One day before the start of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, Marta Cavalli is at ease and happy to be in Clermont-Ferrand, the home of the Grand Départ.
“I’m excited and at the same time relaxed,” Cavalli says, arms crossed and smiling, after getting her headshot taken. “No pressure. It’s the best way to go into the race.”
When she lined up for the Femmes in 2022 Cavalli was an outside favourite for the overall competition. FDJ-Suez had been clear before the race that Cavalli would be riding in support of Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, who had ridden for Cavalli at the Giro Donne two weeks before. Cavalli finished second overall at that Giro, but a result like that always puts a target on your back, so in Paris Cavalli felt the pressure, mostly from inside herself.
Her race came to a premature end.
With 25 km to go on stage 2, with a solo rider ahead of the race, there was a crash in the peloton, the second in just a few kilometres. Cavalli was behind the crash and slowed so as to avoid the entanglement, but a rider came from behind and collided with Cavalli. The whole thing was horrific to watch.
It took months for the Italian to return to the peloton. She only lined up to race again in October at the 1.Pro Giro dell’Emilia, where she finished sixth.
The start of 2023 was also not what Cavalli would have hoped for.
“It was very hard to feel good in the race,” Cavalli said of the 2023 season so far. “To feel a good shape, good legs. In the beginning, we understood something was wrong or something went wrong during the preparation. And we had to stop many times to make the point and change the plans.
“I think we did a good job because, without pressure, we were able to come back. And now at one point, you say, ‘OK, now we have to race as much as possible, because only the race can allow me to come back to my best level.'”
At Tour Féminin Pyrénées, Cavalli won the second stage atop the Hautacam, taking the overall lead despite the race being cancelled amid safety concerns. Her form was coming back around, just in time.
“I’m proud because we work really, really hard on a lot of sides: performance, tactics, materials, and now I can say, ‘OK, maybe I’m not in my best shape, but I’m really close’,” Cavalli said. “When I went back in February, I hit a big gap between me and the best riders.
“Our goal now is to keep a good mood to have constant improvement, don’t think a lot about the others or about what was last year, because every season is different. We take what we have, and we don’t do other things, because what we can do we did, and we will see.”
After coming into the inaugural Femmes with a target on her back, and in an attempt to keep the pressure manageable, Cavalli claims she will not be going for the general classification this week. Instead she will manage her energy with only one stage in mind: the seventh stage to the Col du Tourmalet.
“Last year I race every time with a lot of pressure from myself and I burn my mind I think,” Cavalli said. “I spent a lot of energy, unnecessary energy, thinking about the race, but we learned that if I have good shape and good legs the result will come.”
Cavalli’s ready for her legs to do the talking, with or without the pressure she feels after her string of success the previous season.
“When we climb or when the road gets harder we can’t really hide I have the legs,” Cavalli said. “I think I learned this important lesson from last year.”
While Cavalli is feeling less pressure this time around, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have goals for the week. There’s that Tourmalet stage Cavalli is targeting for herself, depending on the team situation going into the day, but above all, her goals revolve around the team and their leaders, Uttrup Ludwig and Grace Brown.
“We target the seventh stage because the long climb really suits me, but at the same time, if I feel good [then] I go for each opportunity,” Cavalli said when asked if any of the stages stood out to her. “It’s important for me to be on the side of my leaders and do the job for the team and after we will think about my performance.”
At the end of the day, being at the 2023 Tour de France Femmes is already a win for Cavalli. It’s been a long road back since that crash on stage 2 last year but she is looking forward to writing a new story in this year’s Femmes.
“I feel lucky because this is a second chance and at the same time I would like to think this is my first Tour de France because I want to write a new story and make the Tour de France a good memory,” she said. “Last year was a big failure, not by my fault, and we spent one year forgetting this Tour de France and now we can write anew.”
Cavalli’s new story at the Tour de France starts on Sunday when she will line up with the best of women’s cycling in Clermont-Ferrand, and after the whistle blows she will see where the race takes her. But make sure to watch on stage 7 for that FDJ-Suez kit with the Italian flag of a former national champion around the cuffs, because when she’s set her mind to something Cavalli is still one of the best in the peloton.
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