberg. “There are a lot of other riders in there. Annemiek has proven to be on amazing form this year, I mean, she’s world champion for a reason and for sure we have to have that in mind.”
“We will have to try to find different ways but you can’t always just focus on her because there are a lot of really, really good bike riders in the peloton.”
Having Van Vleuten crash out was unlikely to be the way that anyone wanted to see her reign over the 2020 season put on pause. The level of the women’s peloton has been rising year-on-year and at the very least, riders and directors needing to look for ways to thwart her tactically meant the trajectory of the whole bunch being pushed upwards.
Time will tell, when the Dutch rider makes her inevitable return before the season is out, how her absence from the top level of women’s cycling will shape the racing that is to come. In the meantime, however, the peloton of Giro Rosa still has one more stage to contend.
Far from the processional final stage that men’s grand tours are given to, stage nine of the Giro Rosa still leaves everything on the table, with four laps of a mountainous circuit in Motta Montecorvino awaiting a tired peloton. The GC time gaps are still significant, but the question of whether Niewiadoma can overthrow van der Breggen or if the race will simply pass from one dominant Dutchwoman to another is still very much open.