The promoters of the Friends Life Women’s Tour of Britain promised a race to showcase women’s cycling to the world, and they certainly delivered. Coming into this race, we didn’t know what to expect from this fledgling event and we were blown away at the organization, parcours and above all the crowds and media exposure. My twitter feed was nearly all to do with the race for the whole week, and this was coming into the start of a Grand Tour for the men!

I was personally looking forward to racing because my form has been really good in the last few weeks. I have felt stronger than ever and confident in my race tactics as well. I studied the course maps for the Tour and knew it could suit me well with rolling hills, narrow roads and possible crosswinds.

The first stage I was given a little free reign to look for good attacking opportunities or to slip into a good breakaway group. My legs didn’t feel very good for most of the stage and the other teams were riding fairly conservatively, not wanting to show their cards early. Loes, who also had the same role for the day, decided with me that it would be a waste of energy to force any moves in the already fast paced and nervous bunch. We all tried to look after Emma in the final 5km, but the high speed run into the finish kilometer caught me out of position and I wasn’t much help in the end. Loes did a stellar job and got Emma into the wheels of the leaders. Favourites Lizzie Armitstead and Marriane Vos launched early and Emma took advantage of the uphill drag to overcome all of them and cross the line first. As well all crossed the line moments later, we could hear over the loud speaker of Emma’s win. It was hugs and high-fives all round as we celebrated with her. We were also all still high from the effects of the amazing crowds that had come to cheers us along the whole course.

Later that night we shared a bottle of champagne amongst the riders and staff. Emma’s win was truly deserved after her strong Spring campaign. To have won the first stage of the very first Women’s Tour was a special moment and I felt very lucky to be able to share in that. It also gave her the extra confidence she needed to come head-to-head with the likes of the favourite riders for the rest of the tour.

The second day our luck was a little thinner as we were greeted with steady rain that was relentless all day. We stayed safe near the front and made sure Emma was protected. It was our job to be conservative today and cover any dangerous moves to protect the leaders yellow jersey. A lone rider, Ratto of Faren, slipped off the front fairly early and was not a real threat to us. But when another rider, Zorzi of Astana, jumped across to her and stretched out the gap again it became apparent that we needed to reel them back. Shara and Nettie rolled through on the front, and was joined later by other team mates of Vos and Bronzini. The gap was coming down but not fast enough, and the two leaders crossed the line only 6 seconds ahead of the peloton.

It was clear that the other teams were frustrated with us for not chasing harder to protect yellow, but we weren’t too worried about the situation. For us to surrender the lead to Ratto was a much better trade off than handing it over to Vos so early in the tour. We wanted Rabobank to really work for their predicted win. My legs felt a lot better than the first day, and I knew I was going to ride into this tour well.

The third stage was the one we had earmarked in the race book as the day to really split the race up. It was closer to the coast and more exposed to the crosswinds, and though there were less hills there were climbs coming in and out of crucial points in the race that could force breaks to form up the roads. I made sure to be well positioned all day incase the echelons started to form. We decided that if there was a good opportunity in the wind to put it “in the gutter” as a whole team and not wait for others to do so. Ultimately the bunch stayed together for the whole race even though it was strung out in very windy conditions. The nature of the winding roads that were often sheltered by large hedges and walls meant that riders could get enough shelter to survive. We tried a few attacks but the pace was too high for a gap to grow. I stuck with Emma in the final 5kms and kept her sheltered and in good position. I made a final effort for the last corner and she exited in one of the first positions. Only Vos could over power her to the line. I had felt even better on this stage and was happy to be a better help at the end for Emma.

Now that Vos was finally in yellow, we had our chance to really put all of our cards on the table. While we wanted to keep Emma in a good GC position and keep the pressure on Vos, we were still keen to get a breakaway situation happening with Loes and myself. On the fourth stage, we ideally wanted Loes to get up the road with the help of all of us attacking within the first half of the race. I was keen to help but to also conserve as much energy as possible to help Emma at the end where there was a QoM with only 2.5km to go. At about 15km, Pooley of Lotto was away solo and the roads were narrow. I jumped from near the front while it was blocked and nearly made it across to her, but just couldn’t make contact. The bunch pulled me back on a climb and I worked hard to stay in the reduced group. Only moments later I was in good position again to go with another attack. This happened repeatedly until I was clear in a group with Shara and 5 others. I sat on and got Shara to work, knowing it was a good situation but it would be brought back by threatened teams.

As soon as we came back to the main group, attacks went again and again. Within another 5km or so I was in another breakaway group of six that was to stay away until 15km to go. All of us worked well except for van Vleuten who sat on, waiting for her team mate and race leader Vos. I felt great even though it was one of the most hilly stages. I tried to not work too hard but keep the pace steady and smooth. I also made sure to enjoy the awesome crowds that had come out to watch us come through their cute little towns. It was surreal to be surrounded by media motorbikes and have crowds lining the roads for most of the way.

The gap had come down to about 15 seconds and we were neutralized due to a traffic accident a few kilometers up the road. The bunch caught us and once we were given the whistle past the crash the bunch sped up again. I was pretty tired by this point and told Emma that I wouldn’t be much help at the end anymore. Loes did a great job again and put her in position with the leaders coming into the final 1km. It was a technical finish and she clipped her pedal coming into the last corner, losing her position but still arriving fourth across the line. I arrived on bunch time, totally spent from my day out the front.

The last day of the tour was our last opportunity to put every ounce of energy into making it an aggressive race. We were confident in keeping Emma’s 2nd on GC and decided to make the other team really work for the final podium. Our little fighter Valentina started the early attacks and strung the bunch out. I was off next to jump across the gap to two riders already up the road by about 20km, and when I came back Loes made her perfect move to attack and take one rider with her. The breakaway of four quickly gained a gap and worked hard to stay away until only 15km to go. It was exactly what we wanted: a small group to put pressure on Rabobank and Wiggle. Rabobank had to use up most of their riders to bring back the long breakaway. Wiggle only helped in the last few kilometers before the catch. As soon as the peloton swallowed the escapees, we were launching attacks again. I tried a few times, Loes put some awesome flyers in even though she was spent, and even Emma attacked hard and forced Vos to close the gaps. The pace was extremely high in the last few kilometers and I lost position in the end, unable to help Emma. She rode well to navigate the technical finale but could only hold onto 5th across the line.

We finished the tour how we started: with plenty of smiles, hugs, hive fives and laughs. We achieved most of what we set out to do which was to get stage and GC results, and to also make it a hard and aggressive race against the other teams and provide a good show for the media. Personally, I was really happy with how I rode in the difficult terrain. It was a great way for me to end the first half of the season, and I am confident now for the second half. As always, I had such a good time with my “away” family. Thanks to my team mates and staff for another memorable week, and for working so hard.

Every night we could watch a whole hour of highlights on television, which was a complete novelty to us. Not only did they show the race, but cut in all the exciting and important sections and included really great commentary and behind-the-scenes extras. We were given the opportunity to show how good women’s racing is and they wrapped it up in a beautiful package to show the world. I am so happy and proud to have been part of it all and give a heart felt thanks to all involved who made this week possible. Here’s to the future of this awesome sport!

It’s the end of April and I can’t believe how fast the season is flying past me. Apologies to any regular readers for my blogging absence in the last month or so. I’ve been saving and spending every last bit of my energy with my racing, training and recovery and I think it’s now paying off. I’ve done a dozen races since my last entry so there is a lot to catch up on!

After a rocky start to my European racing campaign, my legs finally started feeling good after the first few races. I had good signs in Belgium and Holland with the races Hageland and Drenthe 8, feeling strong and able to be active in the racing. The first world cup of the season was Drenthe and I was excited for it as I knew I had a good chance to do well on the flat course with plenty of cobbles. I made the front group every time after each difficult cobbled section and was feeling confident even though it was tough. Then suddenly the road opened up and I missed the most important split when Rabobank put it in the gutter. I tried not to panic but I ended up crashing going UPHILL and ruined my race.

This poor result really blew my confidence and I felt like I needed more racing to get back to the fitness I had when I left home. I had three weeks until the next race, which was none other than one of the biggest races of the year: Flanders. I made sure I recovered well, trained hard and ate carefully. I had planned to target Flanders this season, but self-doubt was creeping in. Would I be in the best shape for this race? Would I be any use at all to the team? I was fighting against myself for this three week period, but made sure I kept a clear head and did everything I knew I needed to do. I did pre-breakfast rollers during our TTT camp, tried to eat lightly, and added extra training sessions on top of our team camp schedule as I didn’t have to race the Cittiglio world cup the weekend before Flanders.

To say I was nervous before Flanders was an understatement. I had felt really good in the week leading in to the race so there wasn’t much more I could do but prepare my mind for some serious suffering to make sure I was a useful member of the team. As you can read in my report for CyclingTips, the day actually went a lot better than expected and gave me the confidence boost that I needed: http://cyclingtips.com.au/2014/04/inside-line-gracie-elvins-tour-of-flanders/.

With only two days recovery, I dove straight into another big race that I knew I wanted to do well in: the Energiewacht Tour in Holland. Last year I was the right-hand man to team captain Loes, making sure she was always protected and covered in the important moves all week to claim her fantastic GC result of 2nd. In doing that, I had surprised myself with a 6th place GC result after being in the front groups all week and riding a decent ITT. This year I knew I was stronger and wanted to see what I could do. The first day of racing in the crosswinds showed what riders and teams were ready to play, and I was one of them. I felt much more at ease at the front with my extra strength and experience, and this was an exciting sensation. The bunch split several times but ultimately most of the field came back together in the last 20km and it was going to be a crazy bunch sprint. I found Mel with about 1km to go and took the last corner so fast I don’t know how I didn’t crash. I went straight to the front, oblivious to a massive crash happening behind me. I was on sprint queen Kirsten Wild’s wheel and when I had a quick look back I saw that Mel wasn’t on my wheel anymore. I had give this sprint everything but when Wild jumped I couldn’t answer. I watch 4 other faster girls come past me and I managed to claim 5th, but to me this was great step towards the rider I want to be.

For the rest of the week I made sure to make the front splits and stay near the best girls, and sometimes this meant that I was alone or with only one or two other team mates. It was a tough week and I couldn’t better my 5th place on the stages, but gave myself the chance to at least try. It wasn’t our team plan for me to be riding for the GC result, but I felt fortunate to have a team who supported the situation and helped me as much as they could. It further boosted my confidence in my form this season and I was finally able to relax my mind over it.

The last few races have also suited me very well. A week after the tour I was again in Holland for Ronde van Gelderland, a race I had never done before. It had several short but steep climbs in the first 40km and then it was flat and open to crosswinds for the next 100km. I climbed well and made sure I was with the front riders, and then four of us made the important front split of about 20 riders. I knew that Mel was coming into some good form and was happy to help her for the sprint. I could tell that she was hurting, but so was everyone else and made sure she didn’t give up on herself. The last 30km were full of attacks from Rabobank, us and a few other riders trying to get rid of the absurdly strong Wild before the sprint. She managed to jump on most of the attacks and though it was impressive to watch it was incredibly frustrating and tiring! I jumped onto an attack with about 4km to go and I must have been seeing stars by this point because I failed to see the gravel on the corner. Before I knew it my arms were out in front of me and I was sliding on me front while the girls flew past me. It was race over for me so I pedalled slowly back to the finish, upset that I had crashed but mostly happy with the efforts I’d made. Mel was rewarded with her first result for the season with 3rd, so it was good news to come back to!

Last weekend I raced one of my favourite races: Omloop van Borsele in Holland. This race was where I earned my first European result back in 2012, with a 2nd place to power-house Ellen van Dijk. The course encourages a small group breakaway with it’s narrow and twisting farm roads and open cross-wind sections. With my extra confidence I was keen to see if I could get a result there again. I felt awesome all day, barely feeling my legs until the last 40km. I was always in the front with Mel and we were talking lots. The wind wasn’t working too well to cause any splits, so it was going to be aggressive in the latter part of the race. I found myself in a good breakaway group with about 40km to go, but it was brought back in about 10km. I attacked in the next crosswind section when I could see the bunch going single file and beginning to suffer, but it wasn’t to be. With about 15km to go, van Dijk and van Vleuten jumped off the front and then Rabobank formed a wall in front of the rest of us. I saw another two riders jump across but I couldn’t squeeze through. I saw a corner coming and knew it was my only chance. I rode across the dirt gap and bumped a girl on my way, copping some colourful abuse as I sprinted off the front. I didn’t care because I knew this was the last chance of getting a result ahead of the real sprinters. I worked hard to keep the pace high but the small group was joined with 5km to go by Wild and a few others. It was just me for our team so I sat in and had to wait for the final sprint, knowing I wouldn’t be able to escape from this group. I was pretty tired by the end and could only manage 7th across the line. Although I was frustrated to be so close again to a result, I was still happy with my efforts and knew I couldn’t have done much more.

Sunday saw us back in Belgium for Dwars door Westheok, a race with 4 main climbs in the first half and then 4 flat circuits to finish. I knew I would be a little tired after my efforts at Borsele, but nonetheless had a good feeling about doing well again. We also had Emma coming in fresh so it was one more (very decent!) card to play for the team. I stayed near the front for the first two climbs and then made sure I was with the leaders on the climb that leads in into the hardest of the day, the Kemmelburg – a cobbled climb that gets steeper at the top. Emma jumped across to two riders up ahead and I stayed with the next group. I was really happy to be climbing so well and be there at the important moments of the race. The field was much smaller after this and we threw everything at them, but just couldn’t get a break to stay away for very long. I finished the race utterly spent but happy again to have done my best for myself and the team.

All in all, these last 7 weeks have been valuable to me. I’ve been reminded to stay focused on my goals and my plans, work hard in every way that I can and that all the small things become important, stay positive and confident in my abilities as a rider, and take chances in the races and trust my instincts. I have made sure also to keep an eye out for the small day-to-day things that make this lifestyle so special, because I know I will look back in the future and remember how awesome it all was and that I did the best that I could with what I had.

Next up for me is the Women’s Tour in Britain and I am super excited to be a part of this special first edition of what looks to be a great and successful event. This year is important for me as an individual, but also for women’s cycling in general with big new races like this and the much anticipated La Course at the TDF. We are on the crest of a very big wave and I feel so fortunate to be there amongst it all!

Thanks for following, and I promise to write another post as soon at the Tour of Britain is done!

The start to the season proper is the Spring Classics, a series of races through Belgium and Holland that conjure images of harsh weather and tight cobbled roads. It’s hard (wo)man territory and good form must be accompanied by tenacity, smarts and a bit of luck.

The race to kick things off is the well known Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. It begins and finishes in one of my favourite small cities, Gent. The first half of the race is uneventful on paper, but in real life can see the end of many riders hopes with fast and big crashes. These are purely caused by nerves and the over squeeze of a break lever on the ice-rink like roads. If you can survive the washing machine of 180-odd riders by then, the real pain begins with short steep climbs and more shudders on the cobbles than your puny cyclist arms can bear.

From the whistle I knew I would be in for a painful-but-not-in-a-good-way day. Until this point I was living on the hope that my good form from Aussie training would overcome the long week of travel I put myself through. As soon as I had to put pressure on the pedals to keep up in the neutral section my hopes were over. From then I tried to stay positive and focused, to firstly avoid any serious crashes and secondly to just enjoy the fact I was racing my bike in Belgium again.

I fought to the front many times and tried to help my team mates before the crucial sections ahead, but ultimately I was just a number that day who wasn’t part of the race. The first serious hill saw me with the reverse lights on and from there I just looked after myself so I could reach the finish with a small group and a semi-smile. Surprisingly the kilometres went by faster than I expected and I made it to the end with the love of my bike still intact.

My team mates all had varying levels of success and enjoyment, but overall it was a good start to our 2014 season. And by no small feat our “Miss Consistent” Emma Johansson claimed 2nd from a group of 3, after suffering mechanicals and a crash early on. She and the other Orica-AIS girls give me inspiration and motivation to work hard and keep getting better every day. I love it!

We decided to do our Tour of Flanders recon today instead of having a rest, because the weather forecast for the week looks miserable. It was sunny today and in Belgium you don’t argue with that! After 4 hours we were all tired but satisfied and happy to get the solar power charged before a big couple of weeks.

My next race is Hageland this weekend, so I have lots of time to recover properly from my travel from Aus (I arrived here last Thursday! Not the best preparation for racing within 2 days) and get my legs firing again.

Lastly, I just want to say a big thank you to all my amazing family and friends in Canberra who pushed me hard in training and who made me happy off the bike too. I left home with a big smile on my face after an awesome and eventful Aussie summer. Those tough days on the bike and the fun times off it will see me through the whole season.


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