The world held its breath when Julie Van de Velde (Fenix-Deceuninck) came under the flamme rouge on stage three of the Tour de France Femmes. With a gap of around 10 seconds between her and the charging peloton filled with sprinters, there was a small glimmer of hope for the 30-year-old rider. Could we witness the Belgian rider claim her first victory since 2019?
As the metres rapidly fell, Van de Velde gritted her teeth, eyes locked on the finish line, pedalling as hard as she could. However, this stage was, on paper, designed for the sprinters, and fast finishers like Lorena Wiebes (SD Worx-Protime) and Charlotte Kool (Team dsm-firmenich) were not willing to let this opportunity for a stage win slip away.
In the end, despite her valiant solo effort for 59 kilometres, Van de Velde was painfully caught metres to the line. Overtaken by Wiebes who celebrated stage victory, the Belgian rider rolled over the line 36th.
“I saw them coming in the last few 100 metres,” she said after the stage. “So, that was of course a disappointment, but I am really proud that I could come so close.”
Fenix-Deceuninck proved to be one of the most active teams during stage three, with no other riders attempting to bridge the gap to Van de Velde. Not only were they the most active today, but they have also been the ones most willing to brave the breakaway the most so far in the Tour de Femmes, as demonstrated by Yara Kastelijn taking the polka dot jersey on stage two, now handed over to Van de Velde after she swept up the KOM points in today’s race.
“The plan was to take points for the jersey so that it was kept in the team, but it wasn’t the goal to go to the line,” she added, reflecting on the team’s plan of action at the start of the day. “But I was there on my own so I couldn’t turn back, so I just went for it.”
And go for it she did. She managed to secure herself a gap of over two minutes for her 59km solo effort – no mean feat at the Tour, where everyone is hungry to secure themselves or their team a stage win. It even looked like Van de Velde could clinch the stage win, with the gap still hovering around the two-minute marker with around 30km to go and none of the teams behind looking like they were going to chase.
“I’m still sweating,” Fenix-Deceuninck’s DS, Michel Cornelisse, said at the team’s bus after the stage had finished. “I think the whole world was watching, supporting her. Yeah, she deserved the win.”
This is Van de Velde's first year with Fenix-Deceuninck after being with a number of teams throughout her professional career. She started with Lotto Soudal Ladies in 2017 until 2020 when she then made the move to Jumbo-Visma. However, the Belgian didn’t seem to excel during her time with the black and yellow team, so she left and joined Plantur-Pura. But the strength and form she’s displaying this year proves that the Belgian rider has found her home in the Fenix-Deceuninck team and is now flourishing, delivering the performance of her life today.
Heading into stage four with the polka dot jersey still in the team, the plan is to keep it. Cornelisse added, “Normally you say, we have to keep it to Paris, but we don’t go to Paris. So we can try everyday to keep it. Maybe we lose it, but you don’t give it away for free.”
Being in the polka dots will only boost the team’s confidence further, and they don’t plan on sitting back. “If I feel good, of course,” Van de Velde said when asked if she would go for the stage win again. “I like the mountain stage. That is red in my mind, so I will try to show something nice there.”
Despite being tantalisingly close to a career-defining win, both Van de Velde and Cornelisse were surprisingly happy after the stage, brimming with pride and confidence instead of disappointment. However, all the riders know that there can only be one winner. And today, fortune did not favour the brave, but give Van de Velde the opportunity and she’ll grab it with two hands.