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Sprints, white roads & mountains
Just as the first Paris–Roubaix Femmes electrified the sport last year so this first Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift will put women’s cycling fully in the mainstream. And what could be more prestigious than starting stage 1 at the Eiffel Tower and finishing on the Champs-Élysées? That stage, on Sunday afternoon before the men complete the 109th edition of Le Tour, kicks off eight days of racing that get progressively more difficult—starting with sprint finishes, merging to stages through the Champagne region over stiff climbs and white gravel roads, and ending with two ultra-challenging days in the mountains of the Vosges.
The sprinters will be on their home ground on stage 1 dreaming of the first yellow jersey after 12 laps of the Champs-Élysées circuit. Race director Marion Rousse, a former top racer, says, “It will be tense and tight on this circuit, where constant accelerations gradually take a toll. Only Anna van der Breggen [now retired] managed to prevent the sprinters winning with an attack one kilometer out at the 2015 La Course by Le Tour.” Favored to win the stage (and take the first yellow jersey) is world champion Elisa Balsamo of Trek-Segafredo.
Stage 2 should also go the way of the sprinters. This is the flattest stage of the week, with the action likely focused on the 19.7-kilometer circuit at Provins, where a kilometer-long hill at 4-percent grade precedes the 300-meter-long finishing straight. Some riders may be tempted to attack on the first passage through the line, but it won’t be easy to fend off the peloton on the run-in. This looks like a perfect finish for super-champion Marianne Vos of Jumbo-Visma, who has famously declared her desire to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey. With a time bonus and time gain here, she could achieve that goal.
There’s also a finishing circuit on stage 3, which ends on the roads through the Champagne vineyards where, at the 2019 Tour, Julian Alaphilippe attacked on the Côte de Mutigny, a 12-percent wall, soloed for 17 kilometers, won the stage, and pulled on the yellow jersey. This is terrain for classics riders like SD Worx’ Lotte Kopecky and Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini to shoot for glory.
The final 60 kilometers of stage 4 are similar to Tuscany’s Strade Bianche with a succession of four long white roads and half a dozen punchy climbs. Here, the narrow limestone gravel roads wind through the vineyards and total 12.9 kilometers of racing. Once the final sector is completed, 20 kilometers remain, including two more climbs. Even though they are not the steepest of the day, they will hurt a lot at the end of such a rugged stage. GC favorites like Annemiek van Vleuten of Movistar and Ashleigh Moolman of SD Worx will need to do well at Épernay.
The UCI granted the Tour organizers dispensation to exceed the maximum distance of 160 kilometers for a stage in a women’s race. So, stage 5 extends to 175.6 kilometers to link the two stage towns. Despite three minor climbs, it should conclude with a bunch sprint. Rousse says, “The long hours in the saddle will take a heavy toll at the moment of contesting the victory.” Another win for the world champion?
Looking at the hilly stage 6 through the Alsatian vineyards, Rousse says, “A long break could reward the breakaway specialists at the expense of the sprinters.” This stage ends on a 20.2-kilometer circuit at Rosheim, on which the 6-percent Côte de Boersch offers the chance for a winning attack. At the top, the riders continue climbing on a false flat before dropping toward the finish. It’s the type of stage enjoyed by American Kristen Faulkner of Team BikeExchange-Jayco
What a final weekend there is in prospect! First off, stage 7 has 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet) of vertical gain in the final 90 kilometers. The Petit Ballon and the Platzerwasel are two of the toughest climbs in the Vosges and link directly into each other. The climbers will certainly split the field on those mountains before tackling the Grand Ballon, the highest point at 1,336 meters (4,383 feet) in this first Tour de France Femmes. The mountainous triptych is going to hurt. The finish line will be 7 kilometers along the ridgeline to the Markstein ski resort. Will this finale see a showdown between race favorites van Vleuten, Moolman, Katarzyna Niewiadoma of Canyon//SRAM Racing, Juliette Labous of Team DSM and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig of FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope or will they wait till the upcoming final climb of the final stage?
Stage 8 will climb two mythical mountains: the steepest flank of the Ballon d’Alsace, the first major pass ridden by the Tour de France in 1905, and La Super Planche des Belles Filles, the most recent addition to the panoply of Le Tour’s summit finishes. La Super Planche is an irregular climb that breaks a climber’s rhythm, with several 11-plus-percent pitches before hitting the gravel road to the top with its maximum grade of 24 percent. Dutch star van Vleuten will find this finish perfect for her relentless climbing skills.
The first Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift should make compelling viewing.