And just like that, it’s done. The grey, misty, unrelenting slopes of the Tourmalet decided it was Demi Vollering who was the strongest in this year’s Tour de France Femmes. There would be no politics or drama around it, the 20-second time penalty that she was given two days ago would be rendered completely and utterly pointless in the end. The gap to Kasia Niewiadoma in second place grew to almost two minutes as Vollering powered towards the finish through the crowds of fans lining the rocky verges that led onto tarmac covered in the names of the peloton. Steep pitches on switchbacks seemed no challenge for the SD Worx rider and the long distance of the Tourmalet was no object either. There is no controversy and there is no questioning it, “Demi Vollering was on another level today,” defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten said after the stage.
With Vollering’s win comes meaning far greater than just her stage victory, too; it is the culmination of a shift in the women’s peloton that has been building over the entire season. On the penultimate stage of the Tour de France Femmes last year to Le Markstein when, in a role reversal from today’s stage, Van Vleuten rode away from Vollering to take the yellow jersey, the younger rider said to her older rival afterwards: “It’s not normal what you did today.” Van Vleuten responded that she was older and had more training and experience than Vollering. “She said to me, ‘it will come to you one day’. So, let’s hope,” Vollering had said after finishing minutes down to the Movistar rider in yellow. One year later, Van Vleuten’s prophecy has come true, in some ways. Just as she said, it certainly has come to Vollering this season, but what Van Vleuten did not expect is that it has come to her rival without much time or experience at all. It has taken just 12 months for Vollering to not only catch up to Van Vleuten, but destroy her completely on the mountains of the Tour de France Femmes. The 40-year-old rider was once unmatchable on the sort of gradients that the Tourmalet throws up, able to put in a few stinging pedal strokes and leave her rivals for dead. Vollering’s well-timed, methodical, ruthless, brutal, winning attack on stage seven of the 2023 edition of the Tour de France Femmes proved that those days are over.
Vollering’s move came with five kilometres of the stage remaining and it was made with clinical accuracy. “It was executed perfectly,” her sports director, Anna van der Breggen commented after the stage. Vollering’s body was solid; she moved with ease up the road ahead, answering all the doubters and the drama of the last few days with her physical ability. Silencing it all, she summited the Tourmalet and made a heart with her hands before punching the skies, emerging from the fog as the very, very best. Van Vleuten crossed the line two and a half minutes later. “I’m disappointed,” the Movistar rider said. “I was hoping to have a way better day.”
It’s not just physical abilities between Vollering and Van Vleuten that have changed since last year’s Tour, either. Gone is the Vollering who looked at the older rider in awe and wonder, dreaming of ever reaching the same level as her one day, and in her place is a cold, calculated winner. The type of rider who asks for respect in the peloton, who will refuse to work with Van Vleuten to such an extent that both riders will end up pulling the brakes just to not be the one to back down and allow the other in their slipstream. “I said to her it’s not up to me to ride,” Vollering said of the moment in her post-race press conference.
While it highlighted the reluctant but forced passing of the baton from Van Vleuten to Vollering, today’s stage signified a new era of the sport for other reasons, too.
Sandwiched in between Vollering and Van Vleuten today was Niewidoma of Canyon//SRAM in second place. In fourth was Ashleigh Moolman of AG Insurance-Soudal-Quick Step, less than ten seconds behind Van Vleuten. After Moolman was Juliette Labous from dsm-firmenich, only three seconds further down the road. The gaps were small and close – Vollering was dominant, but this was not the women’s peloton we would have once seen separated by minutes on a mountain like the Tourmalet.
Times are changing and Vollering is leading the charge of a new generation that is at a higher level than ever before – closely matched and hungry to race.
At the top of the mountain, the contrasts between Vollering and Van Vleuten could not have been more stark. One, a rider who is beginning what will likely be the golden years of a glittering career, the other, a rider who will hang up her race wheels at the end of the season and wave goodbye to the peloton for good. It’s part of the sport that riders are made and must move on, but it comes with sadness all the same.
As Van Vleuten hugged her sports directors tearfully in the cold mist on the top of the Tourmalet, it felt like the final chapter to her career was being written. As Vollering shone in yellow and beamed at reporters, it felt like hers was only just beginning.