Chasing the white jersey: In the team car with Lifeplus-Wahoo at the Tour de France Femmes

Rouleur sat in the team car of Lifeplus-Wahoo during stage four of the Tour de France Femmes as they chased the white jersey, giving an insight into what it is like being a small team in the world's biggest bike race

When I arrive to the Lifeplus-Wahoo team bus in Cahors ahead of stage four at the Tour de France Femmes, Wannabe by the Spice Girls is playing, bidons are being loaded into the cool box in the boot of the car, and the riders are all chatting as they warm up on their turbo trainers. The spirits are high for the British team, and the atmosphere around the bus reflects just that. 

But they have good reason to be feeling happy – they sit second in the young rider classification with Ella Wyllie, and the team’s (and Tour’s) youngest rider came 14th in the bunch sprint on stage three against some of the big dogs in the peloton.

“The finish today really suits the strengths of a rider like Ella, so we will be hoping to gain something from that and gain some time on the white jersey,” Tom Varney, the team manager, tells Rouleur ahead of stage four. He also mentions that he hopes to get some of the riders in the breakaway, but the white jersey is the bigger picture for the team. 

This is echoed around the team as I speak to Typhaine Laurence, Margaux Vigie and Wyllie before they set off on the 177km-long stage, littered with the punchy climbs that have come to define this year’s route. 

“It’s a long stage, so we have to be really careful about food and drink, and of course, we want to be in the breakaway, if there is a breakaway. Then Ella is our main goal, but that is more at the end of the stage. We will just see throughout the day,” Laurance says. 

The clock strikes 12:15pm, and they need to head for the start. Before the riders go, they share quick hugs with their families who have travelled to watch their daughters, sisters, and nieces ride in the world’s biggest race. Some further than others. Wyllie’s mum, dad, and brother have travelled from New Zealand, whereas Vigie’s family have only had to do a short drive with some of her family living in the region. This has attracted several supporters to the Lifeplus-Wahoo bus, including a man who excitedly tells me he must get a selfie with Vigie to send to his family. 

Margaux Vigie's grandparents lived in the area, attracting lots of local fans for the rider (Image by Andy Rogers)

Tom calls my name, pointing to the back seat in the team car where I will be joining himself, the team DS, Malgorzata Jasinska, and Eve, the team mechanic, as they chase the white jersey. As we head for the start line, hundreds of fans cheering on from the sidelines, I ask whether they have enjoyed the first few stages. “If we don’t enjoy being at a race like the Tour de France Femmes, there is no point in us being here,” Varney says. 

As we roll over the neutralised start, it's a fight for the team cars to get in their position, ordered on their standings in the team classification. Lifeplus-Wahoo sits 21st behind St Michel-Mavic-Auber93. Varney turns to Jasinska, who is in the passenger seat, and says, “I hope tomorrow we will be looking at a different car.”

A voice comes through the race radio, officially announcing the start of stage four, and that was it, the car shot off at lightning speed to catch the car in front as the peloton ahead got into racing mode. Varney reminds the riders of their early plans on the first climb over the radio, adding: ”Don’t kill yourself with a break of two or three riders, but a group of five or six will be nice to be in.” With the plan made clear, all there was to do in the car was wait.Ice goes down the rider's jerseys to keep them cool (Image by Andy Rogers)

Plan A: getting in the break

After 10km, race radio announced a 10-strong break had managed to secure a small gap over the peloton. Varney and Jasinska look at each other nervously as they hope at least one of their team is one of those 10 riders. “Are we in the break?” Varney asks over the radio to the riders. Only a crackled answer comes back, leaving us in the car none the wiser. It’s a tense moment. 

With a gap now sitting at one minute and rising, race radio lists the 14 riders who have managed to form the breakaway. As the car eagerly awaits a rider from Lifeplus-Wahoo to be called, their hopes are left diminished – no one from Lifeplus-Wahoo was in the break. “The gap is now one minute forty and looks like a really nice break to be in. Come on girls, keep strong,” Varney says. 

But as the distance between the peloton and the break continues to grow, a sigh comes from Varney, who had hopes on being in the action, but plans don’t always go accordingly. “I am disappointed,” he says when I asked how he was feeling. “But we have a bigger goal, so we will just turn our attention to that now” 

Not all plans go accordingly, and getting in the break on stage four just didn't happen for the Lifeplus-Wahoo team (Image by Charly Lopez/ASO)

Lifeplus-Wahoo are called to front as the riders have requested ice, water and iso to help cool themselves down and keep hydrated as the sun bears down on the region of Cahors. Varney beeps the car’s horn and weaves through the other team cars down the narrow, winding road in the French countryside – giving F1 drivers a run for their money.

When Vigie drops back to the side of the car she exclaims, “Ice for all!” As packs of ice are handed over, she stuffs them all down the back of her jersey, and then continues to put five bidons up the front. Before she leaves to bring her team the goods, she turns and says to Varney and Jasinska, “I am sick of missing the breakaway.” 

“The day is long Margaux, relax,” he replies. 

Plan B: gaining time on the white jersey 

The gap hits 10 minutes and the peloton relaxes as the kilometres tick down on the women’s longest-ever race distance. I use this time to ask Jasinska what it is like being a DS, having been a rider herself for many years, only retiring in 2021. “It's completely different,” she reflects. “When you are a rider you just think about yourself during and after a race, but as the DS, you have everyone to think about.” 

The first sprint comes into view and while there are no points to pick up, the riders need to be aware of any potential attacks and make sure they are keeping tabs on Wyllie’s young rival – Cédrine Kerbaol – who’s currently in the white jersey. 

“Let’s remember the level that we set yesterday [stage three],” Varney says to the riders. “It’s the last 105km now, so start getting your head in the game as the spicy bit is coming.” He puts the radio back, turning to us, laughing: “And I hope they like it hot.” 

The categorised climbs arrive and this is where Wyllie and her teammate Natalie Grinczer get to work. While the GC favourites battle it out ahead of the race, they just need to keep their eyes on Kerbaol. The other riders get dropped as they face the steep ascents in the final 20km, requesting cans of coke as we pass by. But the priority is Ella and Varney puts his foot down to catch up with the bunch. 

Stage four was the longest stage of this year's race (Image by Andy Rogers)

It’s like a rollercoaster in the team car as the road shoots up and then flies down, switching back and winding through the small roads to Rodez. It takes us a good few minutes to catch up with the rest of the team cars, demonstrating just how fast the riders are travelling, even on 9% gradient climbs. 

With 10km to go the race radio announces that the white jersey has been dropped. Glee takes hold in Varney’s and Jasinska’s eyes. Jasinska quickly grabs the radio saying: “Come on girls, this is our opportunity. Keep fighting. You are so strong.” Grabbing her phone, she watches the live stream nervously, but she couldn’t see Wyllie – just the GC battle happening a few metres ahead. 

We receive no news. All we know is who the winner of the stage is as we pull off the course back to the team bus in Rodez. Silence fills the car. 

Back at the bus 

Stepping out of the car after five hours, rain pours in Rodez as the riders arrive back at the bus after another gruelling stage. Varney stands by the bus, digesting all that had just happened. “I think we can be relatively happy with the bigger picture,” he says. “The aim was to be in the breakaway, especially if it was such a big group, but we weren’t able to be present. I’m not really sure why at this point, but we’ll understand that later.” 

Wyllie had gone for a spin on her bike post-race, obviously feeling a bit disappointed in her day. While the team were unaware of what the overall outcome officially was back at the team bus, it was later made aware that while Wyllie still sits in second in the white jersey standings, she did lose time, now 2:45 behind Kerbaol, instead of 1:21, the gap at the start of the day. 

The stage perhaps did not go to plan for the team, but there are plenty more opportunities for the British team (Image by Andy Rogers)

Wyllie reflects on the moment Kerbaol clawed her way back into the race, saying: “I had been in that front group and then, dropped on the descent, so she was around me at that point and then passed me on the descent and I think, got back to the group and then dropped. I was still behind at that point, so didn't quite close the gap to her. But, yeah, there's four more stages to go."

This positive mentality is something that Varney instills in his team and he ensures that overnight the riders go to sleep with a clear mind ready for the next stage. The person we have on the bike is a different person to dinner time,” he adds. 

And this is helped by the close bond the riders in the team have. Before the stage Laurance tells me how much of a family the Lifeplus-Wahoo team are to her, and with the disappointment Wyllie is feeling, this support will be vital in keeping everyone positive in the upcoming stages as the future is the only thing they can change. 

“There was a lot of racing between now and then,” Varney adds before I leave. “We have to take some time back and consider where we can. But, we have to pick our moments also.”

*Cover image by Andy Rogers

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