The long-anticipated ascent of the Col du Tourmalet was expected to draw some spectacular drama on its return to women’s pro cycling, and stage 7 of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift did not disappoint. The protagonists were many on a day that could have been very different, and after mind games with Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) in the valley, a ferocious descent from Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), and a determined chase driven by SD Worx, it was Demi Vollering who emerged from the mist to take a confident solo victory and move into the yellow jersey with one stage to go.
- The Movistar team of defending champion Van Vleuten hit the Col d’Aspin very hard, burning through jerseys like they were on the final climb of the day, and that seemed to be their tactic. Five kilometres from the top of the Cat.1 ascent, the world champion made what she might have hoped was the decisive move, accelerating hard to reduce the favourites group to herself, Vollering and Niewiadoma – last year’s GC podium.
- Niewiadoma crested the Aspin at the front and led the trio onto the descent, picking up a decent dollop of points that would ultimately help her climb into the polka-dot jersey. Then as the kilometres ticked by, the fast-descending Canyon-SRAM rider found more and more space ahead of Van Vleuten and Vollering who seemed to have eyes only for one another. That said, with the chasing group containing Marlen Reusser and race leader Lotte Kopecky within reach, Vollering was content and confident to wait up for her teammates, much to Van Vleuten’s chagrin.
- It worked out perfectly. The mind games on the descent led to Vollering regaining the unparalleled Swiss national champion, and though Niewiadoma held about a minute at the foot of the 17-kilometre Col du Tourmalet, SD Worx was very much in control. Even after letting Niewiadoma back out to 45 seconds having brought her within touching distance, Vollering was waiting for the perfect time to pounce. Meanwhile, Juliette Labous (DSM-Firmenich) took advantage of the mind games higher up the general classification and tried a couple of attacks, but the French hopeful couldn’t get away from the group.
- When Vollering made her move just inside 6 km to go, she only needed one attempt to make it work. Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and Van Vleuten tried to follow, but within a few hundred metres the Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey punctured the mist alone and bore down on Niewiadoma, catching the Pole 5 km from the summit and riding away to take victory and the overall lead.
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“Of course, I’m disappointed,” Van Vleuten admitted to the media scrum around her turbo trainer at the Tourmalet summit. “I was hoping to have a way better day, I didn’t have my best day out there.”
After initiating the move over the Aspin and seeing Niewiadoma disappear down the descent, there was an exchange of words between Van Vleuten and Vollering who didn’t want to pull at the time.
“She didn’t want to ride, so I said if you don’t ride then I also don’t ride. But she also had a point, she had two teammates behind… For me the goal to attack on Aspin was not to drop everyone there, it was more to do a first effort, but maybe in the end it was not so smart; for my shape of today it was not the best plan. But you never know that, and I always like to race with my heart and you always need to focus on your strengths, and usually that’s my capacity and endurance, so that’s why I went.”
Van Vleuten now sits 2:28 off Vollering in the overall standings with only the stage 8 ITT to go.
“Ah, we’ll see,” she said when asked about her hopes of defending her 2022 title. “I’m here to win the Tour de France. To become second or third or maybe fourth – to be honest, it’s super beautiful, but after winning last year, then you know that you only want to win and it’s obvious that Demi Vollering was on another level today.”
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It was quite the scene at the summit.
Behind the GC contenders, the rest of the peloton had more time to savour an iconic summit finish, including Lucinda Brand who made riding up >10% gradients with no hands look alarmingly easy…
One of, if not the ride of the day came from incumbent race leader Lotte Kopecky who stuck with the favourites until her teammate launched the decisive move in the last 6 kilometres. The Classics and track specialist finished sixth on the Tourmalet, dropping to fourth overall, just seven seconds in arrears of Van Vleuten!
Niewiadoma was delighted with second place on the hors-category climb, and her effort did not go unnoticed by anyone.
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