Monday 31 July 2023

Women's Tour de France delivers drama and new stars

Tour de France Femmes peloton on the stage to Albi (photo: Thomas Maheux)

Following the successful staging of the reborn Tour de France Femmes in 2022, this year's edition of the event, sponsored by Zwift didn't fail to disappoint.

Last year's women's Tour de France Femmes began to the fanfare of the women racing Stage 1 on the Champs Elysees a few hours before the men's concluding stage of their Tour de France. The women then contested their remaining stages of their Tour in the East of France, in the Alsace/Vosges area with an exciting finale on the Superplanche des Belles Filles.

I must admit that when I saw that this year's stage would be starting from Clermont Ferrand, it seemed a slight downer compared with the iconic landmarks of central Paris. Granted, the event was in the shadow of the Puy de Dome, but the famous road up the extinct volcano was not included in the women's race itinerary.

However, the race more than made up for it with the final stages snaking through the Pyrenees, over the col d'Aspin and the col du Tourmalet, culminating in a time trial on undulating roads around Pau. 

Lotte Kopecky (photo: Getty Sport)
What also makes the race are the riders. It was no surprise to see women from the mighty SD Worx team occupying the upper echelons of the General Classification rankings, but it wasn't totally one-way traffic for the Netherlands-registered team flush with National, European and former World Champions. This made the overall racing exciting and introduced an element of suspense - an important ingredient for an engaging sports competition.

Where the men's Tour de France solicited a guessing game about whether Tadej Pogacar or Jonas Vingegaard would come out on top, the women's race led to debates around whether it would be Movistar's Annemiek Van Vleuten who would replicate her triple Grand Tour victories from last year (she had already won the women's Vuelta a Espana, and Giro Donne) or whether Demi Vollering would stop her compatriot in her ascendancy.  

After Vollering drew first blood by thanks to the stage one victory by Belgian National Champion Lotte Kopecky, allowing her SD Worx team to seize the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) and keep it thanks to further stage victories from Lorena Wiebes (stage 3) and Marlen Reusser (stage 8). However the team was punished with setbacks which could have toppled its aspirations. In reality, these problems were self-inflicted and would have been associated more with a small newbie team, than with a dominant World Tour Team led by some of the most experienced riders and sports directors in the women's peloton.

On Stage 4 from Cahors to Rodez, won by a breakaway rider Yara Kastelijn (Fenix-Deceuninck), Vollering crossed the finish line in a celebratory mood, in second place after bursting forward from her group. She had not realised there was another rider further up the road who had won the stage - despite her having radio communication with her team mates and sports director, and knowing that there had been a breakaway which had as much as 10 minutes time advantage over the GC chasing group at one point.  

The following day, during Stage 5, SD Worx effected a bike change for Vollering when she got a puncture. Looking at the TV pictures, the bike change must have been the slowest change in the history of bike racing! Unsurprisingly the rider lost a significant amount of time on the peloton including her GC contender rivals, so she slipstreamed off her team car in order to be paced back to the bunch. 

It wasn't plain sailing for SD Worx (photo: Thomas Maheux)

The only problem was her sports director drove down the wrong side of the road, dangerously overtaking, and potentially putting other participants in danger. 

After an initial reprimand from the race commissaire during the race for excessive slipstreaming and dangerous overtaking, sports director Danny Stam received a 200CHF fine and Vollering received a 100CHF fine. Stam was later expelled from the race after dismissing the UCI commissaires' ruling as ridiculous. 

While SD Worx had the means to pay the fine and co-sports director Anna van der Breggen could still manage matters during the race, the real bite came when Vollering received a 20-second time penalty which relegated her from second to seventh place in the GC, and 12 seconds behind Van Vleuten. This was in addition to the double whammy of seeing Movistar's Emma Norsgaard (Jorgensen) sprint to win Stage 6 into Blagnac ahead of yellow jersey wearer, Kopecky on the eve of the decisive weekend for the race.

During the decisive penultimate stage from Lannemezan to Tourmalet, Van Vleuten and Vollering had a face-off on the lower slopes of the giant of the Pyrenees. There was no love lost between these two Dutch girls - even less so since last year's Tour de France Femmes, as well as this year's Vuelta a Espana when Vollering believed Van Vleuten had been unsporting en route to her historic win. [Van Vleuten allegedly attacked while Vollering, who was in the lead, took a loo break.]

Such stand-offs can actually be advantageous to others, as Canyon SRAM's Kasia Niewiadoma found when she launched her own attack off the front, staying away until shortly before the finish line when eventual winner Vollering caught her, though the Pole still stayed ahead of Van Vleuten by more than half-a-minute. Deservedly Niewiadoma was awarded the polka dot jersey for the Queen of the Mountains.

An emotional Demi Vollering on realising she's won the Tour de France Femmes (Thomas Maheux)

What we learned during this Tour de France Femmes was that contrary to fellow competitor Elisa Longo Borghini who once described Van Vleuten as an alien, the all-powerful Movistar rider is human. She began to show signs of weakness and fatigue as the route passed through the mountain villages of St Marie de Campan, and La Mongie, and the World Champion was unable to match Vollering's attack through the mist in the Hautes Pyrenees as she crossed the finish line over two and a half minutes ahead of Van Vleuten as the new wearer of the yellow jersey. 

Similarly, at the closing time trial, where Van Vleuten has traditionally prevailed, she was also caught wanting, when she finished in 14th place, over 1 minute 40 seconds behind Reusser.

So it wasn't to be for Vleuty, who finished in fourth place in the GC almost four minutes behind the victorious Vollering. Meanwhile the SD Worx camp enjoyed huge celebrations following Reusser's victory in the time trial, Lotte Kopecky's green jersey, and Vollering's maiden yellow jersey for her overall win at the Tour de France Femmes.

As well as the battle between these two arch-rivals, this Tour de France Femmes was also spiced up by young guns going for it - new riders, young riders, smaller teams, throwing themselves out there and trying their chances for a stage win.

A crash-filled Stage 2 saw Lianne Lippert take flight with a maiden victory. The young team-mate of Van Vleuten finished ahead of Kopecky who punctured before the finish line after being led out by Vollering. Stage 3 saw the dreams of Julie Van de Velde of the young team Fenix-Deceuninck crushed as she was caught agonisingly close to the finish line after launching a long breakaway. Her cyclocrosser team-mate Kastelijn (who eventually won the overall combativity prize) finished the business by winning Stage 4 into Rodez. 

Ricarda Bauernfeind, new kid on the block (Thomas Maheux)

In spectacular style Ricarda Bauernfeind, a recent arrival at Canyon-SRAM having been in the development structure Canyon-Generation took the biggest win of her short career in stage 5 (from Onet-le-Chateau to Albi) and at age 23 years and three months she became the youngest winner of a TDFF stage.

Additionally, the likes of Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, racing for the newly formed AG Insurance-Soudal-Quick-Step team, whose sport director is former racer Jolien d'Hoore, also put time into Van Vleuten on the slopes of the Tourmalet. Kopecky who is known as a sprinter and also a handy track cyclist emerged as the Wout Van Aert of women's racing as she also put in a sterling ride in the mountains.

So all in all, the Tour de France Femmes this year turned out to be an engaging race, with interesting stories and talking points, excitement, intrigue, and new stars. 

As much as I like Van Vleuten and it would have been a good note on which the 40-year old could close out career, doing the triple, I must say that I am happy that there were a few twists and turns in the competition. Although SD Worx dominated in the rankings, we certainly saw fearless challenges from riders across the spectrum of age, experience, and team strength.

                              Jersey winners: L-R: Cedrine Kerbaol, Kasia Niewiadoma, Demi Vollering,
Lotte Kopecky (photo: Thomas Maheux) 

Next year's Tour de France Femmes with Zwift will start in the Netherlands, and we will find out the full itinerary in October. I look forward to seeing what 2024 will bring.

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