When it comes to the general classification battle at the Tour de France Femmes, all talk is about the close rivalry between Annemiek van Vleuten and Demi Vollering. One is the defending Tour champion who has won almost everything there is to win on the calendar, currently in her last Grande Boucle with plans to retire at the age of 40 at the end of this season. The other, 14 years Van Vleuten’s junior, has stormed onto the scene over the last two years, impressing with her breakthrough performances at the Ardennes classics and imperious strength in the mountains. When it comes to their career trajectories, Van Vleuten and Vollering are miles apart, yet when they go head to head on the hills, there is barely anything separating them.
In last year’s Tour de France Femmes, it was Vollering and Van Vleuten who dominated; they were first and second on both the toughest stages which came at the end of a back-loaded route, seemingly a category above the rest of the peloton. But while they might have been better than everyone else, the gap between the two riders was a significant one too. Van Vleuten beat Vollering by three and a half minutes on stage 7 to Le Markstein and there was never really a question about which of them was the better climber, nor was there any doubt about whether Van Vleuten would take the yellow jersey. This year, however, the Movistar rider expects things to be very different.
“I’m not the favourite because I have been falling short this year,” Van Vleuten explained, speaking the day before the 2023 edition of the Tour de France Femmes begins. “[Vollering] is the number one favourite and she showed a super strong level this season, I was not able to beat her. In the end I did beat her in the Vuelta but it was also a ‘special occasion'. On the uphill she showed she was stronger.” The Dutchwoman is referencing the famed 'pee stop' at this year’s Vuelta Femenina whereby SD Worx accused Movistar of bad sportsmanship when they argued the Dutch team did not wait for race leader Vollering when she took a nature break.Image: ASO/Sprint Cycling Agency
Pee stops or not, it’s understandable that Van Vleuten is a little wary of Vollering when taking a glance down the younger rider's palmarès from this season so far. The SD Worx rider did the famous Ardennes Triple, alongside winning Strade Bianche and coming second in the Tour of Flanders at the start of the year, then went on to show she was just as strong in the mountains as she is on the cobbles with her two stage wins at La Vuelta Femenina. Since the Vuelta – which was the last time Vollering and Van Vleuten raced each other outside of the National Championships – each rider has taken a glaringly different approach to the Tour, Van Vleuten rode the Giro d’Italia Donne while Vollering opted to take time to train at altitude. The older rider is confident her preparation has helped her to be in the best shape possible ahead of the Tour, however.
“I have the same preparation as last year and I know that I'm at least better now than I was in the Vuelta. I recharged my batteries and I'm ready for the battle. I did everything I could to be in my best possible shape,” Van Vleuten explained. She also noted that Vollering’s strong opening to the season means that there is a weight of expectation on the SD Worx rider's shoulders.
“She put pressure on herself with the spring and all the races she won. She showed she had made a big step. Last year she was already super strong. The gap was big in the end [of the Tour de France Femmes] but it took me a long time to drop her.”
Above all, the Dutch rider says she hopes that the talk of her rivalry with Vollering will be lessened by the end of the Tour de France, explaining that having more riders fighting for yellow will be better for the sport overall. “You can underestimate the other competitors but I hope they will actually make our lives really hard and that we see that in the battle on the Tourmalet.”
There’s plenty of racing to come before the women’s peloton face the fabled Tourmalet, however, with punchy stages in the Massif Central also expected to be central to the general classification battle at the Tour. Van Vleuten appears confident, self-assured and alert to the dangers of the GC race kicking off well before the mountains.
“SD Worx have a really strong team here to play it tactically,” Van Vleuten says. “This season they were stronger than last year. They have a team to play more cards. I am mentally prepared that they will do something before and they will not wait until the Tourmalet, I’m sure.”
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix