Mention the idea that women’s racing is not as tactical as men’s racing and you’re likely to be shot down in an instant, and rightly so. “For a start women can multi-task,” says CANYON//SRAM racer Tiffany Cromwell, which in her mind puts women at an immediate advantage when it comes to bike racing. “Plus, the women’s peloton is pretty small so we know everything there is to know about our opposition and how they ride,” she adds with a whiff of indignation.
The Aviva Women’s Tour is the front line of women’s professional bike racing. One of 17 races in the new UCI Women’s WorldTour calendar it attracts the very best professional female bike riders to the UK. Created two years ago with the aim of being the ‘world’s best women’s race’ it is one of just four multi-day stage races on the calendar.
Rapha spent two days on the road with CANYON//SRAM at the Aviva Women’s Tour. With one eye on the Rio Olympics and riders from every nation still jostling for selection, the peloton was packed with riders hungry to perform. What resulted was a thrilling race.
After a crash in the closing three kilometres of Stage 1, the race’s defending champion Lisa Brennauer was looking to make up time. Lisa ended the day unsure of her deficit but in a diplomatic move, the race organisers gave all those who crashed the same time as the winner, Christine Majerus (Boels-Dolmans). The news lifted the team’s spirits and as they set out on the 140km Stage 2, from Atherstone in Warwickshire to Stratford-upon-Avon, the instructions from the team’s directeur sportif (DS) Ronny Lauke was to look for every opportunity to attack.
At sign-on before the start of Stage 2, the team was in a contemplative mood. The hilly route featured two significant climbs. The first, 75km into the race, provided a key opportunity for riders to break away from the peloton. With the gradient topping out at 18% the Burton Dassett QOM climb shook up the race and a selection was duly made. “It was tough, a real test,” said Tiffany Cromwell, who, along with Lisa and Hannah Barnes, went over the top in the leading group.
Riding with race radios makes it easier for the team to stick to the race plan. The riders are in constant communication with the team car and with the DS, who gives them information on other riders and on what’s to come on the course. “The women’s peloton is pretty small – we have a maximum of six riders in a team – so we know everyone and how they ride. We know our opposition pretty well and we know who to mark,” says Elena Cecchini.
A few kilometres after the top of the climb the group came back together. At this point the race was hit by torrential rain. At some places on the route the water was axle-deep, making what was a tough day in the saddle even tougher.
The decisive move of day two came just before the second QOM climb, in the village of Ilmington. As the pace dropped, two riders, Amalie Dideriksen (Boels-Dolmans) and Malgorzata Jasinska (Alé Cipollini Galassia), broke away from the peloton. The duo got almost a minute clear but were caught with 20km to go by a determined chasing group of 25 riders. A series of attacks on the flat run-in concluded with a bunch sprint for the line, with CANYON//SRAM’s Lisa Brennauer losing out by less than half a wheel to Amy Pieters (Wiggle High5).
Stage 3, the Queen Stage, started in Ashbourne and took the riders deep into the Peak District. After last year’s race the riders had asked if the stages could be harder and longer. The race directors’ response was to pack over 2,000m of climbing into 112km and this third stage included the 1km-long Bank Road, in the centre of Matlock, which averages 11% and peaks at 20%
On an attritional course where only the best survived, a series of early attacks split the bunch after just 13km. A break of 11 riders, including the team’s Hannah Barnes, worked together to build a two-minute advantage on the rest of the field but the world road race champion Lizzie Armitstead wasn’t going to let it stick. Showing just why she is the world’s best, Armitstead drove for home, shedding rider after rider from the group until there were just four left. One last kick and she crossed the line with her arms in the air.