The female peloton joined the big family of the Tour 40 years ago, in June 1984. Six Dutch riders clad in "Oranje" flexed their muscles and claimed six of the top eight spots in the opening stage, with Mieke Havik leading the charge. The insatiable "Oranje" pioneers would go on to take fifteen stage wins in that historic edition. Several generations have since had their day in the sun, but Dutch talent has always remained a sight to behold. Looking back on this epic saga in the run-up to the Grand Départ of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift in Rotterdam, the official website has sat down to talk with some of the stars —past, present and future— of this tale.

Leontien van Moorsel shines as one of the brightest stars in the "Oranje" galaxy, with a list of victories of cosmic proportions and a legendary rivalry with her childhood hero, Jeannie Longo. Their spiciest duel came on the Alpe d'Huez in 1992, with Van Moorsel coming out on top in the Tour Cycliste Féminin just three years after her single Tour de France Femmes participation (1989). The Dutch rider from Boekel wrapped up her career precisely 20 years ago at the Athens Olympics, where she secured her fourth Olympic gold medal —in the time trial— before claiming her final medal —bronze in the pursuit— on her last lap of the velodrome. The former four-time road world champion, now 52, has stayed busy in retirement. "I've done a lot of things since I ended my career", she explains. "Speaking gigs, television, advertising… I'm the race director for the Amstel Gold Race Ladies. For 10 years, I've run a home [Leontienhuis, near Rotterdam] where we help 100 families battling with eating disorders." She knows these disorders all too well, as she had to put her career on hold to overcome these same challenges before storming back onto the stage in 1998.

You were 14 years old when the first Tour de France Femmes was held in 1984. What sticks out from that edition?

Back then, the men's race was all that mattered to me! I don't even think the women's race got any TV coverage over here. Women's cycling was pretty much an afterthought in the Netherlands in the 1980s. There were articles in cycling magazines and snippets on TV and in the newspapers.  

So what made you want to jump onto a bicycle?

Watching cycling wasn't really a thing in my family growing up. I started riding because my brother was doing it. He's a year older than me and I have three older sisters. Whenever my brother went to races, my sisters had to look after me. But then I'd go blabbing about them snogging boys and all that… Eventually, my parents decided not to have my sisters babysit me any more! Instead, they started taking me to my brother's races. That's how I got into the world of cycling. When he outgrew his bike, I inherited it and started riding around Rotterdam. I was eight at the time. As soon as I realised I had a bit of talent, the Tour de France became my big goal.  

The dream came true in 1989, when you were just 19…

What an inspiring bunch of memories! I finished 31st, Jeannie Longo was there and I wanted to be like her. That Tour made me realise that shedding some weight might put me in contention for the podium. Of course, I was gutted when the Tour got cancelled the very next year. But I was happy that another race stepped up to fill the void, even if it had a different name. Back in 1989, it felt like the women were just a warm-up act before the men came onto the stage, which was far from ideal. After that, we got the attention we deserved: a Tour for women.  

Where does your victory over Jeannie Longo on the Alpe d'Huez in the 1992 Tour Cycliste Féminin rank among your career achievements?

1992 was my greatest Tour victory. Going toe to toe with my role model from previous years was so exciting and motivating. I later realised how tough it must've been for Jeannie to see this young upstart taking the fight to her on her own turf. I had mad respect for her as a rider. As individuals, though, we're cut from a different mould. Our battles on and off the bike generated a lot of publicity for women's sport. Our duel on the Alpe d'Huez went down in history! I was a bundle of nerves. If Longo had known…  

What are your thoughts on the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift starting in the Netherlands this year?

It's awesome. I'm a bit jealous of this generation. How I would have loved to race the Tour in the Netherlands! Demi [Vollering] and I are both from this region, from Rotterdam, so it's really something special to see the first stage and the time trial held here.  

Back in the 1980s, the Dutch were already a force to be reckoned with, taking numerous Tour stage wins and other victories. However, they were not as good in the mountains as their successors, including Anna van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten and now Demi Vollering. What do you make of this?

Today's Dutch riders are fitter and leaner than their 1980s counterparts. They simply have lighter frames!  

How does a small nation of just 17 million keep churning out world-class champions generation after generation like the Dutch do? We have cycling clubs in every corner of the Netherlands, plenty of flat roads and bike paths where it's possible to ride safely everywhere. Children learn to cycle this way and they even ride their bikes to school!  

You also support a programme [Rotterdam Peloton] that teaches women how to ride a bicycle. Why was it important for you to get involved in this way alongside the Grand Départ in Rotterdam?

When they asked me to be an ambassador for the start of the Tour eight months back, I didn't just want to put my name to it, I wanted to make an actual impact too. So I asked to be put in charge of a project. With so many women in Rotterdam who don't know how to ride a bike and missing out on all that independence, I wanted to lead something to get these ladies riding from A to B, so that they, in turn, could pass on these skills to the next generation. For instance, it was only after my career that I started exploring the Netherlands by bike and discovered how beautiful my country is. My goal is for the women of Rotterdam to be able to get out and discover so much more than just their city. It's a win-win situation.