LE MARKSTEIN, France: Dutch veteran Annemiek van Vleuten took the yellow jersey in the women’s Tour de France with a crushing performance in the mountains which powered her to a remarkable solo victory on Saturday’s penultimate stage.
Movistar rider van Vleuten, 39, began the day almost a minute and a half behind the leader Marianne Vos but raced solo with 62km still to go in the mountainous 127.5km stage from Selestat to Le Markstein Fellering.
Demi Vollering (SD Worx) finished second, 3mins 30sec behind, with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Suez) winning the sprint for third.
Van Vleuten, who was sick at the start of the week and almost pulled out of the Tour, now leads by 3min 09sec ahead of Vollering and is the clear favorite to win the race when it ends with Sunday’s stage eight on the Super Planche des Belles Filles.
“It has been such a roller coaster,” said van Vleuten.
“I have been so sick and to win with this is unbelievable and beautiful. To finish here solo, I had to try because I was behind.
“My style is always attacking not waiting for the final (sprint).”
Van Vleuten attacked as soon as the peloton arrived at the Petit Ballon, the first of the day’s tortuous climbs.
“I did a reconnaissance of the stage and noticed that the Petit Ballon was a difficult climb,” she said.
“After six days of waiting, surviving and recovering, I wanted to make the biggest time gaps and it meant going on the first climb. This stage suited me really well. I knew if I would be fit enough after being sick, it would be my day.”
Team Jumbo-Visma rider Vos, who held the yellow jersey at the start of the day after clocking two wins and five podiums in the opening six stages, was unable to stay in touch and eventually limped in almost 25mins after van Vleuten.
It was a bad day also for Lorena Wiebes, winner of two stages, who suffered a nasty fall on Friday and dropped out early in stage seven.
“It doesn’t make sense to try to come back. She was far behind and in pain. To bring her back up only to get dropped again... It was easier for her to just roll in,” said Team DSM director Albert Timmer.
Fit or not, it would likely have made no difference to van Vleuten who was on another plane to the rest of the field.
Her early break on the Petit Ballon, 85km from the finish, was matched at the start by compatriot Vollering but with 62km remaining on the Col de Platzerwasel, the second of the day’s big climbs, she shook her off.
From then on, the three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia and time-trial gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics, was on her own and never looked like wilting.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) attempted to give chase but could never get close enough to close up the gap on the front two.
As the chasing group cranked up the pace, so the Italian began to tire and she was gobbled up on the final ascent up the Grand Ballon, 12km from the finish.
Third place came down to a dog fight between stage three winner Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Suez), Juliette Labous (DSM) and Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon/SRAM) who were neck and neck at the summit of Grand Ballon before the Dane snatched it in the dash for the line.
Sunday’s final stage sees the riders racing a 123km with two major climbs from Lure to La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges, where Slovenian Tadej Pogacar, the defending champion, won in the men’s race three weeks ago before finishing second overall in Paris.