Gravel Inspiration – Gravel riding with a legend

There are not many sports where you can even get close to a superstar and former world champion, let alone spend an entire day riding with them, but on his recent adventure to take part in the TransCordilleras bikepacking rally, that’s exactly what happened for Jorge Padrones. He got to spend a day racing with former road race world champion Annemiek Van Vleuten who, after retiring from racing on the road, has taken up gravel riding. Would he be able to keep up? Would he be too star-struck to communicate with her? Read on to find out how he got on.

Cycling has given me many things, not only all the physical and mental rewards I get from every ride, but it has also given me some gifts that are unique in life. One of those gifts has been the possibility to share a stage and some quality time with an icon of our sport and somebody who has won all possible titles and not only that, but who is a very nice, very accessible person. I am talking about Annemiek Van Vleuten.

I was participating in the TransCordilleras bikepacking rally in Colombia and I knew that Annemiek was also going to be taking part. I was a little curious and I thought maybe I could approach her and talk for some minutes as someone I really admire. I managed to do this at some of the start/finish lines of the race.

As luck would have it, at the beginning of Stage 6 we were put in the same group and after some kilometres with other riders making pit stops or dropping from the group, we were the only two riders remaining in the group. It was a very long stage, as all of them are in the TransCordilleras - it was 136 km with almost 3000 metres of elevation gain, so we had plenty of time to speak and, in my case, I had the opportunity to ask her some questions and to learn from somebody who has won all possible titles in cycling. In a race like TransCordilleras, you have time to speak as the days on the saddle are long and it is not an event in which you go full gas all the time. 

She told me now that she is not a pro racer anymore, she is focusing on enjoining this sport we all love and exploring other cycling specialities as in this case with gravel. Colombia was not a strange country for Annemiek as she used to go there for training. In fact, she already knew many of the roads that we were riding on, as she used to train in the area that the race was passing by on that day. By chance, it was one of the most beautiful days of the race with huge green mountains up which we were climbing and descending. While passing by coffee farms, she showed me one of the coffee plants - the first time I saw one in real life. Along the route there were many local people waiting for her on their bikes, ready to share some kilometres and to ask for selfies and questions and tell her how it was an honour for them she was back in Colombia.

We talked about how we started cycling and she told me that she was playing football until she had a knee injury and decided to start cycling. It was not an early start, as this all happened in her mid-20s. Before that though, she, along with the rest of her family, had used bikes as a form of transportation, so bikes were not a complete stranger to her!

She also told me how she adopted the “Accept, Adapt and Move On” strategy in her life when applied to bad moments, and incorporated it into her life philosophy. This applied especially when speaking about her awful crash in the Rio Olympics which left her unconscious and with three lumbar spinal fractures. Despite this, she was back on a bike ten days later and back racing one month later to take the overall and two stage wins at the Tour of Belgium, something that really showed her determination. In her words, the Accept, Adapt and Move On philosophy has led her to make the best out of every situation, a lesson undoubtedly I would be taking on in my life moving forward.

Also as an example of this, she explained how after her crash at the start of the Mixed Team Relay in the Wollongong 2022 road racing World Championships, instead of just lamenting her bad luck or wasting energy on blaming somebody, she focused on how she could help Marianne Vos to win the rainbow jersey, a situation which remarkably led Annemiek to be at the front of the race in the last kilometre. At this point she attacked and ended up conquering the rainbow jersey.

She also told me about one of her most exciting wins, which was in La Course by Le Tour de France in 2018, a race that I was not able to remember off the top of my head. She did not explain much to me - only that with 300 metres to go, she could hear her sports director in her earpiece telling her, well done Annemiek you are going to be second, which is an amazing result. This was not the way the race ended, but instead of telling me more, she pointed me to search for it and see it for myself in the video recap.

We chatted about cycling and about life in general, getting to know the person more than the sports celebrity. We spoke about how she is now taking different challenges from a different perspective to the competitive approach and how this led her to gravel as an enjoyable alternative to the road. I asked if she was going to race any of the UCI gravel series to which she replied sharply she is not racing anymore, so I rephrased my question asking about her participation, something that is not yet decided.

She was also very happy with her cycling apparel designed by her friend Iris and was really enjoying wearing the nice and colourful designs that give a happy feeling when you look at them. 

When speaking about the future she told me she is now taking some distance from racing and the racing world but who knows if in the future she can be linked somehow to this world. In my humble opinion, it makes complete sense to share all her knowledge and her good philosophy with the current riders, something for sure they can take advantage of.

When we started the last climb of the day I could not follow Annemiek's pace. I have to say she was waiting for me for the whole stage and she also did it on the finish line, to celebrate our arrival together and to take the mandatory picture, along with Austin who rode with us for some parts of the stage. 

Going to a bikepacking race in Colombia and meeting as a fellow rider one of your idols who has won all possible titles in cycling and not only that but sharing a stage and some quality time with them, is something only can happen in cycling. 

This has been one of the many gifts that cycling has given to me. The stage I spent riding with one of the biggest cycling sports personalities ever and with the highest human qualities. My stage with Annemiek will be for sure one that will always be in my memory.

Jorge Padrones

Jorge is based in Spain and is a regular on the start-line of different gravel events across Europe and further afield too.

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