Everyone expected Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) to deliver something special today at the Tour de France Femmes, yet despite such high expectations, somehow she managed to produce a performance that still left everyone watching flabbergasted.
Any doubts that she was still sub-100% following her recent bout of illness, or that her legs may be fatigued following her victory at the Giro Donne earlier this month, were categorically dismissed as she won stage seven at a canter.
It wasn’t the fact she decided to make her attack so early that was so extraordinary. We all know about the Dutchwoman’s fondness for a long-range attack, as anyone watching from the roadside in Yorkshire at the 2019 World Championships during her 100km attack will know. It came as no surprise to learn from Movistar’s DS that her move on the first climb of the day, the Petit Ballon, over 80km from the finish, was in fact premeditated.
Nor was it the fact she rode so much of the day alone. She’s famed for her engine and is arguably the best time triallist in the world, and besides, most of the 60km she rode solo after dropping her final hanger-on, Demi Vollering (SD Worx), were uphill, diluting the benefits of slipstreaming.
No, what was really astonishing about this ride, that set it above even her other great victories, was the sheer enormity of the time gaps between Van Vleuten and everyone else. After dropping Vollering on the second climb of the day, the Col du Platzerwasel, she reached the summit with a lead of 30 seconds; on the descent and valley roads that follow in the lead-up to the foot of the final climb, that had ballooned all the way up to 2-30; and she put more time in excess of a minute on the Grand Ballon, so that her eventual winning margin was a whopping 3-40.
Her advantage over everyone else was even more enormous. The main group of chasers that featured the other top GC riders, including Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon//SRAM) and Silvia Persico (Valcar Travel & Service) were already almost three minutes adrift from Van Vleuten when the (frustratingly delayed) TV live coverage began, halfway up the Platzerwasel. By the top it was 4-40, then the start of the Grand Ballon it was about six minutes, and although Niewiadoma, Cecile Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope) and Juliette Labous (DSM) rode a strong final climb to make up a little ground to reduce their losses to 5-18, other key GC contenders Persico and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) were 6-56 down by the finish.
Suffice to say, Van Vleuten is now in the yellow jersey, and with a seemingly unassailable advantage of 3-09 over Vollering on GC. Up until now the inaugural Tour de France Femmes might have been about the greatest of all time, Marianne Vos, but today she ceded the spotlight to the rider who is unquestionably the greatest in the world right now.
If Van Vleuten solidified her status as the world’s best climber today, then Demi Vollering made a strong case today to be considered the second best. In the context of Van Vleuten’s dominance, it’s easy to miss just how far ahead the SD Worx rider was over the others by the finish: just under two minutes ahead of Ludwig, Labous and Niewiadoma, and 3-30 on Persico and Borghini. Were it not for the winner’s brilliance, we might have been talking about a career-defining breakthrough for Vollering.
For a time, it looked like Vollering might even be able to challenge Van Vleuten. She stuck on her wheel for the entirety of the Petit Ballon, despite its steep average gradient of over 8%, and, intriguingly, actually managed to distance her on the following descent.
So even when she was dropped just before the summit of Platzerwasel, it seemed plausible that she’d return the wheel of Van Vleuten on the downhill, and that the two would have one final, definitive battle on the Grand Ballon.
However, this time fatigue trumped technique, and Van Vleuten increased her lead on the downhill while Vollering struggled. The deficit got worse on the valley roads, and it soon became clear that she would not see her rival again.
Nevertheless, Vollering never went into the red, and paced herself smartly for the entire 60km she spent alone, showing her racing intelligence and resilience as well as great climbing legs. The 25-year-old may have to live under the shadow of Van Vleuten for now, but she’s primed (along with FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope's Marta Cavalli, who was runner-up behind Van Vleuten at the Giro Donne) to take over her mantle when she retires at the end of next year.
While Vollering paced her effort well, Borghini suffered for the excursions she made earlier. The Italian spent the Platzerwasel in no-man’s land between the leaders Van Vleuten and Vollering and a chasing group behind, eventually being swallowed up by the latter on the Grand Ballon. Then the pace set by Niewiadoma saw her dropped on that climb, meaning she fell from fourth to seventh on a day that she had appeared poised to move onto the podium.
A podium spot remains very much within her reach, however, and the race for the top three is far more open than that for overall victory appears. Niewiadoma currently holds the first-place spot behind Van Vleuten and Vollering, having taken it upon herself to lead the chasing group on the Grand Ballon, dropping both Borghini and Perisco. But both those riders still remain within two minutes of her time, while Labous and Ludwig are closer still, at 49 seconds and 1-30 respectively. Ludwig in particular looked relatively comfortable on the climbs today, and you sense she might have been able to gain some time had she tried an attack.
And Vollering too isn’t safe in her second-place spot, with a lead of little over a minute over Niewiadoma. With such a difficult summit finish tomorrow on Planche des Belles Filles, there could be yet more huge fireworks tomorrow, and time gaps of a similar magnitude — especially if Van Vleuten is in a particularly ruthless mood and chooses to explode the race early again.