The headline story from day two of the Tour de France Femmes was of course Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) taking the yellow jersey. The sight of her wearing the iconic garment on the podium was one that has been many years in the making; as the greatest the sport has ever seen, it wouldn’t have quite felt right if she’d have retired without ever getting to wear yellow at a proper Tour de France; and as such a great ambassador for the sport who did so much to bring this race into being, it was only fitting that she should play a starring role in it.
However, amid the romance of Vos’ achievement, we shouldn’t lose sight of just how significant a stage this could be in terms of the long-term fate of the yellow jersey.
Vos is not expected to take the yellow jersey all the way to the finish at La Super Planche des Belles Filles next weekend. She no longer has the climbing legs she once did, and does not target the overall classification at stage races any more. Although she’ll fancy her chances of defending in the mixture of rolling, flat and gravel stages in the coming days, the two big mountain stages in the Vosges on Saturday and Sunday will surely be where the pure climbers take over.
But the other riders who accompanied her in the six-woman group that went clear from the peloton 20km from the finish all had the long term GC in mind — in particular the Trek-Segafredo pair of Elisa Longo Borghini and Elisa Balsamo, who executed what appeared to be a premeditated plan to perfection.
Twenty kilometres from the finish, just after the day’s intermediate sprint, Balsamo launched herself out of the peloton, with her GC leader Borghini on her wheel. Rather than contest for the sprint and advance her own position in the points classification, the Italian instead invested her energy in propelling her leader up the road in an apparent attempt to catch Borghini’s GC rivals off guard and gain some time.
Ultimately, the move worked exceptionally. Working well with fellow escapees Vos, Silvia Persico (Valcar Travel & Service), Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and Maike van der Duin (Le Col-Wahoo), and following some huge self-sacrificial turns from Balsamo (she might have been expected to contest for the stage win in the sprint), Borghini ultimately gained half a minute over the rest of her GC rivals.
Crucially, among those GC rivals to lose 30 seconds was Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar). Given her dominance in recent years, and in light of her comfortable recent overall victory at the Giro Donne, Van Vleuten is the overwhelming favourite to win the yellow jersey, and that surely prompted Trek-Segafredo to come up with something imaginative to put her on the back foot.
The decisive moment in the stage therefore occurred at the 20km mark, and those who made the right call to follow Balsamo earned their success as much through smart racing instinct as through strong legs.
In terms of the stage win, it was Vos’ quick-thinking act to follow this move that ultimately brought her success. Whereas her sprinting rivals Lorena Wiebes (DSM) and Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) sat up and held back, Vos improvised and marked the move, at first just following wheels, but then, realising the group had a real chance of staying clear, fully committing and helping it succeed, before comfortably beating them all in the sprint.
For Niewiadoma and Persico, like Borghini, it was a smart ploy to gain some time on the GC, and might be a sign for how the stages prior to the mountainous weekend are likely to play out. All of these riders know they’re unlikely to beat Van Vleuten if they just wait for a straightforward showdown in the mountains. By going out and attacking her now, they might just give themselves a fighting chance of beating her.
With Niewiadoma having placed second at the Giro Donne in 2020, and Persico climbing excellently to place seventh at this year’s edition earlier this month, both of these riders are certainly threats to Van Vleuten on the GC, if not quite as potent as Borghini.
While these riders were out in front, the GC contenders in the peloton had the additional hazard of crashes to worry about. It was absolute carnage towards the end of the stage as nerves swept through the peloton, and many riders hit the ground hard.
Worst off was the FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope team. Going into this race, the dilemma was whether they should back Cecile Uttrup Ludwig, as initially planned, or to give Marta Cavalli protected status following her brilliant second-place finish at the Giro Donne. However, the options are far more limited now, as Cavalli abandoned following a horrible crash, while Ludwig also conceded 1-38. With Évita Muzic also crashing late on and Grace Brown finishing over three minutes adrift, the team will need to regroup and have a rethink as to how to approach the rest of the Tour, although Ludwig’s losses were not terminal and she may still be a factor on GC.
BikeExchange-Jayco were the other big losers, with two-time Giro Donne stage winner and possible GC candidate Kristen Faulkner losing 3-48, and Amanda Spratt’s rotten run of luck continuing as she lost 9-52 following a crash.
In this context, SD Worx can perhaps see this stage as a day survived rather than one in which they lost time to some rivals, as, despite both missing the Borghini move, Demi Vollering and her deputy Ashleigh Moolman made it to the finish unscathed, with the former even gaining five seconds on Van Vleuten.
If this stage is to set the tone for the GC of the Tour to come, we’re in for a thriller.