If Grace Brown learnt anything from the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift last year, it was that no matter how well prepared it’s a race where the stakes are so high that there are no easy pickings. The FDJ-SUEZ rider had been flying through the spring of 2022 in the form of her life, but those front-of-field finishes became elusive in France.
That’s why even though she’s heading into the Tour mentally refreshed after a break from racing, and with the form ticking along nicely, the 31-year-old isn’t taking anything for granted for her second year of racing at the eight-day French tour.
“It’s hard, the Tour de France is just really big, and I think I’m more nervous than I was last year because I know a bit more what to expect, I know how crazy it’s going to be,” Brown told Cyclingnews in a phone interview during the final week before the race. “I feel physically good but I guess a little bit apprehensive about what I can expect from myself because we know that everyone’s in super form.
“Last year I thought that I was in my best shape of the year, maybe ever, and I didn’t get any results at all. So it’s like you need to go in believing that you can do something, but also not expecting it.”
The brutal slopes of the Col du Tourmalet on stage 7 may be drawing plenty of anticipation, but for Brown it is the stages before and after that excite her. FDJ-SUEZ is likely to be backing Marta Cavalli and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig for the overall, and while Brown was clear that “she’ll be there to help the team”, the Australian is also likely to take advantage of any stage opportunities that crop up.
“I think quite a lot of the early stages are fairly well suited to me, the hard stages with a lot of elevation but not really long climbs … that’s the sort of profile that suits my abilities – it can be really attritional over hard terrain,” said Brown.
“I’m hopeful that I can try for a stage result early in the race but the more focussed target is the time trial on the last day.”
While Brown’s rivals for those stage wins have largely been training at altitude in the European summer, or racing in the heat of the Giro d’Italia Donne, Brown hasn’t pinned on a number since the CIC-Tour Feminin International des Pyrenees in early June and hasn’t exactly been basking in the warmth.
During her race break, Brown went back to Australia, spending time with her husband in the chilly Melbourne winter. She still found ways of preparing for what is expected to be a Tour de France that could well deliver temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius. Along with a bit of gravel to mix things up and plenty of hours on the time trial bike, Brown threw indoor heat training sessions in the mix and is pretty happy with how it seems to have worked so far.
“I’m not feeling remotely uncomfortable in the heat now in training,” said Brown, who returned from Australia earlier this month and has been located in northern Italy. She was quick to point out that it may not be as hot as expected in some part of France where the race is going, “but still to feel comfortable in 30-plus degrees is a good step”.
She’ll of course have more time acclimatising on the way to the start line in Clermont-Ferrand on Sunday July 23 and beyond as she heads toward her key goal of the time trial, which will come on July 30 in Pau after seven days of hard racing. In her favour, too, is that many potential rivals in that final stage may have had to lay it all on the line in the previous testing stage over the Col d’Aspin and then up the Tourmalet.
“If you’re fighting for GC you are absolutely going into the red there and if not, it’s not easy, but you can save some energy,” said Brown. “So, I mean, as long as the team doesn’t need me to fight for a GC place, then I can save a bit of energy there, which hopefully can help me on the last day … But of course you never know what could happen.”
There were certainly challenges for the French squad in the 2022 edition, the biggest being a devastating crash for Marta Cavalli on stage 2 that took her out of the race. On that stage, their other GC card, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, also fell and lost a considerable amount of time. However, there were also highs for FDJ-SUEZ, notably an exciting stage 3 victory for Uttrup Ludwig in Epernay.
In her fifth season as a professional, Brown clearly has targets. When asked what would make it a successful year at this year’s race, her focus first and foremost was on team goals, not her own.
“In the end last year, it was a really satisfying Tour,” said Brown. “With the one stage win of Cecilie that was really special for the team. So I think if we can have one stage win or a really solid placing on the GC for the team, then that will be a successful Tour.”