The long Bank Holiday weekend was jam-packed with exciting, hilly day races across two continents. Four races were staged in Europe and one in the USA, that showed the world how a National Championships can give women a world-class racing platform.
1. Tour de Languedoc-Roussillon
You may remember the chaotic opening to the Tour de Languedoc Roussillon last week. Fortunately the racing made up for the difficulties the riders faced when it was uncertain as to whether the Tour would go ahead.
With Friday’s Stage 1 a non-starter, we covered Stage 2 won by Marta Bastianelli (Faren – Let’s Go Finland) and then Brit, Emma Pooley storming to victory on Sundays Stage 3 for Team Bigla, with a considerable lead.
Once the climbing was over, the race became all about team Specialized-lululemon over the remaning stages 4-6. They’ve been suffering a run of bad luck recently, with just four relative unknowns Lisa Brennauer, Gillian Carleton, Katie Colclough and Loren Rowney left on the team to race this Tour. These four have been spending the season working for their team-mates, and they might not have expected to do especially well here. But with the biggest teams in the race, Rabobank-Liv/giant and Boels-Dolmans pulling out of the race in protest at the organisers, they took every opportunity they were offered.
Monday’s stage 4 was a bunch sprint from a large group, Lauren Rowney one of the Specialized-lululemon remaining four, who learnt her cycling in the Australian crit culture, showed off her skills, timing her jump to perfection, to win.
Stage 5 on Tuesday saw Lisa Brennauer, the second Specialized-lululemon rider claim victory in the 27km Individual Time Trial, winning 32 seconds ahead of Emma Pooley.
Finally, to bag a hat-trick for the Specialized-lululemon team, Gillian Carleton came through with goods on the final stage. The pink-haired cyclist has ridden a few road races in North America, but this is her first season with a pro team – and she blogged on the team website that she’d been worrying about her lack of results, especially after crashing out of her first three European races. She made up for that here, getting into a break early on with three other riders. Carleton attacked at the end of the stage, showcasing her track power, to win solo – her first European win!
Pooley’s Individual Time Trial result solidified her position, so all she needed to do was make sure none of her General Classification opponents got away from her – which she did admirably. Afterwards, she said that she was surprised to have done so well, as her preparation was less than ideal – but to women’s cycling fans, it was a reminder of her brilliance. What a shame we won’t be seeing her in the Giro Rosa Grand Tour next month.
The Boels Rentals Hills Classic, (a.k.a Holland Hills Classic) has suffered previously due to its dates clashing with bigger races. Now in its tenth year, it’s found a spot on the calendar.
The course is one of those that’s lovely to look at as a cycling fan, but much less fun to ride. Winding through the Valkenburg hills, the site of last year’s Road World Championships, taking in famous climbs like the Eyserbosweg and the Cauberg, finishing outside the headquarters of Boels Rentals, the Dutch company that’s really stepped in to support women’s cycling this year.
In true Classics style, the race started with attacks. These are different in women’s cycling than in men’s – they’re as much about trying to exhaust the peloton and reduce the number of riders in contention as they are about individual riders trying to escape. There’s continual movement as riders attack off the front and the race fragments behind them, with groups forming and joining.
By the time the race reached the Cauberg ascent, there had been all kinds of action – but 12 elite riders were in the lead, including stars of the sport Annemiek van Vleuten (Rabobank), Emma Johansson (ORICA-AIS), Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans), Ashleigh Moolman (Lotto Belisol) and Ellen van Dijk (Specialized-lululemon). This group was not going to give each other an inch, attacking over and over, right to the finish-line. It ended in a sprint, won by Ash Moolman.
This is Moolman’s first European win. She came over from South Africa to start racing with the pros in 2010, and her positive nature, enthusiasm and love of the sport has been a feature of her blog and twitter, even through periods of injury and bad luck. She’s predominantly a climber, but this season she’s also raced really well in the Classics – her third place in the Flèche Wallonne has really boosted her confidence. Winning the sprint with Van Vleuten and Armistead in second and third can only add to that, and she surely has to be one to watch in the Giro Rosa.
On Saturday, the peloton were still in the Netherlands, in Aalburg, the town where cycling’s superstar, Marianne Vos, grew up. This is a special race for Vos – although she’s been riding MTB for the last few weeks, finishing 11th in last weekends Albstadt Cross Country World Cup (which you can watch on Red Bull tv), she came back to the road to ride this one.
It’s a flat race, laps of two different loops that take in seven villages, in an area known for the wind. With cobbled sections and some technical sections – typical Dutch racing, always fast and furious. Teams ORICA, Rabobank and Sengers took control of the race from the start, using the wind to break up the peloton, and the fireworks began!
Vos was particularly aggressive, and Emma Johansson was fighting her all the way, until in the final stages, the Swedish rider attacked and managed to get a gap, with just Vos’ Belgian Rabobank team-mate, Liesbet de Vocht, joining her. They gained ten seconds – but then Vos exploded out of the peloton, chased by four riders. It came down to a small bunch – and Vos starting her trademark long sprint, winning her ‘home’ race, with Johansson and De Vocht making up the peloton.
After the Dutch races, it was a quick dash over the border to Belgium, for the final race of the weekend. Gooik is another hilly race, in the heart of the Belgian Classics territory, Flanders.
It was the same peloton, but Emma Johansson, who’d been aggressive all weekend, wasn’t satisfied with her second place in Aalburg. The early hills broke up the peloton, and Johansson was in the group of eight that survived – Johansson and her team-mate Tiffany Cromwell, Vos and her team-mate Iris Slappendel, Belgians Jessie Daams (Boels) and Maaike Polspoel (Sengers), young Italian Rossella Ratto (Hitec) and trackie Katarzyna Pawlowska (GSD Gestion-Kallisto).
The group stayed together over the hills and into the seven 10km laps. Vos tried to get away, but kept getting chase down – and then on the penultimate lap, Vos tried again. She was caught, again, but Slappendel went straight away – and only Johansson and Polspoel could catch her. The trio kept away – and as the race took the final corner into the sprint, Johansson attacked, and won – her first win for ORICA-AIS!
Johansson is an excellent rider, a true all-rounder, but while she has been a contender in so many of the big races this season, finishing on the podium in her first eight European races. Her only win was at the Cholet-Pays de Loire, and was for the Swedish National Team. As she’s so often on the podium, it’s a surprise she hasn’t taken a win in ORICA colours before.
While most of the peloton where racing hard in Europe, in the USA it was an early start to National Championships season. It was an especially good year for the women, as this was the first time they’ve got to compete alongside the elite men – with equal prize money, and equal coverage, it was a fantastic weekend of racing.
All races were streamed live on the Tour Tracker – a platform for internet and phones that shows live video along with all kinds of text information about the race – and they’d brought in Kristin Armstrong to commentate, which added some real depth.
Armstrong is no relation to Lance – and unlike the disgraced Tour de France rider, she’s a true champion. Like him, she started in triathlon, moving to road cycling after osteoarthritis prevented her running. She’s got spectacular palmares, and after winning the Individual Time Trial in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 World ITT title, she retired to have a child – her son, Lucas.
This made her the perfect commentator, and filled the ITT and the road race with her experiences as a rider and all kinds of factoids about the teams and riders on the road. If you missed watching it live, you can see it all over again – go to the Tour Tracker race site, click on the race and you should be able to see a replay of the video.
It’s a real luxury to be able to see the races all the way through – there are maybe six or seven women’s races that are shown live over the course of the year, and although there is video of most races, most times if we’re lucky we see 7 minutes clips. After Carmen Small of Specialized-lululemon won the ITT just one second ahead of Exergy’s Kristin McGrath, with Alison Powers (NOW & Novartis for MS), everything was set up for an explosive road race, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
One of the best things about seeing a race from the start was getting to see all the early attacks and moves. The race, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, started with loops of the city, then out for two loops of Lookout Mountain in the middle of the race, and back for more laps of the city – great for spectators, who could see the race unfold and cheer for their favourites each time they passed. The climbs split the race until just a small group was left – and then Mara Abbott of Exergy was racing solo – until an unfortunate puncture and terrible wheel-change took her out of the race.
Once Abbott was out, Jade Wilcoxson (Optum ProCycling p/b Kelly Benefits Startegies) who had been chasing solo, was joined by Kristin McGrath and they worked together to keep the chasers at bay, until halfway through the final lap, Wilcoxson made a fantastic attack, dropping McGrath completely, enabling her to take a solo win. Behind her, Alison Powers had been making opportunistic attacks, planning on using her ITT strength – but Optum track star, Lauren Hall was watching her, ready to pounce, countering every move. Powers made a last chance, with Hall following, and they caught McGrath just before the line, Hall out-sprinting Powers for second.
It was a fantastic race – and yet again demonstrates that when people get to see women’s road cycling, they love it. The attacks and strategies are made for television – and the whole event was a real credit to USA Cycling, who gave the women equal billing, and put on a fantastic showcase for the sport.
Other national championships – the Dutch and the Italian, for example, will be shown on television – but I really hope that Federations such as British Cycling, as well as race organisers and the UCI, take the USA Nationals as a demonstration of what can be done.
Something a little different from the world of women’s racing
Finally, if you’d like to see more women’s road racing, have a look at the trailer for Half The Road, a documentary being made by Kathryn Bertine, a road cyclist who’s been documenting her attempts to ride in the Olympics for St Kitts & Nevis. She started making this film last year, to celebrate the sport – and she’s now raising funds to get it completed, and shown around the world.
If you’d like to support her, head over to the Half The Road website, and if you’d like to donate to the cause, please go to her IndieGoGo page. Every little donation will help bring this film to cinemas around the world – and hopefully inspire more women and girls to get racing!