In eight days of racing at the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, there was really only supposed to be one breakaway day. It could have been the fifth stage. Of all the routes, Thursday was the best for a break to stay away: not exactly hilly, not exactly flat, it fit that weird middle ground where a breakaway thrives.
Instead, we’ve been treated to not only two successful attacks in two consecutive days but also a smattering of odd moves from SD Worx-Protime. When you look at it all together, it really looks like this year’s Tour de France Femmes completely threw out the script.
Stage 1 started out pretty much as we’d expect. One devastating attack on the climb before the finish was exciting no doubt, but not exactly a surprise, at least in hindsight. Stage 2 was another – in hindsight – totally standard victory, but it was perhaps the first inkling of an unpredictable few days to come.
Had Movistar not kept Liane Lippert on a leash the whole Giro Donne, perhaps we could have seen her stage 2 sprint coming. Riders like Lotte Kopecky and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio were always going to ride well on that final climb, and so was Lippert. But with Annemiek van Vleuten’s future goals taking centre stage, the surprise wasn’t that Lippert won, but more that the team allowed her to go for it.
Stage 3 was a weird one, albeit with a predictable winner in Lorena Wiebes. But the catch nearly on the line was thrilling, and the lack of commitment from SD Worx for Wiebes made for some interesting drama.
Perhaps it was those strange tactics that set off a chain reaction that led to where we are now, at the end of the fifth stage, with two successful breakaways behind us.
After the third stage, everyone was annoyed at SD Worx. “We are used to it actually,” DSM-Firmenich sprinter Charlotte Kool said of SD Worx’s tactics that day. “I mean, they never do [help to chase] and we want to go for the win. My team has all the trust in me to finish it off in the sprint. Maybe they [SD Worx] don’t have the trust, I don’t know.”
Stage 4, in theory, could have been a breakaway day, but here’s the thing: only one rider was able to ride away solo at the 2022 Tour de France Femmes, and it was the Olympic time trial silver medalist. Marlen Reusser won a hectic Stage 4 into Bar-Sur-Aube after a late-race move. This year’s Giro didn’t see a single long breakaway survive. Neither did La Vuelta Femenina. Breakaways, up until Wednesday, were looking like a doomed affair.
No one told Fenix-Deceuninck and Canyon-SRAM that, apparently.
As retaliation for SD Worx’s refusal to cooperate, on the fourth stage the peloton put their hands up and forced the chase on the Dutch team on the longest day of racing this year. As a result, the breakaway got more than 10 minutes at one point. When SD Worx did start chasing the gap began to tumble, but it was going to be close.
The sheer chaos of the finale of Stage 4 only really came to light after the stage and after Demi Vollering celebrated for second place, a minute and 11 seconds after stage winner Yara Kastelijn (Fenix-Deceuninck) crossed the line. During the post-race press conference, yellow jersey wearer Lotte Kopecky couldn’t explain exactly the motive behind her solo attacks on the final climbs of the stage. When asked she gave a noncommittal answer about getting up the road to help Vollering.
Vollering said while cooling down that she didn’t know how many people had been in front of her when she crested the final ascent to the finish.
“I didn’t know if someone from this group was out so I thought I would celebrate and then I would at least have the pictures and if I didn’t win then we could delete them, so let’s delete them,” Vollering joked to a hoard of journalists, her dog patiently waiting behind to be cuddled.
The unpredictable racing continued Thursday. After missing the initial move, Canyon-SRAM brought back the break and proceeded to throw attacks at the race. Unmarked, with all eyes on the most-attacking rider in the peloton (her teammate Kasia Niewiadoma), it was Ricarda Bauernfeind that stole the stage. She’d shown her strength at La Vuelta, finishing third on the first GC day of the race behind Vollering and Van Vleuten. But the Tour de France Femmes is the premier race of the season.
At La Vuelta, only one stage was won by a rider (Lidl-Trek’s Gaia Realini) who was yet to take a WorldTour win. At the Giro, it was a Canyon-SRAM rider, Antonia Niedermaier, who took a surprise first WorldTour victory on the fifth stage. Bauernfeind continued the streak at the Femmes. Neither Niedermaier’s nor Bauernfeind’s victories can be considered a conventional breakaway success. They would both fall under the category of “late-race attack.” And while the fifth stage at the Giro was a superb victory, a stage of the Tour de France Femmes is something entirely other-world.
“To be honest, I can’t believe it, it’s just incredible,” Bauernfeind said after the stage. “Everyone helped me and supported us and it was just an incredible team ride I would say. We had to chase the first group because we missed it and my teammates did such a fantastic job and then it was up to me, I tried to attack and it worked out.”
As with stage 4, SD Worx was again up to something. On that stage, Kopecky was attacking, five times if the count is correct, with no clear purpose. On stage 5, behind Bauernfeind Reusser was the only rider at the front of the chasing peloton. “I couldn’t ask Demi to pull for me,” Kopecky said after the stage, lamenting the lost opportunity when the reduced peloton couldn’t catch the solo attacker.
In the midst of her chase, Reusser found herself off the front with none other than Lippert. After the race, Reusser said that she hadn’t attacked, she actually didn’t know exactly how she got off the front. “First of all, there was a surprise we were suddenly with two, and then it’s Liane there who’s got a pretty fast sprint, also me that did all this work and I am anyway not a good sprinter, and we have Lotte in the group so for me and for the team it was clear that I sit in with Liane which was not so nice for her,” Reusser explained.
The separation came on a descent, and as Vollering noted after the stage, it had been a much harder day than most had anticipated. “Actually I would have thought that it was a really hard day, but not this hard,” she said. “I thought maybe it could also be a sprint in the end because it really depends on how the beginning is going, but the beginning was really really hard.
“It was full, full gas. They kept on attacking, and there was a nice group with Mischa in from us, so we were happy with that, but they got caught back and then it was just hard. Climb after climb.”
But Reusser and Lippert off the front chasing Bauernfeind was a strange situation for one main reason, and that is that Reusser is the key deputy for Vollering come Stage 7; any energy saved is critical. Lippert is the same for Van Vleuten, and Movistar may have let the German national champion off-leash on Monday, but they are not about to waste her energy on multiple occasions.
It’s not every day you see two riders tasked with protecting their leaders and protecting their leaders alone, all of a sudden riding for a stage win. And while Reusser didn’t work, it was still an odd situation to witness, much like Kopecky’s attacks on Stage 4. To make matters more interesting, there’s a chance Lippert could become a threat come the Col du Tourmalet. Maybe not to the overall, but you never want to let her get any time, just in case.
“I really like Liane, and I would have liked to work with her and then I was thinking if we make it or not, and then also I hoped we make it,” Reusser said. “Big surprise because I was here to help the girls, Demi for the GC and Lotte for the stage win, so this was not expected for sure.”
“Marlen is a really good downhiller, and then in the downhill, she got a gap I don’t know how it happened, but then we were like, ‘OK, that’s fine for us.’ And then she stayed out and sprinted for second place,” Vollering explained after the race.
So, more than halfway through the Tour de France Femmes, one of the key favourites for yellow was docked 20 seconds for sticky bottles and some interesting calls from her team, two riders who weren’t pre-race favourites for a stage took matters into their own hands for victory, and it’s looking like it will be harder than anyone thought to get the yellow jersey off the back of Kopecky.
Can’t wait to see what Stage 6 has in store.
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