Annemiek van Vleuten recovered from illness to blow the Tour de France Femmes apart with a 60km lone attack in the first mountain stage, taking a memorable win and the overall lead with one day’s racing to come.
Such was her domination of the Vosges mountains in the first climbing test of the week-long race that only eight riders crossed the line within 10 minutes of her, on the last of three first category summits, Le Markstein, in the Vosges.
Van Vleuten, riding for Movistar and winner of the women’s Giro d’Italia, started the Tour as the hot favourite, but suffered through a stomach bug that enforced a mid-race toilet stop and almost made her quit. After a torrid few days, in which she was so weak that she needed help packing her suitcase, the Tokyo Olympic time trial champion recovered in time for the first mountain stage.
“I couldn’t believe this was possible after being so sick,” she said. “Being here in the yellow jersey – it’s a little bit of a miracle.”
Attacking with fellow Dutch rider Demi Vollering (Team SD Worx), she took the race by the scruff of the neck on the first climb, the Petit Ballon, and immediately put distance between her and the overnight race leader Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma). “I had to try, because I’d lost some seconds,” Van Vleuten said. “My style is always attacking and not waiting for the final.
“I reconned the stage and saw the Petit Ballon was hard, and after six days of waiting and surviving and recovering, I wanted to make the biggest time gaps. That means going on the first climb.”
Van Vleuten, who won the 2019 World Road Race title in Yorkshire with a similar solo break, then moved clear of Vollering on the 11% gradients of the Col de Platzerwasel, the second of the first category climbs, to open up a three and a half minute lead at Le Markstein. Given her track record, an attack in the mountains was predictable. Few, however, given her sickness, expected such a complete demolition of her peers.
“I’m a bit older than the other girls so can do a lot of training,” Van Vleuten said. “I want to make something clear. It’s not that my colleagues don’t train as much as I do. It has something to do with training years. I have a lot of capacity, then it comes down to fitness, and that’s something I’m really good in. This stage suited that really well.
“If my colleagues continue for some more years, for sure they can do it. The stage was so hard I knew that if I was fit enough after being sick, it would be my day.”
Her rivals may now wish that they had tried to lose Van Vleuten earlier in the week, when she was at her most vulnerable, particularly on the gruelling gravel roads of the Aube. “Monday and Tuesday, given her state of health, we didn’t push things,” her teammate Aude Biannic said. “She said it was her worst day on a bike and wasn’t even sure if she could finish the stage. She couldn’t even eat or drink.”
“I was super-close to quitting,” Van Vleuten said. “Day two, I couldn’t even pack my things. I was really in a bad situation.”
With one mountain stage remaining, to the gravel summit of Super Planche des Belles Filles, Van Vleuten leads Vollering by just over three minutes, a margin that she seems unlikely to relinquish.