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LE MARKSTEIN, France (VN) — Annemiek van Vleuten took a commanding lead in overall classification of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift but the Movistar rider almost called it quits earlier in the race after suffering with a stomach problem.
Van Vleuten lost time on stages 2 and 3 as she struggled to deal with the stomach issue she’d had since shortly after the opening stage. However, she was still able to stay within touching distance of the race lead before the crucial mountain stages.
After a couple of days where she had to stop on the side of the road to go to the toilet during the stage, Van Vleuten has looked increasingly strong in recent stages and put her rivals to the sword on the brutal day of climbing.
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“Super close,” Van Vleuten said when asked how close she’d come to quitting the race. “Because on day two I couldn’t even put my things in my suitcase. My teammates had to push me also all the time, so I was really in a bad situation.
“It has been a little bit of a rollercoaster so far. The whole Tour has been a rollercoaster. 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. It’s a little bit of a miracle.”
Van Vleuten attacked on the opening climb of the day, the Petit Ballon, taking Demi Vollering (SD Worx) with her. The pair rode together for a time and built up a significant gap on the chasers behind going onto the Col du Platzerwasel.
The Movistar rider then turned it up a notch as the summit zoomed into sight, dropping Vollering before the top. Once she had distanced, Vollering, Van Vleuten didn’t look back and she continued to grow her gap on the descent and through the valley.
She only looked to slow down towards the top of the final climb up the Grand Ballon, but she still had a strong advantage of 3:26 over Vollering as she crossed the line.
“To win solo is nicer than to win the sprint here. Especially also I could enjoy the audience more, but it was also a tactical point of view,” she said. “There was a long valley and Demi didn’t want to take turns with me so I really wanted to drop her before I was in that 15km valley because she would just sit in my wheel and then it would be way harder to drop her on the last climb. So, it was more a tactical move than just that I wanted to win in a beautiful way.”
A comfortable gap
Van Vleuten started the day slightly further back than some of the other GC contenders, but her winning margin means that she leads the overall classification with a 3:14 advantage over Vollering with Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) at 4:33 behind.
However, there is another tough stage to come with the finale on the Super Planche des Belles Filles.
“For sure, it’s good to sleep with this solid advantage, but for sure there will a crazy fight tomorrow for the other jerseys, for the podium, to put me still under pressure. So, I won’t say that it’s in the pocket, I will be really focused tomorrow but I know from how I’m climbing, I should not be scared to be dropped,” she said.
Vollering was the only rider to get within five minutes of Van Vleuten on the 127-kilometer stage with the main group of favorites finishing just outside the five-minute mark. At the finish, her rivals were at a loss as to explain how they might have done anything differently to beat the Dutchwoman.
Van Vleuten told the press that it was an accumulation of years of training that had got her to where she is today.
“That has something to do with my fitness level. My coach and me know that that is my strength. That’s something that comes with years,” she said. “I also want to make really clear with that that sometimes my colleagues get comments that they should train as much as I do, but that’s not possible. That’s something that’s just a process with years.
“I’m 39 years old so for me it’s possible to train so many hours but that’s not because I suddenly [could do that], it’s just a process of many years. Every year you can do 5-10 percent more hours. That makes my engine really big and that makes my fitness level really high, then if you have a stage like this that is super, super crazy hard, then I know that I can do it from the first climb.”
The inaugural Tour de France Femmes is almost done and dusted with the final stage Sunday set to crown the winner. Ahead of the race, there were hopes that it would draw in some of the fervor of the Tour de France name, but it has been much more than many had hoped for.
“It’s exceeding my expectations, the Tour de France Femmes. Especially it’s exceeding on how it’s organized. I really want to shout out to the organization, I really have the feeling that we are in the Tour de France, that we are not in a sideshow, it’s just the fourth week of the Tour,” she said.
“I think they do an amazing job and then on top of that there are so many people watching us alongside the road that you really feel in every village that you pass the Tour is alive. It’s not a sideshow from the men, it’s a great start and I think if I see this now it will develop in the next year. I said that it was maybe a bit hyped, but I was more meaning that first, we should put out an interesting show and that next it will be even more important.”