The Dutch superstar was suffering with stomach issues for the opening days, lost time on the short, sharp uphill finish of stage two, and was dropped on the tougher climbs through the Champagne vineyards on day three.
“I was so sick that I was not busy with what other people were thinking, I was just thinking about surviving,” Van Vleuten told Cycling Weekly while warming down on the turbo after Friday’s sixth stage, which was won by Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma).
“I don’t think anyone knew because I played some good poker, I didn’t let anyone know I was sick. Maybe some of the girls saw that my team mates pushed me a lot on the second and third day, but on the second day I was not surprised [she was not attacked] because they did not know.
“I was scared that there would be echelons from the start because that would have been disaster for me, I lost something but not too much. On the third day I paid the price for being sick the two days before.
“Now it’s not in my head, accept the situation and move on and take the best out of it. I am looking forward to tomorrow [Saturday.]
The gravel of the following stages also seemed to present the Movistar rider with problems, but her GC rivals still did not attack and put time into the pre-race favourite, despite the illness by then being public knowledge.
“It was so hard on the gravel we also had no idea of who punctured and he DS had no overview we had no overview because of the gravel, so it’s not easy to create something,” explained DSM’s GC hopeful Juliette Labous.
While Van Vleuten refused to talk about the climbs on the weekend’s stages, Labous was happy to. The 23-year-old lives near Besançon, only a 50 minutes’ drive from the start of Sunday’s stage to Super Planche des Belles Filles, and knows all the weekend’s climbs well.
So which is the hardest day?
“I would say tomorrow, but Sunday will also be hard because we will have done Saturday’s stage before, but if you look at the profile and you ride them separately it is tomorrow.”
Stage seven takes the peloton 127.1km between Sélestat and Le Markstein, a ski resort just below the 13.5km climb of the famous Grand Ballon.
Before that they have the ascents of Petit Ballon and the Col du Platzerwasel to contend with. Both average over 8% and both are over seven kilometres, and with little flat all day long it could prove decisive.
“I think it can be a small group at the finish because you have a small downhill and then a flat part which can bunch it up a bit, but the peloton will be really split,” asserted Labous.
Other riders Cycling Weekly asked thought Saturday would be the decisive stage, and even that we would know the winner on Saturday.
“I honestly think stage seven is going to be the hardest with all that climbing,” said Veronica Ewers (EF Education-Tibco-SVB). “You have an eight kilometre climb and move immediately into another eight kilometre climb, then the long climb to the Grand Ballon, it’s going to be brutal and that could be the decision maker.”
Sunday is no walk in the park either. A second category climb comes after 52 of the 123.3km, then they ascend the Ballon d’Alsace, but it’s Super Planche des Belles Filles that is the real challenge.
“There are also some punchy climbs in the middle that I think will split the peloton,” continued Ewers. “I think the GC favourites will be in that first split, and then hopefully, hopefully for spectator's sake, it'll be a pretty awesome race up.”
Labous thinks the GC winner will be decided there. At seven kilometres it averages only 8.7%, but has ramps of over 10% and finishes with 24%. On gravel.
“It’s really a hard one, until the gravel it’s always steep or false flat really, not steady but super hard, and then the gravel is just the finisher and really tough.”
Will Van Vleuten be beaten?
“We will see,” says Labous. “We are used two her being first on GC already from the first half of the stage race, this is new and it all depends on how she’s feeling.”
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