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How do you solve the “problem” posed by a one-of-an-era phenom like Van Vleuten?
The 39-year-old rode away from the pack as soon as the road pointed uphill in Saturday’s “Queen Stage” and ground Demi Vollering from her wheel soon afterward in what was a performance for the history books.
“I said to her, ‘it’s not normal what you did,'” Vollering said of her rival Saturday afternoon.
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Van Vleuten’s ride Saturday was one rarely seen in pro cycling. Think Chris Froome on the Finestre in the 2018 Giro d’Italia, or Tadej Pogačar’s assault in the Alps at the men’s Tour last summer.
There was a sense of inevitability that a back-to-health Van Vleuten could do damage in a stage stacking more than 3,000 meters vert Saturday. But few might have expected her to blow the race to bits like she did.
Vollering trailed in 3:26 back and it took the rest of the climber pack almost two minutes to come to the line after that.
“Let’s say, Annemiek is beyond our capacity,” Kasia Niewiadoma said after she finished 5th in Le Markstein.
Now with more than three minutes of a gap over Vollering and another mountain stage to come, the Tour’s inaugural maillot jaune could be decided before the race even reaches its spectacular showdown on the Super Planches des Belles Filles on Sunday.
Banana peel and pitfalls
Like the riddle raised by stage-race dominators like Froome or Pogačar, Tour de France Femmes directors now have some thinking to do before Van Vleuten retires at the end of 2023.
How to prevent a repeat of the “AVV show” that was exhibited in vivid color in the Vosges on Saturday?
Van Vleuten showed in hilly races through the season she can unleash a “hail mary” move at any moment. It won her road race titles, Giro Donne pink jerseys and monument trophies. When there’s a mountain, expect “miek” to be motoring.
With time trial rainbow jerseys and Olympic golds in her spilling-over trophy shelf, races against the clock aren’t going to catch her out either.
“It’s important that it’s an interesting course to make an interesting show,” Van Vleuten said Saturday. “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.”
Top brass at ASO will be mulling the route for next year’s Tour already. Tour de France tradition tends to dictate that parcours are plotted to throw banana peels and pitfalls at dominant forces wherever possible.
So, how to keep a lid on Van Vleuten’s still-fizzing vintage?
There was no time trial in this year’s Tour, but any long race against the clock could do undue damage to GC in a race of eight days. Not only Van Vleuten, but any strong all-rounder, could rip up the race apart in one long TT.
Gravel, cobbles, dirt roads? Van Vleuten won Strade Bianche twice but is no fan of the off-road in stage races.
Vollering and SD Worx might be rueing not red-lining when they flooded the front of the stoney stage 4 and Van Vleuten was sick and suffering behind. But besides, it was health, not form, was the malady for Van Vleuten that day.
Nobody wants to see a race designed against one rider, but Van Vleuten is likely a “problem” on race director Christian Prudhomme’s mind as he opens a page for next year’s race.
But it’s a “problem” to be relished while it lasts.
Like Marianne Vos or the recently-retired Anna van der Breggen, Van Vleuten is a one of an era, a rider venerated by the men’s and women’s peloton, and gracious even after the most crushing performances.
“I could not believe that it was still possible after being so sick and then being now here in the yellow jersey, because I was so close to quitting the race,” she said Saturday. “It’s a little bit of a miracle.”
A waiting game?
Van Vleuten retires at the end of 2023, and so has just one more Tour de France Femmes left in her legs.
She’ll hang up her wheels with 16 pro seasons of experience and one of the deepest palmarès in the peloton.
“Van Vleuten said, ‘I have so much more training experience and overall experience,'” Vollering said Saturday. “Then she said to me, ‘that will come to you, so let’s hope.’”
Maybe there is no solution to unstitching a one-of-a-kind cyclist like Van Vleuten until she calls her own time next winter.
And in the meanwhile, the cluster of top racers a dozen years Van Vleuten’s junior like Vollering, Niewiadoma and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig may have to wait.
However, this inaugural Tour de France Femmes isn’t done yet.
Van Vleuten pulls on yellow Sunday for her ride toward the Planches, and Vollering and Co. won’t let her have it easy. But it’s hard to count out Van Vleuten having one more trophy to add to her collection in a few hours’ time.
“I will sleep well with this solid advantage,” she said Saturday. “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.”