Marlen Reusser (SD Worx) soloed to victory on stage 4 of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift after a day of high tension and many mechanical mishaps on the gravel roads of Champagne.
The four sectors of rough, white gravel duly caused chaos but Reusser took advantage of a moment of calm to launch a canny attack on the tarmac between the penultimate and final sectors.
Despite a fierce acceleration from Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) on the final sector, and counter-attacks on the two remaining climbs on the run-in, Reusser extended her lead all the way to the finish in Bar-sur-Aube.
She pointed to her jersey and raised her arms aloft as she crossed the line more than a minute ahead of anyone else.
Evita Muzic (FDJ-SUEZ Futuroscope) claimed second place in a sprint from a chasing trio, with Alena Amialusik (Canyon-SRAM) taking third place ahead of Veronica Ewers (EF Education-EasyPost).
Race leader Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) led home the 20-rider group of general classification contenders at 1:40 to defend her overall lead.
In the end, the pre-race favourites finished together, with Mavi García (UAE Team ADQ) the biggest loser on a nightmare day that saw her puncture twice, ride teammates' bikes, and then get hit by her own team car while trying to chase back on.
Other key names to puncture included Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-SUEZ Futuroscope), and Niewiadoma. Longo Borghini even finished on the rainbow bike of her teammate Elisa Balsamo, the world champion coming to her leader's rescue on the final sector before Ellen van Dijk dragged her - and Van Vleuten - back into contention in the finale.
Most of the big names - minus García - were back in the yellow jersey group of 20 riders by that point and they neutralised each other come the finish, but Reusser had already taken flight.
Amialusik had attacked as that group reformed on the tarmac, and she soon had company, first from Muzic and then from Ewers, who shot across the gap on the last of six short climbs on the 126km route. However, they were no match for Reusser, who only sailed further into the distance on the final climb before dipping down into Bar-sur-Aube and savouring her success in the final kilometre.
"The team had the plan to make a hard race and not let it come down to an easy final. We would attack and one would go, and I was lucky it was me," Reusser said.
"We have our GC leaders, we always keep them in front, but then this team always has an aggressive and open race strategy. Everyone is allowed to do something. I was really the lucky one who could go today, so I'm really thankful."
How it unfolded
On what promised to be a hectic second half of the stage, the riders didn't allow themselves a calm beginning. Despite flat and tarmacked roads, the race took a long time to settle. There were some dangerous names among the early breakaway attempts. First the World Champion Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) got herself into in a 25-rider move that was soon stamped out by Movistar. Then the yellow jersey herself, Vos, threatened to slip away - another one that was soon stamped out.
After just over 40km, a breakaway did form, with three riders moving clear: Coralie Demay (St. Michel-Auber 93), Laura Asencio (Ceratizit-WNT) and Valerie Demey (Liv Racing Xstra). They established a lead of three minutes by the intermediate sprint at kilometre-60, where Demey took maximum points before Wiebes made green jersey gains from the bunch.
That was all a preamble, and it was soon time for the gravel, with the first of four sectors coming with just under 60km to go. The first one - the 2300-metre Chemin Blanc de Celles - came at the top of the day's first categorised climb, the cat-3 Côte de Celles-sur-Ource - 1.1km at 8.9%.
The breakaway trio hit the climb with a lead of 90 seconds but Demey was dropped towards the top as Demay pipped Asencio to the mountains points, and the pair continued onto the gravel. Back down the road, Movistar led the peloton onto the gravel and an already-stretched bunch began to split and reduce. There were no attacks or decisive splits but the bunch did reduced to around 30 riders, although a lull back on the tarmac saw it expand once again.
With 50km to go came the next difficulties and once again the second gravel sector was preceded immediately by the Côte de Val de Clos climb, this one viciously steep, with an average gradient of 8.8% over 900 metres but double-digit pitches near the top.
Demay sprang out of the saddle to drop Asencio and go it alone onto the 3200-metre gravel sector of Hautes Forets. Behind, the peloton exploded on the steep climb, with Strade Bianche champion Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) among the big names dropped.
He teammate Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio led over the top before teammate Reusser took over, with Vos isolated but ever-vigilant in third wheel. Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo) came to the fore for the gravel, where the race remained relatively calm. The bunch was reduced to 30 riders but once again swelled after a lull on the other side, with Kopecky coming back.
The third sector was where the chaos began. Demay's solo adventure came to an end, and soon it started raining punctures. Stage 3 winner Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-SUEZ Futuroscope) was the first in trouble, getting a wheel change from a teammate before clawing her way back, at the same time as García drifted back to get a bike change. SD Worx were piling on the pressure as the gravel track tilted uphill, and things really stretched out. On exit, Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) had to get a bike change as well, although another regrouping allowed her, Uttrup Ludwig, and García to regain contact as the peloton swelled to 50 riders.
Reusser anticipated with an attack ahead of the final sector at Vitry, which was also preceded by a nasty cat-4 climb - 900m at 6.9%. Niewiadoma accelerated on the incline and led the bunch onto the 3000-metre sector 20 seconds behind Reusser.
There were more punctures to come, with García flatting again and having to grab teammate Erica Magnaldi's bike. Soon after, Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) and Balsamo also fell victim to mechanical issues. Up ahead, Niewiadoma continued to face the issue with a blistering sustained acceleration.
Reusser led back onto the tarmac with 17km to go with a lead of just under half a minute over a group of 12 riders led by Niewiadoma and Vos. SD Worx had their leaders there but a rider up the road, so they didn't chase. Canyon-SRAM had two with Niewiadoma but chose to send Amialusik on the attack, while Van Dijk dragged the dropped Longo Borghini - plus Van Vleuten and others - back to make a group of 25.
Behind, there were more troubles for García, who was hit by her team car while trying to chase back. Despite falling on her shoulder, she remounted and continued, but waved goodbye to any hope of winning the stage or finishing in the yellow jersey group.
Heading into the final 10km, with two punchy climbs still remaining, Reusser extended her lead to 35 seconds as Muzic hunted down and linked up with Amialusik. The Côte des Bergeres (1.7km at 5.1%) carried bonus seconds and Reusser led over the top as Ewers attacked to make it a chasing trio at 45 seconds, with the yellow jersey group 20 seconds further back.
The final climb in the last 5km was the cat-4 Côte du Val Perdu (1.8 km at 4%) and Reusser didn't falter, extending her lead to over a minute and making victory a formality.
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