It’s been a full year in the making since Annemiek van Vleuten left Demi Vollering in the dust to win the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. Vollering was emotional atop Le Super Planche des Belles Filles; second was a strong performance from the Dutchwoman, but she wanted one better.
Van Vleuten would go on to stamp her dominance on not only La Vuelta later in the season, but also the World Championships.
The new season was a reset and from the go, it was Vollering on top. When the rivals lined up against each other at La Vuelta, to lean on an overused phrase, you could cut the tension with a knife.
Perhaps that’s when the mind games started. Van Vleuten knew after Vollering won all three Ardennes Classics that La Vuelta would be hard to win, so instead of going about it her normal way, with her legs, Movistar used their heads. They scouted the courses and picked the perfect moment to be aggressive. In the end, it all worked out in the favour, also due to some head-scratching decisions from SD Worx.
At La Vuelta, Vollering was clearly stronger even if the final standings still had her one spot behind Van Vleuten. But bike racing isn’t always about the legs.
In the buildup to the Tour de France Femmes, Vollering went to altitude, while Van Vleuten went and won the Giro Donne. Two completely different paths that also meant no one knew on the day the Tour started who would be stronger. We had to wait for four days to see a hint of what was to come, but we knew as soon as Vollering summited the finish of stage 4 that Van Vleuten would not win a second Tour. Sure, anything could happen, but in the back of our heads we knew.
Stage 7, when Van Vleuten’s predictable attack on Col d’Aspin failed to make Vollering even break a sweat, it was clear who was the stronger of the two. The tension built over months came to nothing.
As Van Vleuten rolled across the line, over two and a half minutes after Vollering, her positive attitude never faltered, but the rest of the world lamented the duel that never was.
Not that the stage wasn’t edge-of-your-seat exciting, thanks largely to Kasia Niewiadoma. But the duel between Vollering and Van Vleuten, new school and old school, the next generation and the last, never took place. In the end, Vollering steamrolled the World Champion in a way no one thought possible.
While Van Vleuten dipped and swerved on her bike, Vollering barely wavered, her upper body so solid it was as if she was out with her mates.
Van Vleuten, the rider who was once unmatched on a climb like the Col du Tourmalet, watched as a younger, fresher Dutch rider rode away into the mists. Her dream of – for the second year running – winning all three “Grand Tours” was dashed switchback by switchback.
“I’m disappointed,” Van Vleuten said while cooling down atop the climb, at least a dozen microphones shoved into her face. “I was hoping to have a way better day.”
One year ago, Vollering watched as Van Vleuten danced away from her not once, but two stages in a row. She marvelled at the athlete Van Vleuten was, while calculating in the back of her head when she would be on top.
“I worked hard, but it’s not only working hard it’s believing in it,” Vollering said after the final stage in Pau. “In the end, you have a dream and you work really hard for it, but you also need to keep yourself a bit calm and you need to find a good balance in your life. How to do it, how to keep going and find a relaxed way to do all this. I think this year I feel really comfortable and good in what I’m doing together with Anna van der Breggen.”
She didn’t have to wait long, only a year, and in that time it wasn’t only the strength of the two that has changed. The entire peloton is riding at another level, every race is faster, and every rider is more competitive. The level is rising, thanks in large part to Van Vleuten herself.
The time trial in Pau offered no opportunities for Van Vleuten to salvage her week. While Vollering rolled in to take second on the stand, sandwiched between her teammates Marlen Reusser and Lotte Kopecky, Van Vleuten would roll across the line in 14th on the day, dropping into fourth overall as Kopecky rose to the runner-up spot.
“[I am feeling] disappointment,” Van Vleuten said, still in her skinsuit, with her trademark smile safely tucked away for another day. “That I was not good the last two days.”
“I was in the battle and I gave it my all, I didn’t make any mistake that I can think that was not smart or that I did something wrong, so I don’t know what happened. I was not myself that I can be and that’s a bit sad in your last Tour de France.”
On the crowded slopes of the Col du Tourmalet, Van Vleuten felt the sting of her own making. It was the Dutch rider who forced the rest of the peloton to up their game, to focus more on the sport, to find the marginal gains that would allow them to match Van Vleuten, and eventually beat her.
Van Vleuten unknowingly spurred the beginnings of her own downfall when she left Vollering behind in 2022. She will not attempt to win another yellow jersey; this was her last Tour de France Femmes. Beside her on the podium, resplendent in yellow, is the rider that will take her place as the rider to beat, the next rider to test the levels of the women’s peloton.
The age of Annemiek van Vleuten is over, the age of Demi Vollering has just begun.
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