There come times in most stage races when small decisions can have large consequences. That was the case at critical moments of stages 2 and 4 of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. The first moment came when the front group of riders contested a sprint on the stage 2 finish line in Provins prior to tackling a finishing lap of 20 kilometers. As often happens in that situation, most of the riders eased up. But not Elisa Balsamo, Trek-Segafredo’s world champion, who made a sharp attack through an archway in the medieval city wall—and only four, very alert, riders responded to it: Balsamo’s GC team leader Elisa Longo Borghini, race leader Marianne Vos of Jumbo-Visma, Kasia Niewiadoma of Canyon//SRAM and Silvia Persico of Valcar-Travel.
It was an excellent move, especially as the finishing circuit was on narrow country roads exposed to cross- and tailwinds. Furthermore, the powerful SD Worx, DSM, Movistar, and UAE teams had all missed out. At first, it appeared that the two Trek riders were angling for the stage win with Balsamo, but the team decided that gaining time on GC rivals was more important. And so Balsamo, a sprinter, dug deep, eventually made a huge last pull and sat up before the finish. Longo Borghini didn’t win the stage, but the half minute she gained on climbers Annemiek van Vleuten, Demi Vollering, Juliette Labous and Mavi García would prove crucial later on.
The second moment came on stage 4 when the leaders swept onto the last of four sections of white, gravel roads, 20 kilometers from the finish in Bar-sur-Aube. SD Worx, probably the strongest team in the race, had just given the green light to its Swiss rider Marlen Reusser to attack, and she was 20 seconds ahead on hitting the gravel. Behind her, after accelerations from Niewiadoma and yellow jersey Vos, a small chase group formed containing Reusser’s two well-placed GC contenders Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman—who simply followed, not wanting to jeopardize the stage-winning chances of their teammate.
However, two other GC favorites, van Vleuten and Longo Borghini, had missed the move because of punctures (which were affecting plenty of women on this dusty day through the Champagne region). Another of those delayed by a puncture was SD Worx rider Lotte Kopecky, who before the stage start exclaimed, “I think the gravel will bring some extra excitement…and of course we’re gonna have fun out there.”
Now, with the race splitting apart on the 3-kilometer-long white farm road, the SD Worx riders had a serious (not fun) decision to make. Should they continue to favor a Reusser stage win? Or should they look at the bigger picture and get Vollering and Moolman to work with Niewiadoma and Vos to put time into super-favorite van Vleuten (who they knew was not feeling well after twice getting dropped the day before)? Also, van Vleuten had no Movistar teammates with her, while Longo Borghini had just one from Trek-Segafredo.
Asked about this moment, SD Worx sports director Danny Stam said, “From the last sector it was too short to make a real time difference. We could sacrifice Marlen, close the gap and look stupid in throwing away a stage win. So, in the best case, we won 30 seconds and lost a stage”
Also, SD Worx hoped that Vollering could match van Vleuten on the closing weekend in the mountains; but, one on one, a back-to-full-strength van Vleuten simply proved too strong a climber. At 39 and a year away from retirement, van Vleuten has a very different history to Vollering, 25. When van Vleuten was that age (in 2008), she was in only her second season and still two years away from winning a race; Vollering is in her fourth full season and has already won a dozen races. What the two Dutch women have in common is all-around ability in time trials, one-day classics and stage races—though van Vleuten also has years of self-knowledge and experience that helped her win this first Tour de France Femmes.
After winning stage 7 by more than three minutes, the Dutch veteran raised some eyebrows by referencing her superior training. “I’m a bit older than the other girls,” she said, “so I can do a lot of training.” But not wanting to sound boastful, she added, “It’s not that my colleagues don’t train as much as I do. It has something to do with training years.”
Half of van Vleuten’s 95 career victories have come in the past four years, starting with her taking three stages and the overall title at the 2018 Giro d’Italia Donne—which she won again in 2019 and this year. She has developed a well-worn training regime with her coach Louis Delahaije—her physical records show that in 2020 van Vleuten rode 32,949 kilometers in 1,229 hours, climbed 430,000 vertical meters and expanded 588,941 kilojoules of energy.
Her frequent altitude training camps are made even tougher when she joins the men on her Movistar squad. “I can’t tell the boys to slow down,” she said, “even if I’m killing myself to stay on their wheels. But I continue to have such experiences because I come out of them much stronger.” Another phase of van Vleuten’s prep is a December road trip in Colombia. After one of those, she said, “You always learn something from an adventure like this for later in a race. When you stay in familiar surroundings you never put yourself in danger and you don’t push back your limits.”
Perhaps that should be the mantra for women racers and their Tour de Frances Femmes: “No limits!”