Racing round-up: The women’s peloton take on stage races

The Spring Classics season has come to a close, with the women’s peloton now focusing its attention on stage races.

Sarah Connolly reports on races in Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, the USA and Australia – while back home in the UK, local riders raced the Cheshire Classic.

1. Festival Luxembourgeois Elsy Jacobs

In Luxembourg, it was the Festival Luxembourgeois du Cyclisme Féminine Elsy Jacobs.  It’s a well-organised race, making it fun for teams and riders, with a pretty, hilly course that’s great for spectators. In a time where women’s races are struggling, it’s great to have a race that keeps developing.

The race started as a randonnée, a mass-participation ride, in honour of Elsy Jacobs.   Jacobs, who died in 1998, won the first ever women’s Road World Championship, in 1958, and later that year broke the record for the Hour, with a time that stood for 14 years.  She was born in Garnich, a village just to the west of Luxembourg City, where, in 2008, the GP Elsy Jacobs day race was set up.

The Festival became a UCI 1.1 race in 2009, and then in 2010 a second women’s race was set up on the Sunday around Mamer, in honour of local Tour de France winner Nicolas Frantz. In 2011 a Team Time Trial was added, and last year the three races combined into the stage race.  It keeps developing – this year it was a 1.8km prologue (Individual Time Trial) and two road stages.

The Prologue took place in pouring rain. It was so wet that riders had to prioritise safety over speed.  Annemiek van Vleuten won it ahead of her Rabobank-Liv/Giant team-mate Marianne Vos, with young Australian track star Nettie Edmondson of ORICA-AIS in third place.

Stage 1 was one of those days that demonstrates how unpredictable cycling can be.  The local Garnich loop is hilly, with narrow winding roads, so any mechanicals can cause chaos.  It tends to be a war of attrition, with the bunch being whittled down on each lap, and a breakaway artist being the winner.

This year however, after all the usual attacks and escape attempts, it ended up as a group of 20 riders, with a gloriously unpredictable podium.  In first place, Giorgia Bronzini of Wiggle Honda, a bona fide superstar with three World Champion’s jerseys: from the points race on the track in 2009, and from the road races in 2010 and 2011.  Bronzini is a sprint star known for her strength in climbing hills and ability to hide in the peloton until the last minute. Following a crash in Stage 2 of this race last year, being left with a broken shoulder, this win definitely laid some ghosts to rest for Bronzini.

In second place, Ashleigh Moolman of Lotto Belisol.  Moolman is a climber, someone we wouldn’t expect to see in a bunch sprint, so this result surprised her too.  But after coming third in the Flèche Wallonne, the South African’s confidence has grown.  In third, Polish rider Katarzyna Pawlowska (GSD Gestion), racing her first international road season, after a focus on the track.

All three of the podium are superb riders, but a sprinter, a climber and a track cyclist finishing ahead of all the Classics specialists was not what anyone would have predicted. Van Vleuten, who was leading the GC, had got into mechanical difficulties, and hadn’t made the final break – but Marianne Vos’ fourth place took her into the leader’s jersey, four seconds ahead of Pawlowska and ORICA’s Emma Johansson and Amanda Spratt, and five ahead of Bronzini.

The third and final stage tends to be all about the bunch sprints.  With the General Classification so close, the fights to escape were tough – but Wiggle Honda really wanted a sprint, as if Bronzini could win the stage, with Vos third of below, the final place bonifications would mean she could take the win.

Unlike the Saturday, though, the race went according to plan.  The Mamer lap ends with a technical section and corners that can be dangerous – and Vos just gets faster when the course gets more difficult!  The group were all together, when she hit the corners first, launching a long sprint to win the stage and the race!  Bronzini came second, ahead of Johansson, both in the stage and in the overall.  If the rest of the stage races are this much fun, it will be a fantastic season.

2. Gracia-Orlová

Most of the big teams were in Luxembourg, but Specialized-lululemon were in the Czech Republic, racing Gracia-Orlová.  This is a lower-ranked stage race, six stages over five days, including a 2.2km prologue and 13km ITT, plus road stages that are known for having tough hills.   The organisers have worked tirelessly to develop women’s racing, and having it at the same time as Luxembourg means many of the smaller teams got to race, lots of them from Eastern Europe.  When a big team turns up, they do tend to dominate, but it does give a chance for riders from the smaller teams to race alongside and learn from the professional teams.

This year, the big story was two riders coming back to race after time away from the peloton – Evelyn Stevens and Emma Pooley.  Stevens, who races for Specialized-lululemon, is a relative newcomer to the peloton, having left her high-flying Wall Street job to become a full-time cyclist in 2010, and she’d been on an upwards trajectory ever since, last year winning the Flèche Wallonne World Cup, a stage in the biggest women’s stage race, the Giro Donne, and coming second in the World ITT Championships, among other glittering results.

Stevens had plans for everything to get bigger and better this season – until she crashed, hard, in the Classica Città di Padova, losing some teeth and needing plastic surgery.  Gracia-Orlová was her first race back, and, she had tweeted, “like ripping off the band aid” – but it was great to see her racing and tweeting that she was enjoying it.

Pooley was away for different reasons.  2012 was a tough year for the British rider, but when her team, AA Drink, disbanded at the end of the season, she took it as a message to step back from cycling.  She’s focusing her 2013 on finishing her PhD in Geotechnical Engineering, and riding for small Swiss team Bigla, hoping to help young riders develop, before coming back at the end of the season with her eyes firmly on the World ITT Championships.  Pooley is such an interesting character, both for her attacking racing style, where she favours suicide breakaways, long-range attacks and the steepest mountains, and her personality, she is extremely intelligent and never minces her words! Having Pooley race again, even in the smaller races, is always fun and a breath of fresh air.

The race itself was a Specialized-lululemon walk-over, the team winning five out of six stages, and barely leaving any podium places to over teams.  Ellen van Dijk won the prologue, the ITT and the Stage 4 Queen Stage, Stevens won Stage 1, and young Australian sprinter Loren Rowney outsprinted a small group to win the final stage – the only non-Specialized to win was Paulina Brzezna-Bentkowska (Pacific Turon) who took Van Dijk by surprise on Stage 3.

The big losers of the race were Russian pro team RusVelo, who had to leave the race under embarrassing circumstances, when their DS took them to the wrong town for the start of Stage 4, and missed the race. As you can probably imagine, nothing could have stopped Specialized, with Van Dijk winning the General Classification, Stevens in second and Pooley third.

It’s a real shame we won’t be seeing Stevens and Pooley go head-to-head in the Giro Rosa.  We’ll find out the route for this year’s Giro very soon – but any mountain stages won’t be the same without Pooley’s diminutive figure making climbing look like the easiest thing in the world…

3. Joe Martin Stage Race

In the USA, the National Race Calendar continued with the Joe Martin Stage Race, four stages in Arkansas.  Here it was all about USA-based UCI team Tibco, who started the season in Europe before heading back to the USA for a block of North American racing.  Their German rider, Claudia Häusler, a former Giro Donne winner who’s known for her huge smiles, won the uphill ITT, and their American sprinter, Shelley Olds, won stages 2 and 4 – and although Canadian Joëlle Numainville won Stage 3, nothing could stop Tibco, with Häusler winning the GC.

4. Tour of the Mersey Valley

The National Road Series in Australia is also continuing, with the Tour of the Mersey Valley in Tasmania.  Three stages, with some really great video that tells the story beautifully – Stage 1, won by Rebecca Wiasak; Stage 2, by Samantha De Riter, who said afterwards that she’s never won anything before, not even a club race, and Stage 3, won by Grace Sulzberger, with Katrin Garfoot winning overall.

5. The Cheshire Classic

Finally, in the UK, it was the Cheshire Classic, a day race that’s part of the National Series, won by Karla Boddy of MG-Maxfuel, ahead of Emma Grant (Matrix Fitness Racing Academy) and Emily Kay (Scott Contessa Epic).

The international flavour of women’s racing is going to continue over May, with UCI level races in China, Canada, France and Spain, as well as in the cycling heartlands of the Netherlands and Italy.

If you’re in the UK, next weekend is the Three Days of Bedford, national-level stage racing, British-style!

Plus, keep an eye on the Giro Rosa page, where we’re expecting news very shortly about the biggest women’s race!

Headline image by anMarton via Flickr,
THPM Festival Luxembourg 2012

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