5 Takeaways from the Tour de France Femmes
The biggest stage race in women’s pro cycling wrapped up over the weekend. Here’s what you need to know.
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Domination is the buzzword coming out of this year’s Tour de France Femmes, which wrapped up on Sunday, July 30, with a short individual time trial in the town of Pau. Dutch super-team SD Worx bulldozed the competition, sweeping the podium in the final stage and winning the yellow jersey with star rider Demi Vollering of The Netherlands. Vollering, 26, finished the eight-day race with a comfortable 3:03 lead on her own teammate, Lotte Kopecky of Belgium. Of the eight stages, SD Worx won four.
But SD Worx’s performance was hardly the only talking point to emerge from the second edition of the Tour de France Femmes, which has quickly become the biggest single event in women’s professional road cycling. Here are five other major storylines from this year’s race.
The Annemiek van Vleuten Era Ends
From 2017 until 2023, women’s cycling’s biggest rivalry pitted SD Worx (formerly called Boels-Dolmans) against whichever team employed Dutch phenom Annemiek van Vleuten (who was on our Outsiders of the Year list in 2022), the current world and Olympic champion. A one-woman powerhouse, van Vleuten can climb, time trial, and ride flats better than almost any rider in the peloton. She thoroughly drubbed SD Worx for much of 2022, winning women’s cycling’s biggest stage races: Tour de France Femmes, Giro d’Italia Donne, and Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta a España. After the season, the 40-year-old van Vleuten announced that 2023 would be her swan song. Many journalists—myself included—assumed she would steamroll the competition again this season. She appeared ready to repeat, winning the Vuelta Feminina (which replaced the Ceratizit Challenge) and the Giro d’Italia Donne. But domination comes at a price, and van Vleuten looked noticeably off her game during the Tour de France Femmes. During the race’s big climbing stage in the Pyrenees, van Vleuten tried again and again to drop Vollering. But the younger rider hung tough, and accelerated on the final ascent of the day, the legendary Col du Tourmalet. Cameras caught sight of van Vleuten fading off the back into the thick fog—perhaps a fitting end to her era of dominance. She finished third on the stage and fourth overall in the race for the yellow jersey. All reports say she still plans to retire at the end of the season.
Breakaways Thwart the Peloton
Critics sometimes blast the men’s Tour de France for being boring and formulaic—disapproval tied to the peloton chasing down each day’s breakaway with relative ease. Most professional road cycling races feature a battle between the main group of riders and the small break, which is comprised of riders who bolt away early and attempt to reach the finish line ahead of the peloton. At the Tour, where every stage win brings cash prizes and international fame, teams directors calculate exactly how hard the peloton must ride in order to bring the breakaway back before a sprint. Most breaks are doomed, so watching the cat-and-mouse battle play out often feels like a foregone conclusion. That’s not the case in women’s pro road cycling, where breakaways regularly surprise the peloton and make it all the way to the line. There are many opinions on why this is—each team has fewer riders than in the men’s race, for example—but longtime cycling fans can agree that the peloton’s battle with the breakaway in women’s road racing produces more surprises. That was the case at the 2023 Tour de France Femmes, where four of the seven road racing stages (stage 8 was an individual time trial) were won by breakaway riders. Kopecky won stage 1 after attacking solo inside the final 10 miles; Yara Kastelijn of team Fenix-Deceuninck won stage 4 after a daylong break; Ricarda Bauernfeind of Canyon-SRAM held off a charging peloton to win stage 5 by just 22 seconds; Emma Norsgaard of Movistar, one of four riders to break away, finished just 1 second ahead of the charging bunch.
Danske Emma Norsgaard vinder 6. etape af TDF Femmes! 🇩🇰🇩🇰 pic.twitter.com/5PDraGMxci
— discovery+ sport 🇩🇰 (@dplus_sportDK) July 28, 2023
Mountains Produce Excitement
The ascent of the Tourmalet was the most thrilling section of this year’s race, and it saw a major battle between Vollering, van Vleuten, and Polish rider Katarzyna Niewiadoma. As Niewiadoma attacked up the hulking climb solo, Vollering and van Vleuten battled each other a minute or so behind, with Vollering eventually bolting away to drop van Vleuten, catch and pass Niewiadoma, win the stage, and take the yellow jersey. The drama was amped up by the presence of thick fog on the climb, giving the stage an epic feel to it. The whole stage reinforced the opinion that women’s cycling absolutely needs to use the massive climbs used in men’s races. My hope is that future editions of the race go to other legendary ascents, like l’Alpe d’Huez, the Col du Peyresourde, and Mont Ventoux. Not that long ago, some women’s race directors intentionally steered away from these big climbs for fear that the disparity in climbing ability within the pack would lead to boring racing. These days, the women’s peloton is full of top climbers. Stages in the mountains produce thrilling, edge-of-your-seat battles that will capture the attention of even casual watchers.
Vimos momentos de frustración y fricción, pero cuando Demi Vollering lanzó su ataque en el Tourmalet nadie pudo seguirla
Vollering lidera la general con 1:50" sobre Kasia Niewiadoma y 2:28" sobre Annemiek van Vleuten en el #TDFF2023
— GCN en español (@gcnespanol) July 29, 2023
Prior to the 2023 race, sponsor Zwift circulated viewership numbers compiled by Neilson Sports from the Tour de France Femmes’s 2022 debut. The report came from regional TV and streaming studies across eight countries (USA, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Japan). According to the report, the race had a cumulative live audience of 23.2 million people, with, on average, 2.9 million people watching each stage live. That number represented a huge accomplishment, and it placed the Tour de France Femmes ahead of the men’s Giro d’Italia in terms of total live audience. Big and sweeping studies of this size and scope include plenty of estimation and back-of-the-napkin math, and in my previous role as a reporter with The SportsBusiness Journal, we were told to never glean fin-detail conclusions from them. But the macro findings of the report still speak to the event’s soaring popularity with TV audiences in its first year. Any sport that is working toward financial stability would salivate over TV numbers of this nature. I cannot wait to see the viewership statistics from the 2023 edition, and my prediction is that overall viewership will decline slightly, due to a slight drop in pre-race enthusiasm compared to its debut last season. But if the numbers are anywhere close to what the race achieved last year, organizers, sponsors, riders, and fans alike can all be extremely happy.
SD Worx Remains on a Roll
SD Worx has been the team to beat in women’s cycling for the past decade, and over the years it has employed some of the best riders in the sport’s history: Anna van der Breggen, Lizzie Deignan, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, and Evelyn Stevens, among others. The 2023 Tour de France Femmes represents the official start of the team’s Vollering/Kopecky era of dominance, and I have no doubt that these two riders—plus star sprinter Lorena Wiebes—will continue to win the biggest races on the calendar. I’ve written about the team’s success on a few occasions and have interviewed current and former riders, as well as directors, about the team’s secret to success. To me, they are the women’s cycling equivalent of the San Antonio Spurs that won five NBA championships between 1999 and 2014. SD Worx has no clandestine weapon or gimmicky model for winning. They simply do the boring and basic fundamentals of bike racing better than the other teams, from talent identification, to rider retention, to race tactics. SD Worx hires raw talent away from smaller squads—Vollering, Kopecky, and Wiebes all raced on smaller pro teams—and then molds them into top professionals. Young riders have two seasons to show promise, or else the team cuts bait and lets them go. SD Worx has one of the bigger budgets in the sport, so it pays top dollar to keep the riders that show promise, and rarely lose stars to other squads. And the team has no room for flashy riders or those driven by ego. It’s a recipe for success that is far easier jotted down in a column than practiced in the real world. Perhaps that’s why SD Worx truly stands out.
— NBC Sports Cycling (@NBCSCycling) July 29, 2023