The last “Grand Tour” of the season ended on Sunday, and in the peloton that criss-crossed the streets of Madrid, the leader’s red jersey rested on the shoulders of Annemiek van Vleuten. All she had to do was finish in the leading group, or even a group or two behind, and the race was hers. For someone in his experience, it was an easy thing to do. As Elisa Balsamo sprinted to victory, Van Vleuten effortlessly crossed the line, winner of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta.
The red jersey is the third major overall title for Van Vleuten in 2022. Whether she attacks until she is alone or simply straddles her rivals, the Dutchwoman has a knack for winning these races with a massive solo attack that concludes the GC for good.
Women do not have “Grand Tours”. According to Wikipedia’s definition, a Grand Tour is a stage race that lasts more than 14 days. The longest race on the women’s calendar is the 10-day Giro Donne, but for the first time this year women took part in three WorldTour stage races which bear the same, or similar names, as the races male three weeks. Two of the three finished or started on the same day as the men’s races and at the same location. So, for the sake of discussion, let’s just say that three Grand Tour jerseys were up for grabs in 2022.
The fight for the first Grand Tour began at the end of June, and quite early in the 10-day race the pink jersey was in the hands of Van Vleuten. Stage 4, which was not initially billed as a general classification day, turned into the defining stage of the race when Van Vleuten attacked with 40km to go. This started her bid for pink, but the race was over after she won stage 8 by almost a minute.
Van Vleuten went solo on stage eight, leaving behind her closest rivals in general Marta Cavalli and Mavi García. Even a crash on the final descent didn’t impact his ability to take much time out of the race.
The next jersey up for grabs, and potentially the most valuable of the season, was yellow. All of the overall riders in the peloton had their eyes set on the Tour de France with Zwift, and after her performance at the Giro, Van Vleuten was the one to beat. There was some hope that Demi Vollering and Marta Cavalli would give him a good fight, but in the end Van Vleuten won the race with a solo breakaway on Stage 7.
A lead of almost three and a half minutes at the GC did not prevent Van Vleuten from attacking the next day on the final climb of La Super Planche des Belles Filles. She won both stages and ended up winning yellow by three minutes and 48 seconds.
Then comes the red jersey of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, but this time it seems that Van Vleuten does not win. The course, in his own words, was not difficult enough. But by the end of stage two, the Dutchwoman was leading the general standings by nearly two minutes and, as the race was only five stages long, there was not enough road for anyone to challenge her.
Towards the end of his penultimate season, Van Vleuten will hang a pink, yellow and red jersey on his wall. All three jerseys won with solo attacks that left the rest of the race minutes behind.
It’s hard to imagine Movistar replicating the same kind of success in 2024, but the Spanish outfit have signed Liane Lippert – second in the recent Tour of Scandinavia and just off the Ceratizit Challenge podium – in the hope that Van Vleuten herself can train the German National Champion in her own way.
In case there was any doubt, and there was none, Van Vleuten established herself as the best female stage runner of her era. She has won the Tour of Norway, the Boels Ladies Tour, three Giros and two Vueltas. Almost every victory came from solo attacks.
The sport will lose a true legend when Van Vleuten hangs his last jersey at the end of 2023, but what is exciting is that the fight for second place in all three Grand Tours this year has been close. There are a whole bunch of riders vying for the other two steps of the podium.
When it comes time to race for jerseys in 2024, the race will be really wide open.
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