Strength in numbers: How FDJ-Suez hopes to crack Annemiek van Vleuten in 2023

French team looks to Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Marta Cavalli, Evita Muzic, Grace Brown for GC success in 2023.

Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images

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FDJ-Suez has already blitzed the start of 2023 but the French women’s squad has even bigger goals this year as it looks to break the stranglehold that Annemiek van Vleuten has on major stage races.

Van Vleuten dominated the stage racing scene last year, winning all but one of the multi-day events she rode. The only one she didn’t win was the Tour de Romandie — when she was recovering from a broken elbow that she picked at the worlds — where she finished second to a flying Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.

With the Dutch rider set to retire at the end of this season, FDJ wants to show that it can beat her while she’s still competing.

Team manager Stephen Delcourt believes he has the riders to take on Van Vleuten with Marta Cavalli, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Evita Muzic, and Grace Brown all looking for GC wins this year.

“Our goal is to fight with Van Vleuten and win before she retires. It’s the deal,” Delcourt said in a call Friday. “We need to have many cards to play with. We know how Marta was playing with Annemiek during the last year’s Giro Donne. We know how Cecilie can push at the limit Annemiek also, and we have Evita and Grace who are another few cards to play. Our strategy is to always have many cards for the final in every race.”

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Cavalli finished second to Van Vleuten at the Giro d’Italia Donne last summer, at 1:52 back. She was one of the top favorites to challenge her at the subsequent Tour de France Femmes, but she had to leave the race on stage 2 after suffering a concussion in a crash.

Uttrup Ludwig also finished just behind the Dutch rider at her opening race of the season, Setmana Ciclista Valenciana, with Cavalli taking third. She took a top 10 at the Tour de France Femmes — along with Muzic — before taking her first-ever GC win at the Tour of Scandinavia.

The Dane has the same confidence as her team manager that they can close the gap to Van Vleuten in 2023 and she’s working hard to make it true.

“It’s not like we’re lying in bed and relaxing. I mean, we’re training as hard as we can,” Uttrup Ludwig said. “We must say she’s just incredibly strong and we’re trying our best to catch up. What I believe in is that every year hopefully you can do a bit more and a bit more to make the gap both in experience but also physical achievement. Hopefully each year we’re getting closer and closer and maybe this year we’ll get her. That’s the dream.”

Strength in numbers

After Van Vleuten’s blistering victory at the Tour de France Femmes, which saw her take the yellow jersey by 3:48 over Demi Vollering, much of the peloton will be looking forward to her retirement at the end of this season. However, it would be a major coup for any team to knock her off the top spot in a straight fight.

As the biggest French team in women’s cycling, the Tour de France is a major goal for the squad — though the team is not unique in that target.

Last year saw Uttrup Ludwig ultimately take the main leadership role after Cavalli crashed out, but she’s hoping to have her Italian partner in crime to work with this year. She’s also looking forward to tackling a new-look course.

“We’ll have two cards this year with Marta and me sharing the role. We hope to challenge [Van Vleuten] and it’s going to be exciting,” she said. “With the time trial now that’s really nice to see this year. Last year, we didn’t have that many time trials and, this year, we’ll have more. That’s a beautiful part of our sport and should be included more in the grand tour stage races.”

Cracking a nut as hard as Van Vleuten is easier said than done, but Uttrup Ludwig believes that the team has strength in numbers. It’s not just the ability to have multiple riders pushing at the front in key moments, but the way that they can drive each other on in training ahead of the season.

“This is what I really believe in that having multiple cards will only help reach our goal,” Uttrup Ludwig said. “I think it’s actually a strength in our team that we have multiple cards and for the grand tours that will have a shared leadership. That’s only a good thing.

“We have so many cards to play and so many strong riders, and I feel it’s motivating. When we’re doing training camps, we’re training so hard. It’s kind of an internal competition, but it’s healthy, and we want to improve within the team, and we know that. It’s only going to give us better cards in the race. It’s really a strength in our team.”

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