Van Vleuten’s rivals missed an opportunity on stage 4 gravel

Van Vleuten was distanced, but her rivals missed their moment.

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The nearly 30 km of gravel on stage 4 of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift was meant to shake up the general classification. Riders like Kasia Niewiadoma, who thrive in treacherous conditions, had a golden opportunity to gain an advantage before the race hits the mountains on Saturday. Niewiadoma couldn’t have dreamed of a better position to find herself in than she did with 16 km to go.

It ended up being an opportunity squandered.

The setup

Let’s set the scene. It was the final gravel sector. The punchy climbs and gravel were perfect for Niewiadoma and her Canyon-SRAM team. On this final sector, she attacked. Her attack distanced many of the favorites, and Longo Borghini had a poorly timed mechanical that left her in the dust. Ahead of the Tour’s start, the Polish rider said she was eyeing stages 3 and 4, and rightfully so.

Two key rivals were distanced, Annemiek van Vleuten and Longo Borghini. Niewiadoma rode alongside two of her teammates plus a handful of other riders who would benefit from gaining time before the weekend’s stages.

With 16 km to go, Niewiadoma again attacked a group containing most of the top riders. Only Marianne Vos and Silvia Persico, the top two on general classification, followed. Shortly after, the select group chased down the three off the front, but the only GC favorites to return were SD Worx duo Demi Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio. Team DSM was well positioned with Liane Lippert and Juliette Labous and stage 3 winner Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig had hung on. Longo Borghini and Van Vleuten were nowhere to be seen.

It was a moment of opportunity. This is when you drill it. Three riders total from SD Worx, three from Canyon-SRAM, two from DSM – the numbers were in their favor. Just out of the camera shot, Ellen van Dijk could be seen waiting for her team leader Longo Borghini, but Van Vleuten, whose climbing ability looms over the last few stages, was all but forgotten.

Canyon-SRAM stayed on the front foot, but instead of sending Alena Amialiusik and Elise Chabbey to the front, Amialiusik attacked. It wasn’t even a solo breakaway, as Marlen Reusser was already nearly 30 seconds ahead of the race. Had the former Swiss national champion not been off the front, her SD Worx team would no doubt have done the work to keep Van Vleuten distanced. Instead, nobody did the work.

Shortly after Van Dijk brought Longo Borghini back into the main group she did what should have already happened. The European champion went straight to the front, setting a blistering pace that sent her off the front of the group momentarily. But no one else wanted to play. The group eventually spread across the road, looking at each other while the top favorite for the yellow jersey, Van Vleuten, chased.

The error

With the European time trial champion riding away with stage honours, and the number one favorite chasing from behind, at that point Canyon-SRAM, and everyone in that group, were not only giving up a chance to win stage 4, but they were also gambling with their chance to win the Tour de France.

Chalk it up to tired legs, or perhaps a lack of communication. All reports from the ground indicate a crazy day on the dirt roads and many questioned the benefit of including such a stage in a race like the Tour. But with one rider a whole head and shoulders above the rest, someone who had already showed weakness a stage prior, wouldn’t everyone in that group want to at least try to gain more time on Annemiek van Vleuten?

Regardless of the reason why it happened, it was an opportunity missed.

Stages 5 and 6 look unlikely to shake up the general classification, although Friday’s stage has a decent amount of climbing. The true test comes Saturday and Sunday when the peloton will tackle three category one climbs over 127 km. By then, Van Vleuten will have had two days to recover from a suspected stomach bug, just in time to take yellow on Le Markstein Fellering. And when she is leaving them behind on the Col du Platzerwasel will her rivals look back on stage 4 and wish they’d played it differently? Perhaps. But that is just another part of bike racing.