Like last year, there were two tours of the picturesque landscape of France on bicycles; the Tour de France and the Tour de France Femme avec Zwift. Both had their moments of triumph and heartbreak, as any race or even sporting event does, but they were not equal.
Let’s start with the men’s race, because it started first and it was off with a Yates! That’s right, twin brothers Adam and Simon Yates broke away and dueled each other for the first stage victory and the leader’s Yellow jersey.
Unfortunately, this may have been the high point in the Yellow jersey race. And this is also where I started to exclusively root for the breakaway on any and every stage, because teams Jumbo Visma and UAE wanted their respective team leaders to battle it out in the mountains. And so they used their team to bring back the breakaways to the benefit of Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo) and Tadej Pogacar (UAE). This was great for those two riders, but a little less great for the viewers at home.
In the end, Vingegaard and Jumbo Visma cracked Pogacar, or he cracked himself, and the race went from a few seconds, to a minute, to a matter of minutes. Vingegaard becomes the second two-time champ and perhaps the reign of Pogacar is over, and maybe Vingegaard’s reign is just beginning? Only time will tell.
But the race was more sullen to me than it was a celebration. Mark Cavendish, on the verge of a record-breaking number of stage wins, finished second on Stage 7 and looked in good form before crashing out due to a broken collarbone the next day. This was supposed to be his final ride, but we’ll have to wait and see if he can make yet another comeback against even more odds.
The man who for years dominated the Points Classification and wore the Green Jersey more than any other rider, Peter Sagan, was riding in his farewell tour this year, as was French cycling legend Thibaut Pinot.
Add to that the fact that my personal favorite French rider to watch Julian Alaphilippe may have ridden his last tour, and now I have this realization that the era of cycling that was, especially for Alaphilippe and Pinot in their heyday is changing and maybe not for the betterment of the Tour. Gone are the days of individuals who want to put on a show, and now is the age of the powerhouse team built for one purpose.
Now Neilson Powless and Giulio Ciccone did put on quite a duel for the King of the Mountains Polka Dot Jersey by getting the breakaways going and getting as many points as they could with different strategies that paid more dividends for the eventual winner Ciccone, but the Green Jersey points classification for the sprinters won by Jasper Philipsen felt like it was over before it began.
So, too, for the Yellow Jersey, since after Adam Yates wore it for a while after Stage 1, it was inevitably going to fall on the shoulders of either Vingegaard or Pogacar. It eventually did as Vingegaard took it in the later stages of the race and kept it all the way to Paris.
But as a fan of cycling, I didn’t have to lament the lack of excitement in the Tour de France for too long because the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwiift really outdid them.
On Stage 1, Lotte Kopecky rode away from everyone solo to take the win and the Yellow Jersey, a jersey she held onto until the Queen’s Stage in the highest mountains of Stage 7. More on that in a bit.
On a few occasions in this race, the teams’ strategies for the big sprinters got it exactly right or exactly wrong with breakaways succeeding by minutes, or by meters, or in heartbreaking fashion while losing their lead with less than 200 meters to go.
And after watching the men’s race where breakaway after breakaway were pulled in by two powerful teams, it was great to see a race where the aggressiveness of riders in the breakaway was rewarded more often than not.
But the real jewel of this 2023 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift was the Queen’s Stage, Stage 7 in the high mountains featuring two legendary tour climbs: the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet.
Lotte Kopecky put in a performance in a discipline she’s not known for that, once again, proves that the Yellow Jersey can give you wings, allowing you to fly up mountains in a performance you thought impossible yourself. But it was an aggressive attack by Kasia Niewiadoma that put everyone on notice.
Annemiek Van Vlueten and Demi Vollering would catch up and Vollering would emerge first through the mist at the top of the Tourmalet to take the stage and the Yellow Jersey, with just the individual time trial in Pau to go and a healthy one minute and fifty seconds in hand over second place Niewiadoma.
As a result of the epic nature of Stage 7, Stage 8’s 22.6km individual time trial was anticlimactic. But viewers, commentators, journalists, and racers will be talking about Stage 7 for years, I’m sure. Vollering’s time trial was great, if a little safe with so much time in hand, but the fight for the podium and the final top ten positions made for compelling television with the final 15 riders. At the end of this finale, second and third on the podium overall were decided by less than one second with Kopecky edging out Niewiadoma.
When you boil it down, as a casual cycling fan and a huge fan of the sport’s two biggest races, I want to see the riders race and I want to see interesting storylines and root for the underdog, and see the favorites battle it out; I want it all.
And this year, while there were obviously some other interesting minor storylines in the Tour de France, because it is a three week race, the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift was just much more compelling in its eight days. There’s no debating that. Perhaps next year you’ll watch both and compare, but if you have to watch one, after this year, my vote would go with the Femmes.