Sharon Laws previews La Course, the new format

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27 July 2014: I lined up on the Champs-Élysées with my UHC Pro-cycling team-mates with goose bumps on my arms. The whole world was watching. This was the inaugural edition of La Course by Le Tour de France, a one-day women’s cycle race run before the 21st stage of the 2014 Tour de France. The 89km race consisted of 13 laps on the traditional course on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

It was incredible. The crowds were fantastic and the race was full on. Finally we had a platform to showcase how exciting women’s cycling is and we raced with all our hearts. Marianne Vos, with the support of her Rabo Liv team, won in a bunch sprint ahead of Kirstin Wild (Giant–Shimano) and Leah Kirchmann (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies). This was rather apt given that she had been one of the drivers behind the race happening.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 07.58.38The main initiator was Katherine Bertine – a cyclist, writer and film-maker from St Kitts and Nevis. She was passionate that a women’s event should be held alongside the men’s Tour de France, as was the case in the 1980’s. She formed a group called Le Tour Entier and with the support of Emma Pooley, Chrissie Wellington and Marianne Vos, they drew up a petition calling for the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) to allow professional women’s teams to race the Tour de France. This gained over 970,000 signatures and, following a series of meetings, the Tour de France race director, Christian Prudhomme, agreed to a one-day circuit race around the Champs-Élysées with equal prize money to the men’s stage. This was a step in the right direction.

The same event was held in 2015 in pouring rain. It was marred by numerous crashes and won solo by Anna van der Breggen, again for Rabo-Liv, following an attack with 6km to go. Jolien D’hoore (Wiggle Honda) and Amy Pieters (Team Liv-Plantur) completed the podium. In better race conditions Chloe Hosking (Wiggle-High5) had one of the biggest wins of her career in 2016 with Lotta Lepistö (Bigla-Cervelo) and Marianne Vos (Raboliv) finishing second and third respectively in a bunch sprint.

This year, however, the climbers will be jumping for joy and the sprinters… well they will probably be staying at home, as the event heads to the Alps to tackle the formidable Col d’Izoard on the 18th stage of the men’s Tour de France.  The race starts in Briançon, one of the highest altitude cities in France at 1,170m and finishes at 2,360m. This event will be followed by a pursuit-style 22km time trial in Marseille on 22 July, the same day as the men’s individual time trial.

The new race format 

For more information check out the race website.

Stage one: 20 July 2017 

Briancon – Izoard

67.5km

14.1km @ 7.3%

+907m of climbing

Start – 10am CET

Twenty one teams, with a maximum of 6 riders, will take to the start line in Briançon on 20 July. With a short distance of 67.5km expect this to be a fast, furious aggressive race from the start as the non-climbers try to get up the road early to give themselves a head start. The 14km climb begins at 53.5km and then there will be nowhere to hide – with an average of 7.3% but with pitches of up to 10% in places, this really is a race for the pure climbers. The women finish at Casse Déserte with first 20 riders qualifying for Stage 2 to be held on 22 July.

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Stage two: 22 July 2017

Marseille – Marseille

22.5km

Road Bike only

Start – 1pm CET

Only the first twenty riders from Stage 1 will take part in the 22.5km pursuit style time trial. Starts will be given within the Orange Velodrome of Marseille based on the time differences recorded at the finish of the stage Briançon>Izoard. The rider finishing first on the Izoard will start first and the rider finishing 20th will start last. Riders can only use a road bike and cooperation is authorized – so riders can work together to close down the gap to the leader. The aim is simply to reach finish line in the Orange Velodrome first in order to be the overall winner of La Course 2017. This unprecedented race format makes the outcome unpredictable as the result from Stage 1 will only provide an advantage in terms of the start time for Stage 2 as opposed to being added to the finish time of stage 2 in traditional style races. This format has similarities to the recent Men’s Hammer Series held in June in Limburg, Netherlands, which proved extremely popular.

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The teams

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WHO TO WATCH?

Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica Scott), Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) and Kasia Niewiadoma (WM3 Pro Cycling) will be the riders to watch in the absence of Anna van der Breggan (Boels Dolmans), who is taking a break.

Boels Dolmans shouldn’t, however, be discounted as Lizzie Deignan, Megan Guarnier and Karol-Ann Canuel, are likely to make the 20 rider cut and will use these numbers to their advantage in the 22.5km pursuit race. Expect to see Chantal Blaak, Christine Majerus and Nikki Harris-Brammeier making life difficult for the other teams from the start of the road stage.

Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica Scott) is likely to have the support of climbers Amanda Spratt and possibly Rachel Neylan, whilst Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) will benefit from previous Giro Rosa winner, Claudia Lichtenberg and Audrey Cordon-Ragot. Marianne Vos (WM3 Pro Cycling) is racing again following her collar-bone break and should make the cut to support Kasia Niewiadoma.

Other riders to look out for are Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Cervélo-Bigla), Carlee Taylor (Alé Cipollini), Sabrina Stultiens (Team Sunweb), Shara Gillow and Eri Yonamine (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), Elena Cecchini and Pauline Ferrand Prevot (Canyon-Sram Racing). My wild card for the 20 rider cut is Hanna Nilsson (BTC City Ljubljana).

This new race format will make the race exciting and definitely not one to miss.

WORLD WOMEN’S TOUR

A win (120 points) for Kasia Niewiadoma (WM3 Pro Cycling) could put her in the WWT leaders jersey as she currently lies in second, 109 points behind Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) who has 837 points and is not racing this event. Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica Scott) is currently lying third with 648 points. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Cervélo-Bigla) will not be challenged in the Under-23 jersey.

WHAT DO THE RIDERS & DIRECTORS THINK? 

Marianne Vos (WM3 Pro Cycling) is likely to be a key player in this event. She told me about her thoughts of the new format: “La Course has indeed a new concept. After a pilot of three years in the Champs-Elysées, it’s now a chance for the climbers to show themselves. You can see it in different light, but I think it’s a good thing from the ASO to try something new. The race in Paris was very cool, but you could see the attention drop down after the inaugural one. Hopefully this will bring a new boost to the race.

“With the concept of the TT later in Marseille nobody knows what to expect, but that might bring extra excitement. I think it’s again a try-out, but with the French giving this a chance, I think it’s up to the riders and teams to make the best of it.

“When we started with ‘Le Tour Entier’ in 2013, a multiple day stage race was the aim and I still think there are chances to do a race with all different specialities. Only then you can speak of a proper ‘Tour’. It might take some years, because it is most important that we have a balanced calendar. A challenge for the UCI, teams and other organisations to work on the best future for our sport.”

Amanda Spratt (Orica Scott) is looking forward to the event following her great performance at the Giro Rosa including a second place on the final stage. She said: “I think a lot of riders who don’t fancy themselves for the final battle up the climb will try to get in an early break. I think a lot of people will have this plan so I’m expecting a hard and fast race. It’s disappointing that it is such a short distance but at the same time it’s going to be absolutely unbelievable to be racing up such an iconic climb on the same day as the men. As far as my own expectations a lot will depend on how well I have been able to recover from the Giro but I think I showed there that the shape is good and I have taken a step up with my climbing. I think in Annemiek we have one of the big favourites for the victory so I think we can go in with a lot of confidence aiming for the win. I hope to be there for as long as possible to help with this goal. In the end I’m not sure how much the tactics will come into play as there won’t be anywhere to hide and I’m confident that strongest climber on the day will win.”

About the new format Amanda said: “I hope that this year is a test to see how it can work with a mountain top finish and then next year they can look to implement a multi-stage event that can include a time-trial, a mountain stage and the finale on the Champs Élysées. I think this will provide more progress and excitement for women’s cycling in the years ahead.”

Shara Gillow (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), a strong contender, said she is really looking forward to La Course: “I think it’s going to be one of the biggest races of the year for us women in regards to the spectators and crowds. It’s very special that it coincides with the men’s Tour de France stage. I am looking forward to it especially because the course looks really amazing and tough. I think we can do very, very well at La Course as a team.”

Carlee Taylor (Alé Cipollini) often a contender in races for the mountain jersey is looking forward to the new format and said: “I think this race is pretty easy to predict when it comes to tactics. The best hill climber will most likely win on Thursday. Considering this year the Giro Rosa lacked any long mountains though, it will be interesting to see who will win. I think Annemiek has some pretty awesome form at the moment and Orica will be strong. But also Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and Kasia Niewiadoma. For me, I’m really wanting a good race, as it’s a course that suits me and now I have some racing in my legs after coming back from injury – so I am looking forward to racing a race that suits me.”

Molly Weaver (Team Sunweb) returns to racing after her horrific crash and told me how she thinks the race will pan out: “From KM 0 I’m expecting lots of attacking as riders try for the breakaway, but all eyes will be on the Col D’Izoard. Teams fighting it out to start the climb at the front, then the best in the world will make their mark. I’m predicting a group of around 20 will still be in the fight over the first parts of the climb, but then the top 5 or 6 will be able to sustain it until the latter stages. Aggressive, attacking riding will leave no more than 3 to the finish. Maybe even a solo rider.”

Of the new format she said: “Switching from the Champs-Elysées to a summit finish has really refreshed the race, and provides an exciting new platform for the women’s peloton. Hopefully in future years it develops further into a multi stage race, but the second day pursuit adds another exciting element for this addition. It’s nice to see something completely different on the calendar, and gives us another opportunity to showcase women’s racing on the biggest stage.”

Manel Lacambra D.S. Cylance Pro-cycling spoke of the team’s challenge ahead of La Course:

We had some late injures and our team will not be in contention for the victory at the top at the Izoard. After Trentino we had a recon of the course with our top climber Krista Doebel-Hickok but she broke the collarbone during the Giro and will not race. Now we must try to qualify at the Izoard with our other riders and then have a good result in Marseille. But the qualification will be not easy..

About the new format he said: “Of course I would love to have more days of racing like a real Tour du France and finish the race on the iconic Champs-Élysées. But the new format I think is a good idea. Maybe it would be better if the first 50 riders qualified to give more options to all the teams to be present at the next race. But to have a race in one of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France is very nice for women’s cycling.”

Check out @LaCoursebyTDF for other rider’s thoughts ahead of the race.

HOW TO WATCH 

This event is brilliant for women’s cycling and will be shown live or delayed across the world.

20 July 2017 

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22 July 2017

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In addition you can follow online Twitter: @LaCoursebyTDF, #LaCourse

The UCI Women’s World Tour YouTube channel will also have highlights.

Voxwomen will be working in partnership with ASO, providing comprehensive coverage of the race, live tweets (@Voxwomen / @LaCoursebyTDF), plus pre and post-race interviews and exclusive insights. There will also be highlights in July’s episode of the Voxwomen Cycling Show, including race interviews, Top Tips, and a feature interview.