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!