There’s a battle looming on the horizon. The defending champ vs her closest rival. The best stage racer of her generation vs the most dominant rider of this year. The battle-hardened 40-year-old in her last season as a professional vs the 26-year-old, still relatively new to the sport, still on her way up.
The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift is almost here, and with it, the long-awaited rematch between Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) and Demi Vollering (SD Worx) – last year’s winner and runner-up.
Last time around, Van Vleuten was in a league of her own. Despite an early stomach bug that threatened to derail her Tour, the Dutchwoman came good when it counted. On stage 7, the toughest stage of the race, Van Vleuten rode clear on the first of three big climbs, with only Vollering able to follow. Vollering was dropped on the following climb, with 62 km still to race, and Van Vleuten rode all the way to the finish alone, more than three minutes ahead of Vollering. Another solo win on the final stage, to La Planche des Belles Filles, only extended Van Vleuten’s lead.
Vollering finished the inaugural Tour de France Femmes as best of the rest, second to Van Vleuten by a considerable 3:48. Based on what we’ve seen so far this season, the battle should be much closer this time around.
Van Vleuten’s final season began in unconvincing fashion. The reigning world champion failed to win a spring one-day race for the first time since 2018 and consistently looked a long way off her best. Vollering, on the other hand, was the rider of the spring, having ascended to new heights in the off-season.
In eight one-day races, Vollering claimed five victories and took two runner-up finishes, leading an SD Worx squad that laid waste to the rest of the peloton. In the six one-day races Vollering and Van Vleuten both contested before May, Vollering won four, and finished ahead of Van Vleuten in all six.
But it wasn’t all bad news for Van Vleuten. She was playing the long game, having made no secret of her desire to again win all three ‘Grand Tours’ in her final season. And so, when La Vuelta Femenina began in May, all eyes were on her, and on Vollering.
On the race’s first uphill finish, on stage 5, Vollering proved the stronger climber, beating Van Vleuten with a late surge to the line. And on the race’s final stage, stage 7, Vollering was again better uphill, winning another stage and putting almost a minute into Van Vleuten.
But despite being outclimbed by her younger compatriot, it was Van Vleuten that emerged victorious overall at La Vuelta. On stage 6, the day between those two uphill finishes, an untimely nature break from Vollering allowed Van Vleuten to get up the road and take enough time to secure overall success by just nine seconds. It was an unconvincing – and controversial – win for Van Vleuten, but a win all the same.
Last week’s Giro Donne wasn’t nearly as close as La Vuelta. Van Vleuten blasted away on the very first road stage, won solo, took the maglia rosa, and never relinquished it in the seven days that followed. She finished the Giro with three stage wins, the QOM classification, the points classification, and most importantly, her fourth overall title, almost four minutes clear of second.
Crucially though, Vollering wasn’t in attendance. For the second year running, the 26-year-old skipped the Italian ‘Grand Tour’ to prioritise her preparation for the Tour de France Femmes.
And so the battle is poised. In one corner, Annemiek van Vleuten, who was thoroughly outclassed by Vollering in the early-season one-days, who won the Vuelta despite being outclimbed by Vollering, who dominated at the Giro in Vollering’s absence, but who has timed her run perfectly to be in top form for the biggest race of the year.
In the other corner, Demi Vollering, who was dominating the peloton from as early as March, whose 13 wins easily make her the most successful rider of this season, who skipped the Giro to ensure she’s in top form for the biggest race of the year.
Two different riders, two different paths to the Tour. So who will come out on top? On paper, it’s hard to call. But maybe a look back at past results could help.
When it comes to GC battles, Van Vleuten has history on her side. Of the eight stage races the pair have contested, Van Vleuten has finished ahead in six, with four victories. But of those eight, only two happened this year – since Vollering’s noticeable step-up – and the score there is 1-1 (Van Vleuten won the Vuelta; Vollering was second in Itzulia Women, ahead of Van Vleuten’s fifth).
If we keep our focus on this year – Vollering’s best season yet – the pair have faced off a total of 19 times. The overall ledger: 16 to Vollering and just three to Van Vleuten (including nine wins for Vollering and one for Van Vleuten). But most of those battles came in the early part of the season, while Van Vleuten was still working her way back into form.
What about the match-up when it comes to decisive climbs? This season, the pair have only battled it out on two uphill finishes. Both were at the Vuelta, and both saw Vollering come out on top. But neither stage was as hard as the mountainous stage 7 that will likely decide the 2023 Tour de France Femmes; a stage featuring the Col d’Aspin (12 km at 6.6%) followed by the stage-ending Col du Tourmalet (17.2 km at 7.3%). It’s a day somewhat reminiscent of the corresponding stage in last year’s race; the day where Van Vleuten went long range, dropped Vollering, and won easily, setting up her overall victory.
Even if Vollering is the better climber for the length of one mountain ascent, Van Vleuten’s legendary endurance might give her the edge on that decisive day at the Tour. Vollering will surely be expecting her older compatriot to attack well before the Tourmalet.
In individual time trials – the discipline that will end this year’s Tour – history doesn’t have any clear answers. In the five TTs the pair have both contested, Van Vleuten has come out on top four times. But all of those came before Vollering established herself as one of the very best riders in the world. And the one ITT Vollering has beaten Van Vleuten in was just last month, at the Dutch championships, where Vollering was second and Van Vleuten third (Riejanne Markus won by nearly a minute).
And so, in each facet of the direct match-up, wherever history points to a favourite, a caveat muddies the water. Perhaps other factors will help separate the two.
Vollering will likely enjoy the better team support, thanks to a star-filled SD Worx roster that has managed 48 wins so far this year – more than the next four teams combined. But Van Vleuten’s Movistar team will be stronger than last year (with the addition of Liane Lippert and Floortje Mackaij) and besides, team support isn’t as crucial if you attack long before the finish on the race’s most decisive days …
Vollering will surely be inspired by the chance to turn the tables after being so soundly beaten at last year’s Tour, and to get revenge for a Vuelta she probably deserved to win. But Van Vleuten’s grit and determination should never be underestimated – remember her remarkable win at Worlds last year, with a broken elbow? – and she’ll be incredibly motivated to win another ‘Grand Tour’ triple, in her final season as a pro.
Assuming all goes well for Van Vleuten and Vollering, the match-up looks very close. And that’s a tantalising prospect ahead of a rematch that’s been 12 months in the making, at the biggest race of the year. Buckle up.
Stay posted to Escape Collective for a detailed preview of the 2023 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, coming soon.
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