The last stage of the 2023 Simac Ladies Tour was also the last race of the professional cycling career of Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar Team), who celebrated her retirement after 16 seasons at the top of the sport. Competitive to the last, she had first been disappointed to miss the front group that ended up racing for the stage win, but this soon gave way to the joy at seeing such large crowds come out for her farewell race in her home training area.
“There were people on the roadside everywhere, and I had goosebumps on the last lap. In a race, you normally have your head down and don’t look at the crowds. Now that I knew I wouldn’t ever do a race again, I took the time to enjoy the last kilometres as much as possible,” Van Vleuten said on the Simac Ladies Tour podium where she and her career were celebrated after the race jerseys had been handed out.
Throughout the race, Van Vleuten could be seen occasionally waving to fans who had put up signs or posters along the race route to pay tribute to her and on the final lap she decided to relax. She was waving to virtually everyone in the crowd almost like cycling royalty on her last outing, while the roadside spectators and the riders around her formed a guard of honour.
Having crossed the finish line just off the back of the peloton to a roar of applause, Van Vleuten then stopped where her mother, sister, and fan club waited in the finish area, being welcomed by a chorus of “Annemiek bedankt” – “Annemiek, thank you”.
On the podium, the mayors of Arnhem, host city of the final stage, and Van Vleuten’s hometown of Wageningen gave speeches before Loes Gunnewijk, formerly a pro cyclist herself and now the national coach of the Dutch women’s national team, took the microphone.
“It began with the World Championships in Geelong [in 2010] where we both rode in support of Marianne Vos, and you grew into a great champion, won many titles, world, Olympic, European titles, you have a palmarès where I will still be busy tomorrow if I wanted to list everything. And it was often with a special story – joy and sadness could be close together.
“I remember the Mixed Relay last year, the crash, but you focussed on Saturday, doing the maximum, and in the final, there were dark clouds above Wollongong, I saw a rainbow, and then you put in the last attack and became world champion again.
“That’s what I admired most about you, your perseverance, your positivity, and raising the bar every time, for yourself, for the team, for the peloton, you have meant a lot for women’s cycling,” said Gunnewijk, thanking Van Vleuten for her spectacular career and for the progression in women’s cycling that the 40-year-old had played a big role in.
Van Vleuten’s final season didn’t escape the ups and downs. After a comparatively unsuccessful spring campaign, she won the Vuelta Femenina and Giro d’Italia Donne but then could not defend her Tour de France Femmes title, finishing fourth overall. Having raced in support of Demi Vollering at the Glasgow World Championships and still finishing eighth herself, Van Vleuten then announced the Tour of Scandinavia and Simac Ladies Tour would be her final races.
She won the Scandinavian stage race overall, taking the leader’s jersey with a strong time trial. Already in Norway and Denmark, riders came up to Van Vleuten to thank her for her career and this continued at the Simac Ladies Tour. After bowing out from pro cycling in Arnhem, Van Vleuten said that she would take a year to figure out what her next steps would be.
“I’m first going to take the time to think about what I want to do. You won’t see me in a team leader’s car, but you will certainly see me somewhere in the sport,” she told Dutch broadcaster NOS after finishing her last race ever.