Jeremy Whittle

Van Vleuten ‘miracle’ blows Tour de France Femmes apart

What a turnaround! Annemiek Van Vleuten celebrates her stage seven yellow jersey win. (Getty Images)

Even Annemiek Van Vleuten called her amazing domination of the ‘queen stage’ in the Tour de France Femmes a ‘miracle’.

Given that just a few days ago she was too weak to pack her own suitcase and had to be pushed during the race by her teammates, the 39-year-old Dutch rider’s return to her unstoppable best rocked her peers in the Tour de France Femmes. The Dutch woman really seems to only know one way to win – long range and from the front.

Despite her sickness, Van Vleuten overcame any lingering fatigue to smash the peloton on the first category climbs of the Petit Ballon, the Col de Platzerwasel and the Grand Ballon, three ascents that would test any hardened professional in any Tour de France. She didn’t flinch and as the kilometres rolled past, her lead got even bigger.

“I know where I came from,” she said at the finish, after pulling on the first maillot jaune of her career. “I was sick the first two, three days of this Tour and that makes it extra special. I kept believing in myself but with so many people here, the first Tour de France Femmes – I can’t explain all the feelings I have.”

“The whole Tour has been a rollercoaster. I could not believe, after being so sick, that it was still possible. Being here now in the yellow jersey, given that I was so close to quitting the race – it’s a little bit of a miracle.”

In fact, how she got there, to the start line in Sélestat, was already miraculous. “I was super close to quitting. Day two, I couldn’t even put my things in my suitcase. Also, my teammates had to push me all the time. I was really in a bad situation.”

But there she was, still in contention, and once she had dropped Demi Vollering and taken control of the stage, she hammered home her clear advantage.

“To win solo is nicer than with a sprint,” she said. “You can enjoy it more.”

“But there was also a tactical point of view. There was a long valley and Demi didn’t want to take turns with me, so then I really wanted to drop her before the 15-kilometre valley because she would just have sat in my wheel. Then it would have been way harder to drop her on the last climb.”

Having termed the women’s Tour de France ‘hyped’, before the race started, ‘AVV’ admitted to becoming a complete convert.

“The TDF Femmes has exceeded my expectations,” she said, “especially seeing how it’s organised. Shout-out to the organisation, because I really have the feeling that we’re in the Tour de France, that we’re not a sideshow. It’s the fourth week of the Tour and they’re doing an amazing job. On top of that, there are so many people watching us on the side of the road that you really feel in every village you pass, that the Tour is alive.”

Compared to the Giro, she said that stages are longer. “I also feel like we’re in the Tour because in the first hour we ride crazy-fast, so now I understand what the guys mean about how crazy it is before the breakaway goes. It’s a big fight to be in the breakaway, and in the Giro, you have more easy days. Here every day, it’s full gas. This is our biggest stage race.”

Then, she was asked if she could explain the divide between her performance and that of her peers ­– only eight riders finished the stage within 10 minutes.

“That’s something that comes with the years,” she said in her accented English. “I want to be really clear on that, because sometimes my colleagues get comments that they should train as much as I do, but that’s not possible.

“I’m 39 years old, so for me it’s possible to train so many hours, but that’s not suddenly: that’s a process of many years, that every year you can do five or 10 percent more hours, but that makes my engine really big and that makes my fitness level really high. Then if you have a stage like this, that’s super-super-crazy hard, then I know I can do it from the first climb.”

The route of next year’s Tour de France Femmes will be unveiled in October. “It’s not about where you are racing in the Tour,” Van Vleuten said. “It’s important that it’s an interesting course to make an interesting show. I’d love to race next year on Alpe d’Huez, but if that makes it less interesting for people to watch, then maybe not.”

For now, though, it looks as if the destiny of the final yellow jersey in the first Tour de France Femmes has been decided.

“I will sleep well with this solid advantage. But tomorrow there will be a crazy fight for the jerseys, for the podium, to put me under pressure, so I don’t think it’s in my pocket. I’ll be really focused, but I know, from how I’m climbing, that I shouldn’t worry about getting dropped.”

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