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Riders, race motos, and team cars all wore a layer of white dust as they crossed the finish line in Bar-sur-Aube on Wednesday afternoon. With a chaotic stage 4 of the Tour de France Femmes behind them, the riders filtered back to their team buses and campervans to debrief and take stock.
It was perhaps the most anticipated stage of the race. A day with four gravel sectors that had the potential to redefine the complexion of the Tour.
Many riders got through completely unscathed. Some crashed. Others had multiple punctures and finished more than 20 minutes behind solo stage winner Marlen Reusser (SD Worx). But in the end, the Tour’s gravel stage didn’t offer the almighty GC shake-up we might have expected.
In fact, virtually all of the race’s GC contenders finished the day without losing time, finishing in a group behind Reusser and three chasers.
Mavi García (UAE Team ADQ) was one notable exception. The Spanish champion had a horrendous day out.
She first punctured on the third gravel sector with 34 km to race and was forced to chase her way back to the bunch. She punctured again with 20 km to go, on the final gravel sector, then caused a passing Alex Manly (BikeExchange-Jayco) to crash as she grabbed a bike from teammate Erica Magnaldi.
And then with 13 km to go, García’s team car clipped her back wheel, sending the 38-year-old sprawling to the ground at more than 40 km/h.
García eventually crossed the finish more than three minutes down on Reusser and 90 seconds behind the rest of the GC favourites. She’d started the stage in sixth place but by day’s end she was 11th.
Update: While García and her team originally refused to speak after the stage, García posted to Instagram the morning after expressing her frustration with the day’s events.
“I ended up with a lot of anger inside because of everything that happened and because I felt really strong, but that’s the way things are,” she wrote. “I could not do more.”
While García was the only GC contender to lose significant time, she certainly wasn’t the only one to run into difficulty on the stage.
Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) punctured near the end of the second sector before making her way back to the bunch. Yesterday’s winner Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Suez Futuroscope) punctured on the same sector but also made it back after getting a spare wheel from teammate Vittoria Guazzini.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) punctured on the final sector and relied heavily on teammates to bring her back to the GC group.
“The team was absolutely amazing with me,” the Italian said immediately after the finish. “There was [Elisa] Balsamo giving [me her] bike straight away and I could keep going. And then Shirin [van Anrooij] tried to bring me back and she did a very good job, but she had both tires completely flat. So Ellen [van Dijk] had to wait for me.”
And then there was Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), the overwhelming pre-race favourite for the overall, who also punctured in the final sector and had to chase back to the GC group on Emma Norsgaard’s bike.
With half the race now complete – the half she was most nervous about – Van Vleuten will be counting her blessings that she’s still less than a minute behind her biggest GC rivals. She’s spent several days feeling ill and lost some time on stages 2 and 3. Were it not for Norsgaard being on the spot, she might have lost more time today too.
Van Vleuten will certainly be relieved today’s gravel stage is behind her – she’s been a vocal critic of its inclusion in the inaugural Tour de France Femmes all week.
“This doesn’t belong in a stage race,” she said bluntly at the end of today’s stage. “Nice for the winner, but not for the classification riders. I like the Strade Bianche as a one-day race, but not in a stage race.”
She’s not the only one that feels that way. Former pro Iris Slappendel, who’s providing in-race TV commentary from a motorbike, said today’s stage was too much.
“Maybe we were sort of lucky that we only lost García for the GC, but it could have been much worse, I think,” she told CyclingTips. “Because this gravel was yeah … maybe on a gravel bike or a mountain bike, it’s fun. But on a race bike … I think it’s just a little bit too much and it becomes a bit too much of a lottery depending on which cars are in front of the caravan and the resources the teams have to put people on the side of the road.
“For me being on the moto, I think [Paris-]Roubaix felt like a walk in the park compared to today’s stage. Really.”
Most Van Vleuten, most riders will be glad today’s stage is over. Particularly those targetting the GC who survived another day in contention at the top of the leaderboard.
Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) still leads the race, 16 seconds ahead of Silvia Persico (Valcar-Travel & Service), with Niewiadoma and Longo Borghini all within 21 seconds. With two lumpy stages and two mountainous days remaining, the top 10 on GC are all within 2:20 of one another.
The dust has now settled on the race’s most anticipated – and most controversial – stage but plenty of exciting racing still remains.