Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) was always the clear cut favourite to win the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift – fresh from a Giro d’Italia Donne victory and with a well-earned reputation for being virtually unbeatable on the long tough climbs – but earlier in the race it looked like that anticipated ending was about to be re-written.
Ill and being pushed along by teammates as she visibly struggled even on gradients where she normally wouldn’t appear to be drawing breath, the Dutch rider even contemplated abandoning the race she had made the big goal of the year. Recovery, however, came just in time.
“In day two and three it was very hard and I can't believe, with how sick I was, now I am here in the yellow jersey,” Van Vleuten told reporters in the post stage media conference. “Until yesterday I still felt sick, at some point you can start to eat and drink again.
“I dug so deep in stage 2 and 3, being sick and racing, which is awful for your body. I could feel in stage 5 and 6 that my legs still had muscle pain. I was not sure, even on stage 7, that I was recovered from being ill.”
Though it turns out she was not only recovered but also back to her normal formidable climbing form, breaking away early on stage 7 and taking yellow ahead of the final stage to the top of La Super Planche des Belles Filles. She also took a dominant lead of 3:14 in the process, which meant all she needed to do to take victory at the long-awaited return of the Tour de France Femmes was keep a couple of key rivals broadly in check, as only Demi Vollering (SD Worx) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) were within five minutes.
However, riding defensively doesn't come naturally to Van Vleuten, who instead wanted to add to her overall triumph by delivering that goosebump moment of a yellow-clad stage victory on top of the final summit finish.
“When I did the recon of the stage, it was something I told my team that if it were possible I would like to go for the win, with the victory in yellow on the Planche the best way to finish this off,” said Van Vleuten. “It was special – all the spectators cheering my name.”
Van Vleuten came over the line solo, 30 seconds ahead of second-placed Vollering, giving her plenty of time to savour the landmark moment of winning the first official women’s Tour de France in 33 years with a margin at the end of a clear-cut 3:48. There was no mistaking how much this victory meant, with a wide grin comfortably overwhelming the grimace through the final painfully steep metres of the climb and tears of joy in the eyes after the line.
Victory at the return of a women's Tour de France was one for the history books, and the crowd-lined race a pivotal moment in the development of women's cycling.
“Having the Tour de France, you can feel more possibilities are happening, more money is coming into cycling, more live television, more commercial marketers are interested in us. That is how you develop to the point where more and more women have a minimum salary to go full time. To gain more contenders, more fights – not only Dutchies on the podium,” said Van Vleuten, who welcomed the stage victory of Danish rider Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope) on stage 3 as a break to the Dutch domination of the top step at the race.
2023 wishlist – Alpe d’Huez, time trial and no gravel
Van Vleuten said the 2022 edition was a great way to start with a “well balanced” course that was “way harder” than the normal stage races with a big fight for the breaks, jerseys and points adding to the effort. However that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t like to see changes for 2023, which given her plans to retire at the end of that season, is expected to be her last Tour de France Femmes.
“I hope that maybe we will have Alpe d'Huez,” said Van Vleuten. “In the history of the Tour de France Femmes, before, there was also a big battle on Alpe d'Huez and it would be nice to have that back.”
There is also something the 39-year-old would like to see left out.
“Take out the gravel because it's a lot of stress and bad luck for the GC contenders. I don't think that should be part of a stage race, to be decided by bad luck,” said Van Vleuten, who made it safely through the gravel of stage 4 but, like many other GC rivals, had some stressful moments.
One notable absence from the Tour de France Femmes, that is a staple of the men's Grand Tour, was a race against the clock. Not surprisingly that comes at the top of the list of desired additions to the race next year for the Olympic and two-time world champion in the discipline.
“A big Tour needs a time trial," said Van Vleuten. "Our calendar is lacking in time trials. It's an important discipline and I think it's important to have that as part of a Grand Tour like this.
"I hope we can build more and more every year, this event, to be a bigger success.”
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.