It was shaping up as the sprint battle we’d all been waiting for: Lorena Wiebes, the world’s best sprinter on the world’s best team, facing off against her old leadout rider Charlotte Kool, now leading the team Wiebes once led.
Stage 3 of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift didn’t exactly pan out as the head-to-head battle we’d anticipated – Wiebes won but Kool finished seventh – but we did get a clash between their respective teams, both out on the road, and in words afterwards. What’s more, that clash illustrated the dynamics that DSM, or any team, will have to overcome if it wants to beat the best team in the sport.
The stage was headlined by a late break from Julie Van de Velde that almost, very nearly, managed to survive. While DSM-Firmenich committed to the chase early, SD Worx refused to contribute, until it was just about too late. Van de Velde was caught with less than 200 metres to go, and Wiebes ended up winning the stage for SD Worx.
It was the ultimate frustration for DSM-Firmenich. The team had chased so hard and for so long, burning so many riders, that Kool was without a real leadout. Without help, when the sprint did arrive, Kool was boxed in against the barriers and could only manage seventh.
Speaking to the media immediately after the finish, Kool’s frustration was clear. Frustration not just that she wasn’t able to win the stage after her teammates had worked so hard, but frustration at SD Worx winning the stage after being so reticent to contribute to the chase.
“We are used to it actually,” Kool said. “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.”
A little jab at the best team in the world, perhaps. But her comments also highlighted the difference in focus and approach between the two teams.
“We just take our own opportunity and we’re not gonna [not chase] because others are not riding,” Kool continued. “I mean, it’s the Tour; [there’s] not many sprint stages. So yeah, then we take [the responsibility]. But of course it’s a bit sad that we always are the ones who are riding.”
Kool’s teammate Pfeiffer Georgi offered a similar sentiment. Her words, too, seemed to be critical of SD Worx, who she said initially started to chase but very quickly stopped. “We had full confidence in Charlotte so we took it up,” Georgi said. “I spoke to them [SD Worx] and they said they weren’t gonna ride, so we took it upon ourselves. We backed our sprinter, so we rode. In the end it didn’t work out but yeah, the whole team committed to our plan. We couldn’t do anything else.”
DSM-Firmenich’s frustration in fully committing but not finishing was compounded by what sports director Kelvin Dekker called “some mistakes” in the final kilometre.
“We maybe brought Charlotte to the front on her own too early,” he said. “She was in an OK position but then got swamped by some of the riders that came from behind, and then couldn’t really sprint which is a shame.”
When asked in her winner’s press conference why SD Worx hadn’t committed fully to bringing back Van de Velde, Wiebes explained that the team’s multiple objectives played a role. “We still have the GC leader [Lotte Kopecky] in our team and it’s still long till the finish of the race. We also need the riders for next days; we cannot let them fully ride [so] that they cannot do something for GC anymore.”
Wiebes acknowledged that not chasing was a gamble. But it was a gamble she and her team were willing to make, given her inside knowledge. This time last year she was riding for DSM-Firmenich, and would have been in Kool’s position.
“I know if they have a plan they will go fully for the plan,” Wiebes said of DSM-Firmenich. “And I had the feeling the plan was to sprint with Charlotte so I also know they […] will chase the break there.”
She was right, backed by the simple fact of her team’s dominance this season. “At the end we got so many victories already this year,” said the European champion in a not-so-subtle flex. “Other teams also want to have something.”
While other teams do indeed “want to have something” from this Tour de France Femmes, there hasn’t been much to have so far. SD Worx now has two stage wins from three, the overall lead, the points classification, and the teams classification. If DSM and other teams want a taste of that success, they may need to call SD Worx’s bluff about its ambitions at the race.
Because that much-anticipated head-to-head between Wiebes vs Kool? Well, Wiebes and SD Worx are now winning that too. Coming into the Tour, Wiebes and Kool had been locked at 2-2 this season when sprinting against each other for the win. After today, Wiebes now has the lead.
In theory, we should see the pair battle it out again before the race is over – stages 5 and 6 both look like they could end in bunch sprints. It’s a contest we’ll continue to watch with interest, not least given the drama of today’s chaotic finale.
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