Time disappears around switchbacks. It tucks into the leaves of trees, the hills interspersed with fields interspersed with the sandy faces of rock. By the time we reach the finish, there are five climbs left in the hills, golden and green, and damp with slight rain. The gap to the two women in the breakaway, Georgia Williams and Hannah Ludwig, is vanishing by the second. This is a very 60-kilometers-to-go situation. Here in the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, there are analogies being drawn towards the lumpy profile of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but more sinister, as it could also be a day for the general classification.
It could be, as the saying goes, the day the Tour de France cannot be won, but rather lost. Hence, the peloton is antsy. SD Worx-Protime and Movistar eye everything that transpires in front and around them. The two breakaway companions look over their shoulders, see the advancing mass of quivering wheels and the attached rainbow of riders and shake hands.
A lot happens at the foot of the climb. Alison Jackson and Špela Kern crash. Agnieszka Skalniak-Sójka, the Polish time trial champion, and Evita Muzic take a dig at the front and are caught. More attacks, each of which is snapped up. It’s strung out. Julie Van de Velde is tired of company. She sets out alone.
In the back, defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten and teammate Liane Lippert are both down. Movistar drop down to help pick them back up – it’s an unfortunate crash but not day-ending. The nerves are at this point palpable, they are discerned by the pace and the impatience for deviation from the plan of all riding together. Van de Velde snags the Queen of the Mountain points, which is what she wants. It’s the Tour after all! Then it’s together, apart, together, apart again, and together. After all this tugging, Soraya Paladin, Yara Kastelijn, and Anouska Koster form a trio at the front, finally.
No one is happy with that. No one is happy with anything. They will not be happy until they run out of road. They make contact with the three up front. Of course they do. Kastelijn won’t have it. She pulls off, uses that explosive power necessary in the discipline I know her better from: cyclocross. This spites the peloton again who want no more escapees. The race is all within the same picture back up the hill, under the dark, menacing sky. Forty-one kilometers. One out front becomes three. Koster again, Eva Van Agt, and yes, Yara Kastelijn. The long shot is not favorable to them, but they are pulling something out, a half a minute. A minute.
The peloton froths. Only at 25 kilometers to go do things destabilize again. Juliette Labous, the DSM-Firmenich GC contender who lost a minute and a half yesterday to heat exhaustion, wants to make some of that time back. But SD Worx, in particular Marlen Reusser, is not interested in letting important riders up the road. Through this adversarial relationship between two points in space, the gap shrinks to half what it was. Kastelijn reveals her hand at wanting the QOM points. The women fan across the road again. The gap goes out slightly. It’s time to leave to go outside where it is raining, coldly, bitterly.
By the time I get to the finish, the three up front are still there and they have 48 seconds at 11 km to go. The breakaway calculus is working its magic – 6.9 km with 33 seconds is when it starts to tip away towards the peloton. During this time, there are a series of crashes caused by slickness mixed with tarmac mixed with missing slivers of attention. These are long kilometers. It takes until five to go for Kastelijn & Koster to return to the folds of the peloton, after Van Agt crashes out heavily. It’s a bold effort on their part. Meanwhile, on the top of the climb the crowd is somber because of the rain. Spectators stand with umbrellas and ponchos, in their small town of Mauriac, which is the kind of sleepy place where this is perhaps the most exciting thing to transpire in a while.
The walk up the hill past the busses feels longer than it is because it is cold. The rain comes and goes, which is the worst kind of rain. We all wait like sheep in it, team staff setting up trainers or watching on the same televisions as the press, cheering their riders on quietly under their breath. Don’t work for her, one soigneur says of Canyon-SRAM’s Kasia Niewiadoma, who rides alongside Reusser. Niewiadoma, as though she can hear the advice through the screen, backs off after the crest of a climb.
What develops and congeals in the end is contrary to the GC day prediction, which is to say, it is a reduced bunch sprint. A large group forms of the favorites, among them yellow jersey Lotte Kopecky, Elisa Longo Borghini, Van Vleuten, Lippert, Niewiadoma, Demi Vollering, a who’s who of potential winners. The hills did not succeed in separating anything except the breakaway from its own source of self–propelling energy.
In the antepenultimate kilometer, attacks fly and are picked off one by one. Reusser has a dig, and suddenly SD Worx has a perfect situation, and try to assert themselves into their usual position of dominance. But when the road narrows, the peloton is forced together, and together they must go as one through to the line. Across the road the women fan, starting their sprint. Some are instantly recognizable. Kopecky, Silvia Persico, and maybe Van Vleuten. In fact, a lot of people say Van Vleuten before it turns out that Movistar jersey on the tiny television screen is German national champion Lippert – their kits just look similar, multicolor stripes on white fields. As soon as the sound of wheels hits the air, everyone scatters to be where they are required.
At the start in Clermont-Ferrand, when it was that peculiar mix of gray and sunny, the crowds poured in on a sleepy Monday. Children watched by the barriers. Little girls in freebie bucket hats watched big girls on bikes. Amateur photographers and amateur cyclists snapped around corners. Interested citizens and bystanders milled around. It is most certainly the Tour de France. It looks and feels like the Tour de France, despite what the detractors may say.
As insipid as it is, it is my first Tour de France, again. I feel about as clueless as I did in my first men’s Tour. I don’t know any of the press officers and everyone seems to know one another already from way back when, there’s just more women here which I can’t help but find reassuring, though this is a topic I keep to myself. Walking around I ask for riders too above my status as a neophyte. But this chaos at the end of the race, this gnashing mix, this feels familiar – it is the same traffic jam that leaves you wide-eyed and frustrated every single day.
The women come in looking absolutely rough. Wet, shivering, tired. They weave through spectators and journalists and down the hill to their busses where they are desperate for new clothes. They wipe their foreheads with towels. They look for the rollers. As they disappear into where they are going to go, the streets quiet. It’s not the kind of day one spends outside longer than they have to. Reusser rolls down to her SD Worx camp in her Swiss national champion’s kit. She tries to get on the rollers but the bus is parked on an incline and gravity is counterintuitive to the process. She laughs and says, “I’ll just go around a bit.” The DS asks, after she’s already off, “do you have enough clothes?” Eventually she comes back after her cool down jaunt and confirms that the day was by no means easy.
“Yeah, it was cold first, it was hot, and it was cold,” she jokes. “I actually thought now we have to win. When I left the gap to these four, like with Demi leading out Lotte, I thought that Lotte was gonna make it. But she had a flat tire, she lost it like this. Very nice for Lippert. She’s nice. It’s cool. But yeah, for us I was surprised because I thought, ‘Yeah, we get this.’”
Hannah Ludwig from Uno-X, the rider in the earliest breakaway alongside Georgia Williams, was also one of the few riders looking happy to be in the duck weather. “Oh, [the breakaway] was really nice,” she says. “We had a good rhythm Georgia and I, and I think we thought after the first mountain points that we would get caught. But then it actually went longer than I thought. I’m happy today,” she confirms, smiling.
But perhaps no one is happier in such unhappy weather than Liane Lippert. The German national champion – to date her only win so far this year – has been waiting, in her words, “a very, very long time” to win a race at the caliber of a stage at the Tour de France. Her best results in Liège (8th), Amstel Gold Race (3rd), and Fleche Wallonne (2nd this year) hinted at today, a very Ardennes-style day, put it in the crosshairs of her possibilities. In the press room, she’s grinning from ear to ear. When asked what’s next for her, she says, “I want to win the classics,” she says. “That’s my next goal.”
The classics. All of them.
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