What to expect from the Tour de France Femmes

The much-anticipated race gets underway on Sunday, but what can we expect to happen in the eight-stage race?

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There are mere days until the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift gets underway and the excitement is building for what will be a seminal moment for women’s cycling. With the men’s race still in full swing there’s plenty to whet the appetite ahead of the Femmes, but what exactly might we expect from the eight days of racing and can the men’s Tour tell us anything about what’s to come? 

Riders will be on the form of their lives

This one is hardly surprising. The motivation that the prospect of racing the first* Tour de France Femmes will give the riders in their build up to the race cannot be underestimated. Those lining up in Paris will have put in huge amounts of work to be in the shape of their lives ahead of the eight days of racing, knowing that they will be watched by the world. 

The Giro Donne gave us an idea of just how in-form some of the women who will be racing in France are, with Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), Mavi Garcia (UAE Team ADQ), Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) and Marta Cavalli (FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope) looking especially sharp, but they and their rivals will no doubt be able to find that extra one percent for the Tour. 

The battle to claim a stage win or the overall and go down in history at this first race will be fought tooth-and-nail amongst the world’s greatest female cyclists on their best-ever form.  

Teamwork 

Of course, those who are competing for stage wins and GC positions will need the backing of a strong team. Teamwork will be more important than ever at the Tour de France Femmes as every team brings a lineup of their best riders to support their team leaders. 

Teams will also need to ride cohesively if they are to beat the out-and-out favourite for the GC Annemiek van Vleuten, who recently won the Giro Donne with an emphatic lead. The Movistar rider’s weakness is that she often finds herself isolated in the high mountains, so rival teams being able to support their GC hopeful on the same terrain could be the key to winning the GC.  

Elsewhere, lead outs for sprints will be all-important if anyone is to come close to the seemingly unstoppable sprinting force that is Lorena Wiebes (DSM). Trek-Segafredo have mastered theirs for Elisa Balsamo while Jumbo-Visma have been increasingly successful in supporting Marianne Vos. Of course, sprint teams will also need domestiques in the vein of Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo) and Marlen Reusser (SD Worx) to pull back any breaks that may threaten their chances of a sprint for the win. 

Gravel mayhem?

Aside from the final stage’s finish atop the Super Planche des Belles Filles – which also incorporates some gravel – one of the headline days at the Tour de France Femmes is stage 4, which features four gravel sectors along the route from Troyes to Bar-sur-Aube. 

Of course, gravel is nothing new to the women’s peloton who have raced Strade Bianche since 2015 and took on an infamously technical gravel stage of the 2020 Giro Donne, but its potential to catch GC hopefuls off guard makes it an unmissable stage. 

None of the GC contenders lost any considerable time on the last occasion that a Women’s WorldTour stage race included gravel, but with Tour de France nerves in the mix there could be some decisive moments. Look out for Paris-Roubaix winner Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) on this stage who will be supported by cyclocross star Shirin van Anrooij. 

Demi Vollering (SD Worx) will have the backing of former Strade Bianche winner Chantal van den Broek Blaak and Van Vleuten can also hold her own on gravel having won the Giro stage in 2020 as well as Strade Bianche in her career.  

Elsewhere, cyclocross world champion Marianne Vos will be a favourite for the stage win. 

Breakthrough rides

As we often discuss on Freewheeling, the great thing about stage races is that they provide a platform for up-and-coming riders to break through. Whether with heroic breakaways, surprise stage wins or impressive teamwork, there will be a raft of riders on smaller teams, and even WorldTeams, who will be looking for that opportunity to make their mark. 

As we often see in the men’s Tour de France, the fight to get into the breakaway will be more hard-fought than ever as riders vie to get theirs and their sponsor’s names out there on the biggest platform in the sport. And, as we also see in the men’s race, sometimes the big teams get it wrong and those chance breakaways make it all the way to the line.

COVID-19

Just as we’ve seen in the men’s race and at the Giro Donne, the aftershocks of the pandemic are still reverberating through our lives and the sport is no exception. With some key players out of the race even before it began and others having to leave mid-way through, COVID-19’s potential to dictate bike racing is still an unfortunate reality, as we continue to see at the men’s Tour.

While we obviously all hope that the virus doesn’t affect the racing, there is still a real possibility of the Tour de France Femmes facing the same difficulties. 

Justified hyperbole

Every conversation around the race has been peppered with words and phrases like ‘historic’, ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘game-changing’ and while the discussion around the Tour may seem exaggerated to some, there really is no underestimating the impact it will have on women’s cycling. 

Yes, there have been women’s Tours de France in the past, but they took place with little or no coverage and in an age where social media did not exist. The hype and excitement that is building around this iteration is justified insofar as the pre-race excitement can be built upon by live TV broadcasting and widespread coverage. 

There’s no such thing as being too enthusiastic for the Tour de France Femmes.   

The unexpected

The truth is that predicting anything about the Tour de France Femmes is almost impossible. There is no saying exactly how things will play out, what the reception will be, or how the stages will be raced. In many ways, the element of the unknown makes the race an even more exciting prospect.

That this is the first edition of this modern iteration of a women’s Tour de France means that there will be a lot of pressure on the race and the peloton to impress a global audience who will be tuning in to see what the fuss is about. Women’s racing always delivers, but Rome wasn’t build in a day and regardless of whether this is the most thrilling race we see all year or not, the fact of it is exciting enough.

*While this race will be widely referred to as the ‘first’ Tour de France for women, it is, in fact, the most recent of a number of iterations of a women’s race that have gone before it.

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