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 2013, an 8-day UCI 2.1 categorised stage race, came to a conclusion last weekend.
As expected the overall classification shake up was decided on the final day of racing as Linda Villumsen capped off a successful week for Wiggle Honda by taking overall race honours.
I left you last time as we reached the halfway point of the tour and the race was heading south into central France.
Every day the most exciting meal – breakfast – became less and less enticing, as each day rolled into the next.
Eating merely fuelled us for the day’s racing and was not for enjoyment anymore – you could almost guarantee what was going to be served each meal. Dinner?
Chicken with pasta or, on the rare occasion, some rice and over-cooked vegetables. For the gluten intolerant girls it always seemed a mission to get rice when pasta was on the menu.
Wake up – eat – pack bags – transfer to race start – race – eat – transfer to next hotel – unpack – shower – massage – eat – sleep – repeat. As the days go by and fatigue sets in, conversations dwindle and girls become a bit loopy.
It’s all part of stage racing – supporting each other to keep motivated and fighting when all you really want to do is stay in bed all day long. It’s quite interesting observing how everyone handles the longer tours and how people’s mentality changes as the fatigue increases.
Stage four of the race was the longest of the tour at 140km, but it was also the flattest; the profile didn’t appear to have any bumps that could turn into surprise climbs, unlike the opening stages.
With the assistance of a tailwind and a very aggressive first hour of racing we averaged 45km/h. It was fast and it was on, attack after attack tried to form a break. But with the fast pace and most of the teams having the same idea nothing was able to be established.
After a lull in the middle part of the race the attacks began again with MCipollini-Giordana and the Russian National Team the major aggressors. Small breaks would form but never last long.
With 15km remaining a rider from the Russian National Team established a solo break, gaining a maximum advantage of 45 seconds. Many of the teams were looking at each other wondering who was going to take control and bring the rider back.
As it was us that held the leaders jersey, instead of sending our entire team to the front to bring back the rider we eventually opted to launch attacks. This way we were on the front foot and caused other teams to chase. If they didn’t then we had the opportunity to go for the stage win.
As expected our attacks set the other teams off and it was a very aggressive final 10km. We caught the Russian with 2km remaining as we prepared for a bunch kick.
Finally the true sprinters had a chance to show themselves in a mass bunch kick. We were setting it up for Mel. It was a little bit chaotic in the final run in but the girls did a great job looking after Mel and giving her a strong lead out.
Ultimately Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle Honda) continued her dominance and took yet another stage victory as Mel sprinted her way to second and Emma continued to hold the jersey for another day.
Stage five was a short 98.7km pedal from Saint Fargeau – Pougues les Eaux with the first 60km more or less flat before two laps of an undulating 13km finishing circuit.
The race stayed together for much of the opening 60km with the only action unfolding on a small climb 20km into the stage.
Team USA went to the fore up this climb launching Evie Stevens over the top. The climb wasn’t long enough or hard enough to have an impact. They spent a lot of energy whilst only managing to stretch the peloton out before it came back together over the top on the flat.
The real racing began on the approach to the finishing circuits, with one climb after another until the fast final 4km into the finish. Wiggle Honda continually launched attacks, trying to put pressure on us, with Villumsen sitting one second off the overall lead.
First it was Bronzini playing the team card today, launching an attack. But everyone was happy to let her go – hoping that being off the front solo would take something out of her for the finish.
Once we had hit the circuits more teams got involved with a continual stream of attacks, one after another. It was tough covering all the moves and despite the aggressive racing as we reached the downhill run to the finish, there was still a group of about 40 riders at the front.
In the final two km Villumsen launched a strong and very dangerous attack. We had to react immediately. With only Emma and I in the front for Orica-AIS, it was my job to bring Villumsen back. It was a tough task and I had to dig deep.
As we went under the one km to go banner it was all back together, lined out in single file on the approach to the finish. Bronzini’s solo attack earlier in the race didn’t hamper her for the finish as she won again with Emma coming in just behind in second.
At stage six, a 132.2km ride from Pougues les Eaux – Vichy, we were hoping for a more selective day of racing with the profile looking hillier than what we had encountered so far.
A combination of headwind and tired legs made for a pretty tame start along soft undulating roads, but the terrain wasn’t as difficult as we were expecting. Finally the ice broke as Iris Slappendel (Rabobank) launched the first attack of the day and the racing heated up.
Slappendel quickly built an advantage, however as she was solo we were happy to have her out there – we just had to control the gap and not let it blow out too far. As her gap reached one minute we opted to ride, sending four of our girls to the front to ride tempo.
We didn’t have much of a chance to take control. As the terrain became more undulating, teams went on the offensive and the attacks were firing – not just from one team but many.
The second half of the stage was hard, we were faced with countless attacks. With the overall classification still so close from the opening prologue, as there are no time bonuses throughout this race, nobody wanted to let anyone gain any time advantage.
Later in the stage, after Slappendel was reeled back in, a strong break of three riders – Noemi Cantele (BePink), Grace Sulzberger (Australian National Team), and Kristin McGrath (USA National Team) – opened a gap on what was left of the peloton.
This strong trio held a 30 second gap until Villumsen went on the attack to put pressure on Emma and the jersey. She was motoring along – it was like déjà vu from yesterday, just not as close to the finish. I had the task of chasing her down but my legs were feeling the aggressive second half of racing. I was closing the gap but couldn’t shut it completely.
Eventually Emma had to jump across herself to get Villumsen back. With this reaction the three-rider break was swallowed up, leaving the final 10km of racing open slather for the 40 riders still in the peloton.
Despite numerous attacks, breakaway attempts and a tough second half of racing the stage came down to yet another reduced bunch kick won by none other than Giorgia Bronzini.
Stage seven, the final day of the tour and the only true selective stage of the race with a number of cols (mountain passes) on the race route. I certainly had been waiting for this stage; I was sick of all the ‘flat’ stages and ready for some real climbing.
We knew from the outset it was going to be a tough day in the saddle – Emma was still in the jersey and we had 130.8km to race from Cusset to Chauffailles to defend it.
It took about 25km before the pace picked up and the attacks began with the major climbs. At the 53km mark, where the first ‘real’ climb began, everything happened at once for Orica-AIS – and not in a good way.
I started the climb only to find that the battery for my electronic gears had gone flat so I needed a bike change. At the same time Gracie suffered a front wheel puncture, Sungeun Gu couldn’t keep up with the pace and Mel waited to help bring me back.
Suddenly, we had lost four riders in the space of a handful of minutes and Emma only had the support of Nettie left in the peloton. Teams took advantage of this and went on the attack, keeping the pace at the front high and making it very difficult to come back.
Gracie never made it back after her puncture. Mel helped me until she had nothing left, while I continued on my own. Normally with a mechanical or a crash you can use the assistance of drafting behind a car to get you to the back of the peloton. But since there were girls getting dropped on the climb, the cars kept getting held back. I had to fight back on my own.
It took a good 20km before I made it back to the peloton. I spent a lot of energy and at one point thought I wouldn’t get there, so I was relieved to see the front of the race again. Unfortunately when I rejoined we were only about 10km before the bottom of the hardest climb of the day, Col de Dun – a narrow and steep climb about 5km long.
When Evie Stevens (USA National Team) attacked at the bottom of the climb, I had nothing to respond with – leaving Emma on her own in the select front group. Only Villumsen was able to bridge up to Stevens as they crested the top together, while Emma was in a group of eight riders about 30 seconds behind.
Villumsen used her technical skills to drop Stevens on the descent after the climb, and from there it was game over. Villumsen, a very strong time triallist and climber, continued on solo, as it was one climb after another all the way to the finish.
Although Emma’s group caught Stevens at the bottom of the descent, they didn’t work together to haul in Villumsen. She just continued to extend her lead all the way to the finish, winning the stage by almost six minutes and taking the overall race while she was at it.
Emma held onto second overall but was left frustrated and disappointed at not keeping the jersey after leading from day one. Overall though as a team we can be happy with our race with a stage win and numerous podiums. It was a good week.
After eight days of racing I can say I was very happy to get home to some colour on my plate, no more baguettes or over cooked pasta… at least until the next race in France.