Annemiek van Vleuten is the bookies’ favourite to win the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. The Dutchwoman has incredible palmarès already: two world championship titles and an Olympic gold medal to name just a few. In the Giro d’Italia Donne a few weeks ago she was untouchable in the general classification fight, taking two stage wins along the way.
The Movistar rider’s climbing ability is what really makes her stand out from her rivals. When the road starts to rise, Van Vleuten seems to just push more and more watts. She doesn’t do it effortlessly, in fact to watch her is almost painful: she shows her effort on her body as she rocks and rolls and on her face as she grits her teeth. Looking at her, it’s almost as if Van Vleuten is constantly struggling on the climbs, yet the gaps behind her just grow out as she labours on, leaving her rivals struggling in her wake.
Elisa Longo Borghini, a rider for Trek-Segafredo, once famously described the Movistar rider as an “alien” due to her superhuman ability to speed up mountains. For the Italian, and many riders who are targeting yellow in the inaugural edition of the Tour de France Femmes, Annemiek van Vleuten is the biggest obstacle in their path to claiming yellow atop La Super Planche des Belles Filles when the race comes to a close on Sunday. The question on everyone’s lips is: how can we beat the best climber in the world?
“She has not shown many weaknesses so far, as you know. There's a little bit of hope that she might have a bad day, like everyone might sometimes have in a Tour, she's human,” said Ronny Lauke, team director for Canyon//SRAM racing. The German team has Kasia Niewiadoma in their ranks, a serious contender for the overall in this race
“We can put the pressure on from the team side with the team that we have chosen here, because the majority of the riders we brought, they excel better in undulating or hilly areas. We want to try our strategy through the depth of the team and have an aggressive race style,” continued Lauke. It’s a strategy which has paid off so far – Niewiadoma finished third on stage two of the race and gained time on Van Vleuten in the process.
For Niewiadoma herself, the key to getting the better of the Dutch rider is putting her out of mind completely. “I’m not focusing on her. I think I know that she's a favourite and she's proved herself so much so many times but anything can happen,” said the Polish rider ahead of stage one. “I feel like the less we think about our opponents the better we perform, we don't want to focus on them but focus on the victory.”
Canyon//SRAM isn’t the only team looking to capitalise on strength in numbers when it comes to beating Van Vleuten.
"We are here with a really strong team with experienced girls and it depends if there is a stage where there is a lot of wind, our girls know how to do it,” said Team SD Worx sports director and former professional Anna van der Breggen ahead of stage one on Sunday. Van der Breggen has gone head-to-head with Van Vleuten multiple times in the hills and is aware of the 39-year-old’s psyche. She knows how Van Vleuten's style changes as she begins to suffer, and this could be an asset to the team she directs in the mountains.
“It’s the same with gravel, they all can ride on gravel, when you have a lot of girls in front they can play the game a bit. If there is an opportunity to gain some time on GC then we will go for it,” continued Van der Breggen. “Ashleigh [Moolman] and Demi [Vollering] are feeling good so hopefully on the climbs they can come close at least. Hopefully even better, but you always have to see.”
Lots of teams are referencing the gravel-style stage four as a key factor in deciding this race’s GC. “I don’t think the race can be won there, but it can be lost,” explained Trek-Segafredo sports director and former professional rider Ina Yoko-Teutenberg. “People can have mechanicals and there are other tricky finishing circuits. It’s six days to get to the mountains and it will be a pretty nervous week until then.”
The general consensus is that while Van Vleuten may not be beaten in the mountains, the mountains may not decide the overall outcome of the Tour de France Femmes. There are some tough stages to come until they hit the final hilly days and, as the men’s Tour de France taught us, anything can happen in this crazy race. Van Vleuten’s Movistar team don’t have the strength in the mountains compared to the likes of SD Worx, and if she finds herself isolated at crunch time, it will be dangerous for the Dutchwoman.
This dynamic is surely a tough one for Van Vleuten to get past as she approaches the final stages of the Tour and will be something she’s considering more and more as the days tick by. For us as fans, it’s time to grab the popcorn, as the battle for yellow is going to be furious.