By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, 2x Giro Rosa Champion, CTS Contributing Editor
There is nothing, nothing, in the entire world of cycling that I love like the Giro Rosa.
It is a helpless love – one that allowed me year after year to devote my entire life to performing on 10 days in July and to never regret the sacrifices demanded by the other 355/365ths of the calendar. Now that I am retired, my Giro experience flips dizzyingly between being enthralled by whatever coverage I can find of this wild, amazing race, and wanting to crawl to bed with a sadness stomachache, temporarily debilitated by a distinct sense of Missing Out.
Yet for many cycling fans, July is devoted to the Tour de France, and the most prestigious women’s race on the calendar gets lost in the noise. Even this past Sunday, as Annemiek Van Vleuten celebrated a dominant Giro victory for the second year in a row, 17 of 19 Cyclingnews headlines were Tour de France stories.
So, in case you haven’t been glued to the #girorosa Twitter stream, I decided to highlight the performances of three of the top riders at this year’s Giro, each of which carries important lessons that can help anyone improve as an athlete.
Annemiek Van Vleuten and the disappearance of the Gavia:
Much of the hubbub surrounding this year’s Giro route announcement centered on the inclusion of the iconic Passo di Gavia. The imagined queen stage was not to be, however, as landslides forced race officials to reroute the riders to finish atop the nearby Laghi di Cancano climb instead.
While rumors about the condition of the Gavia increased as the Giro drew near, the official route change announcement didn’t come until the day before the first stage of the race. Some riders undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief, but for those planning to use the Gavia as a path to victory, the change demanded a serious recalibration in strategy and mindset.
I raced the climb to Laghi di Cancano the last time it appeared in the Giro, in 2011. While a challenging climb, it isn’t one that forces a selection like the Gavia. Defending champion Van Vleuten, currently regarded as a climber without equal in the women’s peloton, spoke before the race of her excitement about the Gavia’s inclusion. Following news of the Gavia’s exclusion, it would be understandable for a racer in her position to be distracted by disappointment or thrown off by uncertainty.
Instead, Van Vleuten made the most of the opportunity presented to her, and strategized about how to make the less-challenging climb play to her strengths.
“I knew I had to attack from the bottom to gain as much time as possible,” said Van Vleuten after the stage. “But it was ten kilometres of epic suffering.”
That suffering—and Van Vleuten’s ability to be mentally resilient and adapt her race plan to the new route—paid off. She arrived at the top nearly three minutes ahead of her nearest rival, taking the pink jersey and putting her stamp of authority on the 2019 Giro Rosa.
Marianne Vos wins big
In four of 10 stages in this year’s Giro, Marianne Vos crossed the line with her hands in the air. By the numbers, this seems almost routine: Vos has now won 25 Giro stages and taken the overall twice.
Yet in 2015, Vos disappeared from the peloton to confront recurring injuries and fatigue now attributed to overtraining and insufficient rest between seasons of road, cyclocross and mountain biking. It wasn’t until the end of 2018 that she began to say that she felt like her old self again.
“I felt I was getting better step by step, but sometimes those steps were backwards, and it was difficult to get through,” Vos told Velonews in an interview last fall. “I knew I had to be patient and dedicated. I’m very happy over the last few months, and I feel that I’m getting stronger and back to my best. It took a long time, but it was worth it.”
Vos was forced to confront the possibility of a future in which she never reached her previous level of excellence, but she had the tenacity and patience to modify both her training and her entire self-concept. Her return to dominance in the sport she loves demonstrates the power of self-reflection, humility, and patience—attributes not readily found in every multi-time world and Olympic champion.
Van der Breggen keeps going
Many anticipated a tight race this year between Van Vleuten and countrywoman Anna Van der Breggen, the winner of the 2015 Giro, but when Van Vleuten took off on the climb to Langhi di Cancano, Van der Breggen was unable to answer. She finished the day sixth in a group that came in three minutes after Van Vleuten. She entered the second half of the race in fifth place overall, not the position the Olympic champion had likely anticipated.
Yet even after several days of disappointment, Van der Breggen was able to stay focused on the opportunities that lay in front of her each day. In a Stage 6 uphill time trial, she finished second to Van Vleuten, and in Stage 9, she attacked the pink jersey and rode to victory in a summit finish at Malga Montasio.
“We came here to win the Giro,” said Van der Breggen after the stage. “Pretty early, it became clear that that wouldn’t work, as Annemiek was really strong this week. But I’ve felt better and better as the race has gone on, so the only thing you can do is to try. I tried to win a stage, and am really happy that it worked.”
It is tempting to give up altogether when we miss out on a big goal, but to reach our full potential as athletes we have to show up with our best every day—even when that is less-than-hoped-for, and even when success seems impossible. Van der Breggen’s ability to remain focused and continue forward even when the big prize had ridden away ultimately netted her a stage win and second place in the general classification—not perfect, but far from nothing.