Sport has a unique ability to bring its protagonists the the very lowest of lows, and the very highest of highs. Yesterday at the Tour de France Femmes, Julie Van de Velde of Fenix-Deceuninck crossed the finish line of stage three with a broken heart. She had been slogging into a block headwind alone for over 55 kilometres, dreaming, hoping, almost believing, that the victory was possible. When the peloton stormed past her in the final 200 metres, they crushed it all. There was one thing that remained, however: Fenix-Deceuninck’s belief.
After yesterday’s stage. Michel Cornelisse, the team’s sports director, walked around the Fenix-Deceuninck team area grinning. Journalists approached him confused: Van de Velde had been within touching distance of the biggest win of the team’s career and lost it by a whisker, but Cornelisse looked happier than ever.
“If you lose like this, then you can only be proud,” he explained when asked about Van de Velde’s near-miss. “If you can continue for 55 kilometres in front of the peloton, in my eyes, you're the winner too. But there's only one winner in cycling and it's the problem, there's only one going home with the flowers. But we gave everything and we will try to do more."
And try they did. It is a credit to the culture that a sports director like Cornelisse instils into his team that when the flag dropped today for the start of stage four of the Tour de France Femmes, Fenix-Decueninck were present again, fighting for another opportunity. There was no hesitation after the loss the previous day, no lingering disappointment or tentative moves. They are being taught to risk it all, or lose the chance. If you’ve done everything you can to try and win, that’s what matters. The reward will come, one day.
The determination that Fenix-Deceuninck showed as the fight for the breakaway began today meant that they eventually had two representatives in the 14-rider strong breakaway in Marthe Truyen and Yara Kastelijn. Slowly, slowly, the group established a lead of over 10 minutes on the rest of the peloton, and Fenix-Decueninck’s plans were clear: Truyen would work on the front, and Kastelijn would save herself to try something as the stage continued.
On the penultimate climb of the day, the strongest from the breakaway had emerged from the brutal, steep ascents on the route to Rodez, with Audrey Cordon-Ragot and Kastelijn forming a duo out front. Soon though, Kastelijn’s strength would prove too much for the French rider, and Kastelijn would go at alone. There were 19 kilometres of the stage remaining when she made her attack. 19 kilometres of hoping it would not be another day of heartbreak. 19 kilometres of Fenix-Deceuninck dreaming again, hoping again, wishing again.
Kastelijn put her head down and rode and rode. As the general classification battle unfolded behind, the Dutch rider tapped out her rhythm even as the time gap was coming down while the likes of Demi Vollering attacked from the chasing group. At times, it seemed like it might be another day of heartbreak for our fearless protagonists.
In the end, though, Kastelijn made it. She crossed the line alone, punching the air and smiling through tears as she embraced her parents who waited for her at the finish line. This was a victory for them, for her teammate Truyen who helped her in the breakaway, for Cornelisse who helped build her fighting spirit, for the entire Fenix-Deceuninck squad. The team that never stopped believing.
“At the moment we are on fire,” Kastelijn said afterwards in her post-race press conference. “When you have this sort of atmosphere in the team, it’s so much easier. Today Marthe was really important to me, she put a lot of work in. I didn’t do this alone, we did it with our team.”
“After yesterday, we spoke about carrying on being aggressive and the riders believing in themselves and it will work. Everyone is so happy,” Cornelisse added, speaking by the Fenix-Deceuninck team bus that was alive with emotion.
So then, the story concluded with a victory for the underdogs in stage four of the Tour de France Femmes. For the scrappy fighters who were not prepared to accept that this was a race that would be dominated by SD Worx. For the team that may not have the history or palmarès of some of the bigger squads, but who have self-belief in abundance. For the sports directors who preach that trying and failing is always better than not trying at all. And, perhaps, for everyone who has felt disappointment and needed a lesson that, if you want it enough, it is always possible.