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Commentary: 2023 Tour de France Femmes route will make for closer, more aggressive racing

Taking out the gravel gimmick and putting in a race-finishing time trial will change the race dynamic compared to 2022.

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After a hugely successful opening edition of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, there was always going to be a lot of pressure on race organizer ASO to deliver the goods for the route of its second edition.

Last month, the parcours of the eight-day race was finally unveiled with a course that takes the riders from Clermont-Ferrand, in the Auvergne region, and southwest toward a finish in Pau.

Between Clermont-Ferrand and Pau, the riders would take on a series of undulating stages and climb the Col du Tourmalet — an ascent that is intertwined with the Tour’s history. After forgoing a time trial in 2022, ASO decided to place one on the final stage of the 2023 edition.

Inaugural champion Annemiek van Vleuten was in Paris for the route unveil and was pleased with what she saw. Van Vleuten, who is set to retire at the end of 2023, will be a big favorite at next year’s race and the route certainly suits her.

“I’m happy to see some famous climbs in the route for next year with the Tourmalet finish. It makes me already excited. It was important that we have an uphill finish with a climb that has a big name,” Van Vleuten said. “It also makes me happy to see a time trial at this Tour de France. Last year, we had an awesome start and this year they have fine-tuned the parcours and I think they did a good job.”

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The 2023 route is a major contrast to this season’s, and not just because of the shift away from Paris. ASO has not relied on any gimmicks, like the gravel stage that featured in this year’s race. Instead, it has utilized the undulating terrain of regions it’s visiting.

Even the stages that have been classified as flat have plenty of places for the action to explode. Meanwhile, the 177km stage to Rodez — the longest of the race — is one of those days that could throw the race on its head depending on how it’s raced.

Then there’s the final weekend. This year saw the general classification decided with two brutal stages in the Voges mountains. The 2023 edition will conclude with a short and punchy 90km stage to the summit of the Tourmalet, and a 22km time trial in Pau.

Speaking following the ceremony in Paris, race director Marion Rousse said she and the others responsible for designing the route had received plenty of feedback from riders on the course. Rousse added that next year’s race, which she believed still packed a sufficient punch, was created with that feedback in mind.

“We had a few requests from girls to have a time trial, there will be one this year. Because to win a Tour de France, you have to be competent in all areas and the exercise of the time trial is important,” Rousse told FranceInfo.

“It’s always special to trace a route. It must not be too hard because it does not encourage you to move before. We also relied on what the riders told us last year. We tried to make a balanced journey and I think we succeeded.”

Paris and beyond

The move away from Paris was a key part of developing the Tour de France Femmes as it looks to become a staple on the calendar. For the first edition, the stage in the French capital was an important inclusion. Not only did it directly connect the race with the heritage of the men’s race, but it also capitalized on the fan attendance on the roadside.

However, it was obvious from very early on that the Paris crossover could not stay if ASO wanted to develop the race. With the eight-day format, the race could only get so far from Paris and large parts of France were effectively off-limits. Moving down to Clermont-Ferrand opened up a world of possibilities.

“Maybe this is a bit sad because it was very good to start in Paris with the last stage of the men and lots of people there in the capital of France. But yeah, I think we need to start further away if you want to go to the Alps or Pyrenees,” former French national champion Evita Muzic told VeloNews. “I hope the Tour will be in the Alps next year because I live in the Alps side now, but I’m happy with it.”

While Clermont-Ferrand provides more opportunities for designing a parcours, it will test the popularity of the race. This year showed that the support of roadside spectators endured well outside of Paris and ASO will hope it’s the same a year on from the opening edition. Building on the hype from 2022 will be hugely important.

Though it was exciting to watch as an individual stage, not having a gravel stage or something similar could prove beneficial for the overall race. While it caused some challenging moments for the GC riders, it ultimately stagnated the overall contest as top riders looked to avoid trouble rather than gain an advantage on a rival.

Instead, the rolling terrain that now connects the opening stages to the mountain visit lay the groundwork for some aggressive racing. When the opportunities arose this year, it was clear that many of the top riders were more than happy to go on the offensive and try and gain a few seconds here and there.

This route leaves ample opportunity for that in 2023.

Van Vleuten dominated the closing stages of last year’s race with nobody able to get close to her in the high mountains. The Dutchwoman is supreme when she gets into her element and is unafraid of going solo on a big climbing day.

While she’s still the overwhelming favorite, considering the big mountain and time trial finale, the different parcours does change the dynamic. She has just 112km to inflict her damage rather than the 250km she had this year, while her rivals will have had another year to try and get closer to her.

It should hopefully be a far closer contest and, though she is still the favorite, a Van Vleuten win isn’t necessarily a certainty. This is a route that also plays to the strengths of someone like Demi Vollering, who finished second at the 2022 race.

This year’s Tour de France Femmes parcours was a great opening gambit, but the 2023 one is even better.