It might only have featured a series of short, punchy climbs rather than the mountains to come later in the week, but on stage three the likely candidates for overall victory at the Tour de France Femmes fully emerged.
Ten riders made it to the finish in Épernay together, and those same riders now occupy the top ten places on GC. It seems fair to say that the eventual winner of the yellow jersey was among them.
In full, those riders were: stage winner Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope), the yellow jersey Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma), the SD Worx duo of Demi Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman, Giro Donne podium finisher Mavi García (UAE Team ADQ), established stars Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon//SRAM), emerging talents Silvia Persico (Valkar Travel & Service) and Juliette Labous (DSM), and overall favourite Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar).
The obvious candidate for victory from that selection prior to today was of course Van Vleuten, but her status as overwhelming favourite has been seriously compromised by the bombshell that she is currently suffering from illness.
It was clear something was up with the Dutchwoman when she was dropped on the final climb of the day. Though she dug deep to make her way back up on the descent, the uphill rise to the finish was still enough for her to slip 20 seconds behind Ludwig.
(Image: A.S.O./Fabien Boukla)
It emerged after the stage that she’s been struggling with a stomach infection ever since the evening following Saturday’s opening stage in Paris. That helps explain why she wasn’t alert to the dangerous attack that went clear that day, and why two days into the race she finds herself 1-14 adrift from overall leader Marianne Vos on GC.
But have the other favourites missed their chance to really put the sword into her GC chances? A relaxed-looking Van Vleuten explained at the finish how, although she has been suffering for the last few days, she now feels as though the worst is behind her.
She appeared bullish in the post-race interview, explaining how she had had “an awesome day, compared to yesterday,” on which occasion “losing only one minute was a big achievement.”
It almost sounded like she was taunting everyone for missing the opportunity to gain even more time on her. When it comes to what a fully-fit Van Vleuten could do in the Vosges mountains, 1-14 really doesn’t sound like that much.
But it could also be that Van Vleuten is putting on a brave face in an attempt to discourage her rivals. Key to surviving a stage race while you’re suffering is to bluff your way through it and not let on to your rivals that now is a good time for them to attack. Van Vleuten managed to keep her illness a secret yesterday, but it was clear today that something was wrong, prompting her to explain what she’s been through these past few days.
Even if she is now on the mend, her performance today was still far from her best, suggesting she might be vulnerable during tomorrow’s hard day on the gravel roads.
She’ll therefore surely be bracing herself for attacks on tomorrow’s intriguing-looking gravel stage to Bar-Sur-Aube.
So far, Vos, Persico, Niewiadoma and Borghini have made the most time gains, getting into yesterday’s breakaway and making the selection today. Although they all already have around a minute on Van Vleuten, they may sense an opportunity to extend that tomorrow if it appears the Dutchwoman is still struggling, and early attacks to really maximise their gains could be on the cards.
Unlike the other three, Vos might not have the long-term GC as her priority. But given her aggressive instincts, and the possibility of more stage wins if she can again distance sprinting rivals like Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx), Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) and Loreno Wiebes (DSM), then she’ll likely contribute to any attacking moves that are made.
(Image: A.S.O./Fabien Boukla)
The SD Worx duo of Demi Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman aren’t so well positioned, having finished yesterday in the peloton, but by both making the 10-woman selection today they made SD Worx the only team to have multiple representatives. This numerical advantage could really reap rewards if tomorrow's stage throws up the kind of chaos and drama we’re anticipating.
Of the others, Labous and García might have more modest ambitions than the rest, although García did climb very well up the day’s hardest hill, the Côte de Mutigny, where Labous was temporarily dropped (along with Ludwig and Vos).
As for stage winner Ludwig, in winning today she showed no signs of any linger ill-effects from yesterday’s crash. In this kind of form she can’t yet be discounted from overall contention, but the 1-48 she currently trails Vos by is a significant amount of time to make up already.
That said, 1-48 is small fry compared with the kind of time gaps tomorrow has the potential to cause. There may be ten riders looking in overall contention going into that stage, but that number could be significantly reduced by its climax.
Cover image by Getty Images