At the finish of stage seven of the Tour de France Femmes, there was an anticlimactic feeling in the air. Riders crossed the line in dribs and drabs, exhausted, shattered and, mostly, disappointed. Elisa Longo Borghini sat on the tarmac sobbing, consoled by soigneurs. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig gave short, blunt answers to journalists, a far cry from the elation she’d shown a few days earlier after her victory on stage three.
“I did everything that I could and I think the rest of them did also, she was just stronger. So congrats to her.” Uttrup Ludwig said wryly after the line, shrugging her shoulders. The Dane finished third on the stage, outsprinting Kasia Niewiadoma and Juliette Labous in a three-up sprint.
Niewiadoma appeared a little more chirpy when questioned, but she still had an air of helplessness in her answers. “Annemiek is beyond our capacity, let’s say,” explained Canyon//SRAM rider.
Van Vleuten’s attack came with still 85 kilometres remaining of the stage which contained over three thousand metres of elevation gain. The only rider who could follow the Olympic time trial champion when she launched her move was SD Worx’s Demi Vollering. The 25-year-old hung on to Van Vleuten’s rear wheel until they were close to the summit of the second of three major climbs, with over 60 kilometres still remaining. From then, Vollering time trialled to the line, aiming solely to limit her losses to Van Vleuten who ended up winning with a three and a half minute advantage.
Vollering expressed after the stage that Van Vleuten’s performance was largely unfathomable. “That's not normal. I said to her it's not normal what you did. She said: I have so much more training experience and experience overall [than you]. She said to me that it will come to me, so let's hope.”
Image: ASO/Fabian Boukla
Van Vleuten is 14 years Vollering’s senior, and has been in the professional peloton since 2008. When asked by the press why she has such an advantage over her competitors on these long, mountain stages, Van Vleuten put this down to age, too.
“It’s something that comes with years. I want to make it really clear that sometimes my colleagues get comments that they should train as much as I do, but that’s not possible,” said the Dutchwoman. “That’s something that’s just a process with years. I’m 39 years old so for me it’s possible to train for so many hours but that’s not because I suddenly [could do that], it’s just a process of many years. Every year you can do 5-10% more hours. That makes my engine really big and that makes my fitness level really high, then if you have a stage like this that is super, super crazy hard, then I know that I can do it from the first climb.”
As the women’s WorldTour calendar has additional stage races added to it – the women’s edition of the Vuelta a España is planned to span eight stages next year – we can expect to see an increased number of tough, mountainous routes, similar to what we witnessed today on stage seven of the Tour de France Femmes. So is Annemiek van Vleuten going to ride away in all of them? Is there anything that her rivals can do when it comes to the long climbs to beat her?
“I think only when she retires, then we will have a bit more fight for the win but she's just stronger than the rest. Only when she's sick can we beat her,” said Juliette Labous of Team DSM who finished fourth on today’s stage. “She's just on top of everyone. I don't know. When I'm sick. I'm mostly just not performing, especially in a stage race. I think it's hard to recover from it. So it's just impressive what she does. Probably she has something in her body that allows her to be stronger and to train really hard. Like if I look at her Strava file, I cannot train as much as she does.”
Image: ASO/Thomas Maheux
While Van Vleuten has confirmed that she will retire at the end of next season, the fact her key rivals have a sense of helplessness paints a slightly bleak picture for the next year of women’s stage racing when it heads into the high mountains. Up until now, the fight for stage wins at the Tour de France Femmes has been exciting, nail biting and great to watch, but today’s stage neutralised any potential showdown for the yellow jersey on the final stage on La Planche des Belles Filles tomorrow.
Although Van Vleuten’s strength is admirable, and it does instil a sense of amazement among cycling fans when she puts in a performance like she did today, it is at risk of becoming predictable and monotonous. In the current iteration of the women's WorldTour peloton, stages that have such elevation gain aren't making races interesting to watch. Van Vleuten herself acknowledged this at this in her interview after today’s stage: “I would love to race next year on the Alpe d’Huez but if that causes it to be less interesting for people to watch then maybe not,” she said. “The importance is not where we are, it’s really that we put on a good show and an interesting fight.”
The future of women’s cycling is undeniably bright, and the stages we’ve seen so far in this race have been gripping and unpredictable. Shorter climbs and punchy routes have been the perfect stage for tight-fought battles, and it might have been better to end the Tour de France Femmes with more of these. Overall, though, it’s fair to say that the yellow jersey will leave this race on the shoulders of purely the strongest rider in the race, and maybe that means the Tour de France Femmes has achieved its purpose.