Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) delivered a stunning stage 7 victory at the Tour de Femmes on Saturday, taking firm control of the yellow jersey in the process.
Overnight leader Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) was dropped early on in the 127.1km stage from Sélestat to Le Markstein, and with some 70km still to go, Van Vleuten and Demi Vollering (SD Worx) launched a huge attack on the Petit Ballon, the day's first categorized climb. A handful of big names set out in pursuit, but the Dutch duo quickly put the rest of the race into the rearview mirror.
Then, Van Vleuten dropped Vollering on the day's second climb, the Col du Platzerwasel, and she continued on solo.
From there, Van Vleuten held on all the way up and over the Grand Ballon to the line to take the win and the race lead. Vollering settled for a distant second on the day 3:26 down.
A further 1:50 later, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope) won a three-rider sprint to take third.
"It was such a roller coaster after being sick," Van Vleuten said following her victory. "I was so sick, and then, to win here, like this, it's unbelievable and beautiful to finish here solo. Incroyable."
After her remarkable performance in the Vosges, Van Vleuten has taken a commanding lead in the general classification of the Tour de France Femmes. She now has a gap of 3:14 to Vollering with one stage left to race, Sunday's mountainous stage 8.
How it happened
Stage 7 of the Tour de France Femmes got underway in hot conditions in Sélestat, and things continued to heat up in the early goings. With the peloton driving a torrid pace from the start, a big group nonetheless managed to get clear ahead of the first-category Petit Ballon, if only temporarily.
Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (SD Worx) were among the notables in the selection of more than 30 escapees, but the pack refused to give the move much space, and it was caught shortly after the start of the climb.
The challenging tempo of the early goings did, however, put paid to the hopes of a few other big names. Lorena Wiebes (DSM), who crashed on stage 6, pulled out of the race before the climb. Vos then lost touch with the pack as the road started to go up, thus ensuring that a new rider would end the day in yellow.
Shortly thereafter, Van Vleuten and Vollering launched their move, immediately opening a gap. Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) set off in pursuit as other big names started to coalesce into chasing groups.
Van Vleuten and Vollering went over the Petit Ballon together with Longo Borghini nearly a minute and a half back. Behind the Italian was another chasing group composed of Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Évita Muzic, and Grace Brown of FDJ Suez Futuroscope, Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), Silvia Persico (Valcar-Travel & Service), Juliette Labous (DSM), and Urska Zigart (BikeExchange-Jayco).
On the ensuing descent, Vollering attempted to get a gap over Van Vleuten, but was unsuccessful, and the pair hit the Col du Platzerwasel together. Van Vleuten pushed the pace out front, while behind, the larger chasing group started to fracture.
A kilometer from the top of the ascent, Van Vleuten put in a stinging attack that Vollering could not match, and the win was hardly in doubt from that point on as Van Vleuten went over the climb with 25 seconds in hand on her compatriot and extended her lead from there. Longo Borghini was the next rider over some four minutes later, while the chase group behind was still forming and reforming.
Van Vleuten only extended her lead in the run-up to the day's final climb, the Grand Ballon, which she started with a gap of more than two minutes to Vollering. Longo Borghini was more than five minutes back, with a lessened chase group of Niewiadoma, Ludwig, Muzic, Labous, Persico, and Zigart a further minute back.
Van Vleuten sailed up the Grand Ballon with aplomb, extending her gap to Vollering, while behind, Longo Borghini was losing steam. Muzic was then dropped from the chase group, then Persico, and then Longo Borghini was caught. Persico caught back on but then Niewiadoma spurred a series of attacks that ultimately whittled the group to just three riders: Niewiadoma, Labous, and Uttrup Ludwig. The situation would not change much from that point on.
At the head of the race, Van Vleuten went up and over the top of the climb solo and cruised to the convincing stage 7 victory. Vollering took second, with Uttrup Ludwig nabbing third ahead of Labous and then Niewiadoma.
"For sure I had to try because I was behind," Van Vleuten said of her decision to attack from afar.
"I lost some time, some seconds. My style is always attacking and also not waiting to the final. I did recon the stage so I saw already that the Petit Ballon was a hard one. After six days of waiting and surviving and recovering, I wanted to make the biggest time gaps and that also means going on the first climb."
With Van Vleuten now in the race lead, Vollering moves up to second with Niewiadoma sitting third overall ahead of the final stage.
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