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Tour de France Femmes: Courage & Inspiration

Words: John Wilcockson; Images: Jordan Clark Haggard  

There’s no more prestigious podium in road cycling than the one on the Champs-Élysées at the Tour de France. Women briefly graced that podium at the Tour Féminin in the 1980s and at La Course par Le Tour in the mid-2010s, but even those podiums couldn’t match the one we saw at the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. Dutch sprinter Lorena Wiebes was so confident she would be on that podium that she applied yellow lacquer to her left-hand fingernails and green to the right; and she duly took the yellow and green jerseys by winning the opening stage field sprint over compatriot Marianne Vos. Her victory was no surprise. But what she did on the podium certainly was.

As Wiebes emerged in the yellow jersey, she waved a bouquet of flowers in her right hand and in her left arm cradled not only the LCL toy-lion mascot but also a baby! We’ve seen past Tour and stage winners take their young sons or daughters on stage, but this wasn’t even her own kid. Before the stage, Wiebes accepted a dare from her Team DSM soigneur that if she earned yellow she would take his and his partner Esther van Veen’s baby, Noortje, on the podium with her. Bet taken, bet delivered—though the crying baby didn’t think too much about the experience.

Lorena Wiebes would go on to win again after taking a baby onto the first stage podium.

Treating an often-regimented jersey presentation with a touch of irreverence was a reminder that female bike riders treat the sport differently than men. This doesn’t mean they are less serious about their racing; they just like to have fun doing it. Besides the joy they bring to road cycling, les femmes bring bravery and inspiration to a sport they have fully adopted. That was abundantly clear on the rolling stage 2 that headed through the Brie cheese region just east of Paris. After battling crosswinds in the first half of the stage, a strong tailwind contributed to high speeds and a series of crashes as a nervous peloton headed toward the finishing circuit in Provins.

Bandages were a common site after several crashes early in the race.

The most serious incident happened on a downhill stretch when a few riders fell, some on the road, some in the ditch. That crash wasn’t seen by Australian road champ Nicole Frain, who was returning to the back of the bunch through the team-car convoy after an earlier pileup. Moving at speed, Frain tried to avoid those who were slowing behind the fallen riders, but the right side of her handlebars collided with the left side of an FDJ-Suez team rider’s ‘bars. The rider was sent spinning high into the air and fell on her back, with her helmet thumping onto the tarmac.

That FDJ rider was one of the race favorites, Marta Cavalli, who earlier this year won the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Mont Ventoux classics and placed second in the 10-day Giro d’Italia Donne. Team helpers put Cavalli back on a spare bike, and for a while she steadily turned the pedals, but the glazed look on her eyes hinted at concussion and she was soon pulled from the race.

That same day, unknown to everyone except her immediate Movistar teammates, top favorite Annemiek van Vleuten was also on the point of quitting. Suffering from a fierce stomach bug, the Dutch superstar later said, “I couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink” and “I couldn’t pack my suitcase myself [before stage 2]. I was super-close to abandoning.” She added, “I can’t believe how sick I was, I dug so deep in stages 2 and 3…being sick and racing is awful for your body.” On the hilly finale to stage 3 at Épernay, van Vleuten displayed great courage to stay with the best climbers, but then got dropped on the penultimate hill, fought back and got dropped again on the uphill finish—losing just 20 seconds to stay in the top 10 overall.

Half an hour later, on that same finish line, Frances Jens van Rensburg, a South African on the low-budget Stade Rochelais-Charente Maritime squad, was trying to make the time cut. The day before, she’d been caught behind three crashes that saw three teammates go down; and she was dropped from the peloton early on stage 3. “I fought hard to make it inside the time cut for the remaining 115km,” she said on her Instagram account. “With 4km to go I was sure I will make it…and then I had a mechanical and had to do a bike change. I went all in and crossed the line 8 seconds too late.”

Frances Jens van Rensburg in her South Africa champion’s jersey.

The next night, she reported, “I was rushed to the ER with the worst pain in my back and stomach that I have ever felt. It resulted in me having to get emergency surgery.” Calling on her Christian faith, Jens van Rensburg added, “I couldn’t understand what went wrong and why I missed the cut…but He protected me from what could possibly have been much worse if I continued the race.”