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‘Like a rag doll tossed from a car’

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Van Vleuten reflects on ‘horrible’ crash

If you don’t remember the name, let me remind you of the carnage: back wheel rears up, like the hind legs of a bucking bronco; rider performs a half-twisting front flip; rider lands on her shoulders, skids off the road and spins onto her front; rider hangs limp over the kerb, like a rag doll tossed from a car window.

Annemiek van Vleuten doesn’t remember the rest: bike cartwheeling into the trees; a roaring silence followed by panicked voices; rivals sweeping past, one by one. That’s one way to erase the memory of an Olympic dream crushed.

“I remember I had a gap on my competitors and was thinking, ‘OK, it’s not necessary to go crazy going downhill’,” the 33-year-old Dutchwoman, who was leading the road race in Rio when the crash took place, tells BBC Sport.

“Then it started to rain a little bit, so I was actually extra careful. But the corner surprised me and I didn’t take it properly. Next thing I remember I was awake in a hospital bed and I had my mother on the phone.”

The crash that was heard around the world

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Annemiek van Vleuten lay crumpled on the ground after the crash

Back in the Netherlands, poor Mrs Van Vleuten had been watching the race on her birthday. The agony these elite athletes put their parents through. Then again, what about us viewers – that wasn’t what we were expecting when we switched on the TV expecting some wholesome sporting entertainment.

And what about her poor team-mates – when Anna van der Breggen rounded the bend, she thought Van Vleuten might be dead. This being the Olympics, Van der Breggen didn’t think of stopping but rode on to win the gold instead.

But this interview didn’t take place from said hospital, or even a different one in the Netherlands. Two weeks after the crash that was heard around the world, Van Vleuten was on her bike again. Never mind the three fractures in her back, the severe concussion, the worried mum, there were other races to be won.

“The first week I was really struggling with the idea that I was going for gold and made that stupid, stupid mistake. But then I realised that thinking like this was not going to help me feel better. So I started making some new goals.

“The three vertebrae were not broken in a dangerous place in my back, only on the side, and I never had serious symptoms of the concussion. And as a cyclist you’re used to crashing at least once or twice a year, it’s part of the job.”

A determined comeback from a tough woman

Almost a month to the day after her Olympic hopes hit the skids, Van Vleuten won her first stage, the Belgium Tour prologue. Three days later, Van Vleuten clinched the overall title with a stirring solo effort on the final stage.

“It’s sort of a miracle but I sort of expected it,” said Van der Breggen, apparently a difficult woman to stir. “She is really tough. That is Annemiek.”

A tough talker, too. Asked how she felt when she heard Britain’s Lizzie Deignan (nee Armitstead) had been cleared to compete in the Olympic road race, having missed three drug tests in a year, Van Vleuten goes for the jugular.

“I was angry about it because the rules are for everyone and you cannot make exceptions. It’s part of the job, you have to take it seriously. It’s very special to miss three tests in one year, a really big achievement. Maybe because she’s the world champion they made an exception for her but I don’t think that’s fair.”

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Annemiek van Vleuten’s next race is the UCI World Championships in Qatar

Van Vleuten is similarly outspoken on the subject of inequality in cycling, advocating that every men’s race should have a women’s equivalent.

“What would help is if we had more time on television. That would help to get more sponsors and more people to watch and enjoy it. The [women’s] Rio road race was a good example of that, it was at the same level as the men’s race.”

Proud reflections and going forward

At the current rate, equality will arrive in cycling long after Van Vleuten has pedalled her last and hung her bikes up. Female cyclists earn a fraction of what male cyclists pull in and the chance to ride one day of the Tour de France is little more than a patronising pat on the head from the cycling authorities.

But just as Van Vleuten doesn’t like to look over her shoulder, she doesn’t like to look too far forward. It makes a lot of sense, given what happened in Rio.

“After the London Olympics I wasn’t only thinking of Rio. Cycling has a lot of nice races, like the Tour of Flanders [which Van Vleuten won in 2011 and Armitstead this year], which is a super-beautiful race to win. I just see things one day at a time and year by year.”

Next for Van Vleuten is the World Championships in Qatar, which run from this Sunday and in which she will compete alongside Van der Breggen in the team time trial and the road race. Expected to compete against the clock in temperatures pushing 40C, it’s good that she can look on the bright side.

“It’s hard for me to do interviews that always want to talk about the crash because it’s something I’ve accepted and I don’t want to look back at that.

“I prefer to think about the part before, the part when I was going uphill and riding so excellent, better than I ever did. That part was nice to watch back again. I’m proud of what I did, that day in Rio was really special.”

Follow coverage of the World Road Championships from 9-16 October across the BBC.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cycling/37550889