Annemiek van Vletuen won stage five of the Giro d’Italia Donne by three minutes in 2019. Her attack was so dominant that her competitors simply couldn’t do anything about it. After the stage, Elisa Longo Borghini said that when she saw the Dutchwoman make her move, she just thought “the alien has gone, now the race for the human beings.”
These race-winning, long range solo attacks aren’t uncommon in women’s cycling. In 2018, Anna van der Breggen won the Road World Championships in Innsbruck three minutes and 42 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. Longo Borghini won the longest standing women’s WorldTour race, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, by nearly two minutes in 2021.
A few years ago, we would rarely see a variety of riders competing for the victory at the pointy end of races. Teams like SD Worx (formerly Boels-Dolmans) would take the spoils in the majority of the biggest events, as much of the peloton looked to be riding to simply make up the numbers – finishing races would be an achievement. Winning, beating the “aliens” among them, wasn’t a realistic aim.
While the strength in depth in women’s cycling has been growing for a long time, the inaugural Tour de France Femmes has exhibited just how far the sport has come on the biggest stage. On stage three, the winning breakaway, which went clear with around 20 kilometres remaining, was made up of 11 riders. Ten different teams were represented in that group. On stage four, Marlen Reusser was able to secure a solo stage win, but the rest of the top-10 were, once again, made up of eight different teams.
It’s something the riders are noticing too, especially those who are tasked with controlling the race and working largely in a domestique role. “I think it's a good thing, it’s nice and surprising,” Trek-Segafredo’s Ellen van Dijk told Rouleur before the start of stage four. “It's not like there's one right there or one team that's dominating, not at all.”
Christine Majerus, who rides for Team SD Worx and does a similar job to Van Dijk in the bunch, shares this sentiment. “A few years ago, we had two or three very good riders who dominated everything and in the end, it was always the same rider winning, which is not the case now. That's a sign that it's going in the right direction, and everyone can make progress being professional,” she told Rouleur.
The tight-fought GC battle we have seen so far at this Tour de France and the number of riders gunning for stage victories is an indication of the increasing professionalism in the sport. “It’s showing that we're really progressing and cycling, the level is getting better and better every year,” said stage three winner, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. “The lead outs, it's just getting more and more professional and I think it's showing how good women's cycling is becoming and how many good riders are represented.”
Women’s cycling has long been exciting to watch, but the increased number of riders able to compete for the win is a big step forward for the sport. It’s making it harder for dominating attacks or for one team to monopolise the spotlight. Not only does this give more riders a chance to show their sponsors, it also makes the racing more dynamic, varied and gripping.