The longest stage of the Tour de France Femmes was a good demonstration of why, when it comes to race length in cycling, more isn’t always better.
Whereas all of the previous stages of the race have been characterised by intense racing and constant action, all packed within overall distances no bigger than 140km, this 175km stage was less eventful, with few attacks ahead of what turned out to be a straightforward bunch sprint.
But longer races aren’t necessarily about producing more excitement. They’re designed to be a test of the riders’ endurance, asking questions of their ability to retain their best legs after substantially more time spent riding. Take the longest Classic in men’s racing, Milan-San Remo. It’s known as being a test of endurance, and many of the top pure sprinters often struggle to win it, yet it has still frequently culminated in a big bunch finish.
Read more: Tour de France Femmes 2022 stage six preview - a bumpy ride to Rosheim
Maybe a few more hills on the parcours of stage five might have spiced things up a bit, and added a little more tension and uncertainty as to whether the sprinters would indeed be able to compete for victory, just as the finale of Milan-San Remo is shaped by the Poggio and Cipressa climbs. But make no mistake, the riders’ will still have felt those extra kilometres in their legs come the sprint, and will have been uncertain as to how much power they’d be able to produce come that finishing sprint.
This was maybe the only reason not to assume that Lorena Wiebes (DSM), once she arrived at the finishing straight well-positioned in third wheel behind Rachele Barbieri (Liv Racing Xstra) and Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma), would not take the victory. But the prolific Dutchwoman comprehensively passed this test of endurance by launching a typically devastating acceleration at the finish, reaching the line ahead of Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) with a winning margin of two whole bike-lengths.
Often, pure sprinters are more vulnerable to variables. Whether it’s difficult terrain and hills, challenging road surfaces like cobblestones or gravel, or, in this case, longer racing, their raw power can be diluted by the versatility of others who are less specialised.
Yet despite possessing a finishing kick vastly superior to anyone else in the peloton, Wiebes has already proven herself to be more than just a specialist sprinter. Included in her bulging palmarès of over 50 wins are multiple Classics including, most tellingly of all, the 2021 Ronde van Drenthe, where she navigated the route’s tricky hills by making it into a small leading group, before, after being helped by her teammates, using her sprint to take victory.
One of the sprinters who might have hoped Wiebes would be beatable in this long stage was Elisa Balsamo. The world champion has been happy to play more of a support role this Tour, sacrificing herself for Trek-Segafredo’s GC leader Elisa Longo Borghini on stage two, and only once sprinting for herself (on stage one, where she was a disappointing seventh). But today it was her turn to have protected status, and in the finale her teammates repaid her services by leading her out for the sprint.
Ellen van Dijk did a typically fine job, using the diesel engine that recently saw her break the World Hour Record to string the bunch out with a prolonged effort until finally swinging deep into the final kilometre to allow Borghini to take over.
However, this was where it went wrong for Trek-Segafredo. Borghini somehow managed to make a false left turn, veering left while the rest of the peloton correctly continued straight ahead towards the finishing straight (a mistake that would ultimately cost the Italian nine seconds on GC, as she didn’t quite manage to re-join the back of the peloton by the line).
This might not have altered Balsamo’s plans in an obvious way, as he was actually a little way back in the peloton on Wiebes’ wheel, but that depends upon how much Balsamo wanted the sprint to begin from a fast pace. Once Borghini made her error, sprinter Rachele Barbieri found herself reluctantly at the front, and knocked the pace off completely, meaning the sprint was to be an explosive test from a slow starting speed rather than a quick, smooth run-in.
From this starting point, no-one could match Wiebes for explosivity, and although Balsamo still kicked very well to place second ahead of Vos, she was very much a distant second.
Prior to the sprint, a lack of attacks did not necessarily mean a lack of drama, and a huge crash disrupted the race 45km from the finish.
Involved were multiple sprinters who will have hoped to have contested for the sprint finish. Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) was among them, and her involvement might explain why she struggled in the finale and only managed an eleventh-place finish. As was Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ), who once again failed to get into the mix.
Worse off was Emma Norsgaard (Movistar), who had to abandon from the race with the injuries she sustained from hitting the ground. Having placed fifth in the stage one sprint on the Champs-Élysées, she would have been among the favourites for a win today, and as a powerful Classics rider might have been one of those to have benefited from the extended length.
Thankfully, Norsgaard was the only withdrawal, while none of the top GC riders held up lost any time. Silvia Persico (Valcar Travel & Service) did require a bike change, but her second-place on GC remains secure. The only change in the top ten saw Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM) fall from tenth to 16th after she crashed in a separate incident around a tight corner 1500m from the finish.
The Swiss rider was however playing more of a support role for Kasia Niewiadoma, and had appeared to be prioritising the Queen of the Mountains classification over the overall.
That means the GC remains as-you-were, with just one more stage left until the much-anticipated mountainous double header this weekend.