The accidental GC contender: The story of Silvia Persico’s wonderful Tour

She came to the Tour targeting stage wins, and leaves having been the most versatile rider in the race.

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First came Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), soaring to victory on La Super Planches des Belles Filles to win the inaugural Tour de France Femmes. Then came Demi Vollering (SD Worx), finishing second behind Van Vleuten for the second day running, locking up second overall.

But behind them, on the brutally steep final ramp to the finish of stage 8, an intriguing battle was playing out. Of the three riders remaining in that GC group, Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) was the biggest name and the likely favourite to complete the stage podium. Also in contention was local hero and Giro stage winner Juliette Labous (DSM).

But with around 100 metres to go, as the road ramped up to gradients beyond 20%, it was the final and least-fancied rider in the group, Silvia Persico (Valcar-Travel & Service) that kicked away to finish third on the stage.

That result was emblematic of Persico’s Tour de France Femmes overall. Coming into the race, few had considered the 25-year-old Italian among the contenders for a high overall finish. By finishing the Tour in fifth overall, Persico had exceeded all expectations, not least her own.

“For sure I don’t believe if before Tour somebody tell me ‘you finish in the top five, blah, blah, blah,'” she said to reporters after stage 8. “But I’m very happy to be here. So now I must believe and I’m very happy.”

Persico was the most versatile rider in the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift; the most complete rider across all terrain.

On stage 2 she got in the winning breakaway late, then finished second behind Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) in an uphill sprint. On stage 3, she was fourth on a short but steep uphill finish in Provins. On stage 5 she was seventh in a pure bunch sprint won by Lorena Wiebes (DSM). And then in the mountains of the final two stages, Persico climbed with most of the top GC contenders, finishing sixth and then third.

In all, across eight stages, she managed six finishes inside the top seven. That would have been seven of eight had she not been relegated for a dangerous sprint on stage 6, dropping her from fifth to 39th on the stage.

Persico flew under the radar coming into the race, but that won’t be true in future editions of the Tour.

Persico’s third place on the final stage might just be her most impressive result of the Tour. She’d started the stage feeling the effects of yesterday’s brutally hard day in the Vosges Mountains, but battled on valiantly.

“Today was a hard day,” she said. “When the stage started I didn’t feel good. And then I told to my head, ‘Silvia, you must believe. You must believe.’ So in the first climb, I almost drop and then in the second, I didn’t give up. And in the third, I finished third.”

While Persico wasn’t a big name coming into the Tour, she certainly hasn’t come from nowhere.

The 25-year-old is perhaps best known for her exploits on the cyclocross track, highlighted by a bronze medal at the Cyclocross World Championships in Fayetteville earlier this year, behind Vos and Lucinda Brand. But she’s hardly been anonymous on the road, either.

She’s raced on the tarmac as a pro since 2017 when she joined the Valcar team in its first year. The Italian Continental squad has since made a name for itself for ushering a string of riders into the WorldTour, namely Marta Cavalli, Elisa Balsamo, Teniel Campbell, and Vittoria Guazzini.

While Persico had some promising results in seasons past, it’s in 2022 that she’s really stepped up. She achieved top-10 finishes at all of Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Gent-Wevelgem and Brabantse Pijl. She was also third overall at the Festival Elsy Jacobs, seventh at the Vuelta a Burgos, the same at RideLondon, and seventh as well at the Giro d’Italia Donne, a race where she claimed third, fourth, and seventh on individual stages.

And then came the Tour.

Persico after finishing third at the 2022 Cyclocross Worlds.

Amazingly, Persico didn’t come to the Tour de France Femmes with ambitions for the general classification.

“I start this Tour and I was not [doing] GC,” she told CyclingTips. “I was here [to] win a stage. So finish fifth for me, it’s a bigger [result].”

Having made it to that winning break on stage 2, Persico spent four days in second overall, with only Vos ahead of her. Once in that position she hoped for more, but it wasn’t to be.

“When I was a second I dream for the yellow jersey,” she said. “But Marianne was super strong and then yesterday Annemiek [van Vleuten] was also super strong. So I’m very happy to be here and to fight for five days for the yellow jersey. And I’m also happy for the fifth place because it’s special for me.”

Given her strong overall finishes at the Giro and now the Tour, is Persico keen to target GC at more races going forward? Not so much, as it turns out.

“For sure, no,” she says, laughing. “I prefer the one-day races like Flanders or Classics. I don’t know the next year but for sure I must do another Giro or Tour, so I try to do my best.”

Persico’s contract with Valcar-Travel & Service looks set to end this year. It would hardly be a surprise if she’s the next rider from the second-division team to make the step up to the WorldTour ranks.

Either way, it’s been a remarkable Tour de France Femmes for Persico. She came to the race targeting stage wins, and leaves having proven herself as a much more complete rider than anyone expected, likely even herself.

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