Inevitably Annemiek?

Should we just give the 40-year-old Movistar leader the yellow jersey now?

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With a finish on the Tourmalet and an individual time trial on stage eight there is a certain inevitability around who will take home the yellow jersey at the Tour de France Femmes, but is it right to assume Annemiek van Vleuten will walk away with the win for the second year in a row? 

While the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift did not disappoint fans and riders alike, the main purpose of the race, the GC competition, did fall somewhat flat. With the two big mountain stages coming in the final weekend of the eight-day race it looked, on paper, likely to be explosive. And it was, in the sense that Annemiek van Vleuten detonated the entire GC race into oblivion, going on a 60km solo rampage and eventually taking a 3’26” advantage over Demi Vollering on stage seven and claiming a further 30 seconds on stage eight to win overall by a margin of 3’48”.  

It was explosive, but more one big bang than a series of fireworks.

Calls for fewer high mountain stages that play right into the hands of Van Vleuten ensued as thoughts turned to the 2023 race. Long climbs are where the 40-year-old not only thrives, but exerts an authority over the rest of the peloton that leaves them scratching their heads in wonder about how they might possibly beat her. 

Long climbs like the Tourmalet, atop which stage seven of the 2023 race finishes and where you could probably bet your house it will be Van Vleuten crossing the line first by some margin. The newly-crowned world champion herself singled out the stage as “one day where I can be sure of getting time.”

If she doesn’t manage to stamp her authority over the race on the Tourmalet, however, there is a 22km individual time trial on the final stage where the former world and current Olympic time trial champion might secure yellow. 

But what of the other six stages of the race? 

“I’m not scared of those early stages, but they will be tricky, you need to stay focussed,” van Vleuten told the press at the route presentation. This time, there are no tricky gravel stages to cause potential chaos, which she says she is happy about. The opening few days of any Tour are chaotic.

“But that is no different to 2022 when I had to survive six stages and recover from my illness. It will be hard and sometimes hard to control, so I will also need my team. But that, in the end, is also the Tour de France,” she said. 

Indeed, the team in question is stronger than ever with former DSM duo Floortje Mackaij and Liane Lippert joining the ranks as reinforcement. Not that Van Vleuten really needs it. 

Then there’s the extra motivation that both wearing the rainbow jersey and being in your last ever season as a pro can bring. “People ask me if I’m sure if it will be my last year, but I can think of no better way than to end the career in the rainbow jersey, and to be in the start of the Tour de France in the rainbow jersey is a dream,” Van Vleuten said. But she’ll be hoping not to be in rainbows by the end of the race. 

For the Dutchwoman, an addition of a climb like the Tourmalet is not simply a matter of the race playing into her hands but one of equality: “It’s important to have a famous, hard long climb because the Tour de France for men also has a hard climb and it’s nice to see they added this one,” she said, adding that “it’s high altitude and it also suits me quite well.”

So should we give her the yellow jersey now? Should Movistar give ASO a sneak preview of their 2023 jersey design just so they can get ahead of the printing? Probably. But hold your horses because there’s a fresh crop of super-motivated GC hopefuls with seven-rider teams who might have something to say about that. 

If I was Demi Vollering, I would absolutely have the bit squarely between my teeth this winter working on my master plan to beat Van Vleuten once and for all. This time there’s the memory of the elastic snapping on stage seven, of being oh-so-close yet so far on the Planche des Belles Filles, and then again a few months later at the Ceratizit Challenge. 

Vollering’s now-former teammate Ashleigh Moolman Pasio is one of the most talented climbers in the women’s peloton and finally bested Van Vleuten on the climb up to Thyon 2000 at the Tour de Romandie. She might no longer have the backing of team SD Worx but she does have a talented crop of young riders who will be determined to show their strengths to support her. 

Neither rider, nor many of the rest of the current GC crop, have been especially noted for their time-trialling prowess, so while all the focus is on the Tourmalet, it could be the ITT that proves to be the thorn in the rest of the GC contenders’ sides come the end of July.  

There is an element of inevitability around the GC contest at next year’s Tour, but that doesn’t take away from the spectacle of the race itself or the rest of the peloton. Maybe we are all being defeatists, or are we simply being realists? Time will tell, but I’m looking forward to the race all the same.

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