Annemiek van Vleuten’s teammates thought she had died last summer when the Dutch cyclist smashed headfirst into the pavement during a downhill stretch of the women’s road race at the Rio Olympics. Van Vleuten, who sustained a concussion and broke three vertebrae in her back, vowed to come back and, even better, to win.
While the 34-year-old will have to wait until 2020 to get another shot at an Olympic gold, van Vleuten only had to wait just more than a year to earn her first world gold. On Tuesday, she took the time trial in Bergen, Norway, finishing the 13-mile course in 28 minutes 50.35 seconds, 12 seconds ahead of fellow Dutchwoman Anna ven der Breggen, who won gold in Brazil.
With tears in her eyes, van Vleuten addressed the crash after Tuesday’s win, which she called “incredible.”
“To be an athlete is to have ups and downs … but the downs make the ups even more beautiful,” she told reporters. “This one is really beautiful without the crash in Rio, but this makes the story really, really special.”
She wasn’t helped by circumstances during the race. While van Vleuten was riding, it began pouring rain, leading her to slow up on the descent.
“Now I had to be really careful, so I for sure lost some time there,” she said, perhaps recalling that conditions were damp when she crashed in Rio. “But this was just about giving everything to the finish.”
Van Vleuten looked like she was on her way to gold in Rio last year before her crash, which occurred with just seven miles to go on the 87.6-mile course. Footage of the crash shows van Vleuten’s bicycle briefly skin before it flipped, hurdling her over the handlebars, where she landed headfirst and facedown on a curb.
“It looked pretty bad. I thought she was dead,” van der Breggen told the Guardian at the time.
Van Vleuten spent several days in intensive care before being released to convalesce on her own, but within two weeks she was on her bike again.
Van Vleuten’s comeback has gone swimmingly this season. On top of Tuesday’s win, the Dutch rider also won La Course by Le Tour de France, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and two stages of one of women’s cycling’s most challenging races, the Giro Rosa.
“This season I’m surprising myself what I can do,” van Vleuten said Tuesday after the race. “To be world champion in the time trial, I never thought I’d be able of this, but this year I started to believe in it and really finish it off. It’s incredible.”