In the early hours tomorrow morning, the final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins with the 76th Vuelta a España and the battle for the maillot rojo (red jersey).
La Route de France is a women’s UCI 2.1 categorised 8-day stage race currently taking place.
It is the closest thing that the women currently have to the Tour de France but it lacks the prestige, crowds, media attention, famous climbs and spectacle you get to enjoy with the Tour de France.
When you race in France, from past experience you always need to prepare yourself for the worst when it comes to the food and accommodation.
We don’t travel with chefs or have special bedding that is put in place for the riders at each accommodation. Be prepared and come with your own pillow and towel.
Often we are put up in schools or camping grounds with no air-conditioning, towels if you’re lucky, communal showers and bunk beds with food that is over cooked and has barely any nutrients left.
If you end up in a Campanile or an Ibis it almost feels like luxury but anyone who has stayed in these chain hotels know that it is far from that.
The positive side is that you can always guarantee you will get a good baguette or a pain aux chocolat. The glamorous life of women’s cycling and racing in France.
We deal with this as the racing through France is beautiful and the organisers do put together nice parcours with short transfers unlike the Giro d’Italia feminine where we had some epic transfers after stages.
Currently we have reached the halfway point of the race, we have been lucky so far this year staying in hotels almost every night with one camping ground.
The overall classification is still very tight as the selective stages come later in the race but my teammate Emma Johansson is in the leaders jersey so we have been busy defending that.
The race itself began North of Paris in a town called Soissons with a short heart starter 3.8km prologue.
The course was far from straight forward with three cobble sectors, rough roads, a number of corners and a very small elevation gain all squeezed into the short 3.8km.
I was happy with the course as I’m not a prologue specialist but when it is hard and technical I am in my element and can match the bigger and more powerful girls.
It had been four weeks since my last race so I didn’t know how my body would react but a prologue is a perfect way to discover if you have form or not. They are an intensity shock as it is full gas from start to finish, no chance to build into it or back off as one second can be the difference between winning and losing.
Orica-AIS started on a high with four of the six girls finishing in the top 15 but more importantly Emma stormed to victory by less than a second to take the stage and the first leaders jersey.
We were back in Soissons the following day for the start of the first road stage, 121.9km to Enghien les Bains. On paper it didn’t look overly difficult, undulating roads all day with one little climb before the finish but we didn’t expect it to be too much. Our team had the plan to set it up for Nettie, one of our two sprinters we have here.
Every stage has a neutral section out of town, anywhere from five minutes to 30 minutes. It is a good way to warm up but sometimes you just want to get on with the race.
Facing head winds for much of the stage the racing was a bit negative and not a lot happened for the most part. Everything changed as we hit the one notable climb that happened to be harder and longer than we expected.
Team USA launched attacks on the climb causing the peloton to splinter. Emma and I were the only two from our team who made the split, out numbered compared to other teams.
We had to cover attack after attack as it was strung out down the descent into town before four laps of a 3.5km technical finish circuit. It was tough but we managed to cover everything as it came down to a bunch kick from the reduced peloton.
The finish became hectic as we lapped the last riders on course in the final kilometre, luckily it didn’t mess the sprint up too much. I tried to lead Emma out for the final, we were boxed in for a moment but managed to find a gap and get to the front in time to lead through the last corner with 300m to go.
From there it was up to Emma but Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle-Honda) proved too strong as she powered away to take the stage win from Valentina Scandolara (MCipollini-Giordana) and Emma came in third. With no time bonuses on offer throughout the tour Emma comfortably held onto the leaders jersey.
Stage two the shortest road stage of the race, 85.8km from Enghien Les Bains to Mantes La Jolie. The racing attitude took a full 360-degree turn from the previous day as the pace was on; it was fast and aggressive all day.
Again we were hoping for a bunch kick but there always seems to be a surprise thrown in there to make the stage more selective than expected. It was a stressful day of racing continually stringing out through the many small towns we passed through navigating around a lot of road furniture.
Although it was very aggressive it wasn’t until about the halfway point before anyone managed to break free. Valentina Scandolara (MCipollini-Giordana) found herself up the road solo but with a flurry of counter attacks from the peloton she was reeled back in.
Alexandra Burchenkova (Russian National Team) countered the move but with no reaction from the peloton she quickly built up a lead as the peloton looked at each other for someone to take control.
Having the leaders jersey everyone assumed we would come to the front with the entire team to bring her back but with Bronzini happily in the bunch wanting another bunch kick we didn’t want to give her a free ride.
Eventually half of our girls joined half of the Wiggle-Honda team at the front to avoid the gap blowing out too far. Like the previous day there was another surprise climb with about 15km to go. Not as hard or as long as the previous day but enough to cause more splits as USA national team played the same tactics, launching attacks up the climb.
Emma and I once again found ourselves out numbered at the front and we were faced with a lot of attacks. Burchenkova was eventually reeled in but all the way to the finish it was just one attack after another from various teams trying to go up the road.
There was absolutely no organisation by any team coming into the finish with girls fighting for wheels everywhere, I tried to help Emma but we lost each other in the mess and it became all for one.
The final corner came at 300m to go but it had a nice traffic island in the middle of the exit causing half the peloton to take the inside line whilst the other half went wide. Bronzini is in a class of her own in the sprints and she comfortably took the win to make it two from two as Emma held onto the jersey for another day.
Stage three on paper looked to be easier than the opening two stages but I had a sneaky feeling that the finishing circuits would be a little bit more difficult than they appeared in the race book.
I was right to think this as they did end up being much harder than any of us expected but it did make for an exciting finale.
The stage itself was 123.6km from Anet to Mamers, a very uneventful stage with the odd attacks here or there but for the most part it stayed together until the final 30km where we properly started racing our bikes.
The run in to the finish town was quite undulating and it created the perfect launch pad for many attacks, stringing out the peloton putting a lot of pressure on.
As we entered the circuit for the first time and went under the finish banner with two laps of a 4.2km technical circuit to go Emma and I quickly realised that it was going to be a much tougher finish than expected. A little bit too tough for our sprinters so the plan quickly changed to set it up for Emma.
There were a lot of late moves by opportunists or GC riders looking for any chance to get free and gain some time on their rivals, it put a lot of pressure on us having to chase the moves while still trying to leave something in the tank for the sprint.
It was lined out as we entered the final kilometre as the road headed down before kicking back up to the finish line with 400m to go, Emma decided to try and launch early to see if she could get the jump on Bronzini. If the line came maybe 20m early she would’ve been able to hold on but Bronzini came storming past to take another stage as Emma held onto second and Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) came in at third.
In a finish like this there is always a chance the race organisation will put in time gaps at the finish and rightly so when it is a tough finish like that. I am our second GC rider here so you have to be so aware and although doing your job for the team you still need to sprint all the way to the finish to make sure you don’t end up on the wrong side of the time gap. There is no chance to relax until you cross that finish line as ultimately at the end on the overall every second can count.
With four days still remaining in the tour and two decisive days coming in the final two stages, the last stage looks brutal there is still a lot of racing to be done and the race for overall honors will need to fight all the way to the end.