When Parkhotel-Valkenburg’s Femke Markus won the QOM sprint at the first stage of the Tour de France Femmes she punched the air in victory. The 25-year-old had won just two measly points in the sprint. She’d worked for them, getting in a three-woman break which was given leeway of around 30 seconds by the peloton. The trio began to get reeled in as the QOM point approached – placed just a few metres after Arc de Triomphe, more of a very slight drag than a mountain – but Markus launched a final, late sprint and just held off the chasing pack.
Her salute to the sky as she crossed the line looked unusual and out of place – it was the middle of a 80km stage and Markus hadn’t won. In the men’s Tour de France, we’re used to seeing KOM points casually swept up and the polka dot jersey often isn’t a jersey which is targeted by teams.
But for Markus, winning the QOM sprint meant she would wear the polka dot jersey for at least one day in the Tour de France Femmes. As a young rider from one of the smallest teams in the race, it’s almost certain she won’t take the jersey home at the end of the race when the big climbers come to the fore. But to hold it for even a stage is something to celebrate. She grinned from ear to ear on the podium, “it’s special and unbelievable,” she said after the stage.
Markus’ reaction to her QOM sprint win was symbolic of what the Tour de France Femmes means to the women’s peloton, and how special it is for them to finally get a chance to compete in the iconic event.
Before the race, Team BikeExchange’s Amanda Spratt came down from the podium after the team presentation with tears in her eyes. “Sorry, I was getting emotional up there,” she said to press afterwards. British rider Joscelin Lowden (Team Uno X) shared a similar sentiment.
“I think when you're in it, you have to remember to sort of take a step back and have a look, see what we're doing and what it means to not only to us as riders but for the younger generations coming through the bike riders back home watching, male and female, it's a really big thing,” she said.
Riders young and old were in awe of the Tour de France circus today. Even the likes of Kasia Niewiadoma, having experienced so many races with over ten years experience in the peloton, found the opening stage of the race surreal. “It's nice to feel like we're finally doing it,” she said before the stage. “It's nice that we don't have to wait any longer but we're just about to get things going. It’s not just like daydreaming of racing in Paris one day.”
For riders like Niewiadoma, the Grand Départ of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift comes as a celebration for the years of hard racing that she's have done to prove the women’s peloton to be worthy of such an event. Anna van der Breggen, former world and Olympic champion who now works as a sports director for Team SD Worx, is a prime example of a rider who has constantly paved the way for generations to come in the sport.
“The fact that all the girls now when they're sitting at home, they can watch the Tour de France also for women. I'm just proud of that,” said Van der Breggen at the start of this morning’s race. “Also, it’s a sign to the outside world, women's cycling is here.”
“Sometimes it's hard to find the races to watch, I mean championships, okay, it's on the screen. But this is next level with many countries who are showing it and making programs about it. It’s the next step and I think we can be really proud of it.”
Lorena Wiebes of Team DSM was, of course, the rider who wrote her name into the history books with her historic sprint win on the Champs-Élysées, but the start of the Tour de France Femmes was about more than just the winner of the stage.
Le Col-Wahoo team director, Tom Varney, stood in front of the podium as his rider, Maike van der Duin, was awarded the white jersey as best young rider for her sixth place finish on stage one. Varney cheered and whooped Van der Duin, “what a day,” he exclaimed afterwards. “A really good day.”
Charlotte Kool of Team DSM grinned from ear to ear about being a part of the historic event. There was no win for the young Dutchwoman herself, but she’d helped Wiebes to her victory and understood the gravity of the race she’d been part of. “I really didn’t expect so many people here,” she said afterwards. “Goosebumps.”
The world will discuss Wiebes’ win today, but the performances of riders like Markus, Van der Duin and Kool and their elation at what they have achieved, proves the magic of the Tour de France. Until now, the key to the spell that this race puts on both riders and fans was hidden from the women’s peloton, but today they were invited in to the irresistible world of the Tour. It signified a fresh, new, modern era of cycling, and the momentum will keep building as the race continues.