My La Course by Le Tour
Yesterday I raced on the Champs Élysées.
After months of hype the day of La Course by Le Tour had finally arrived. I would never be able to adequately describe how I felt before my Hitec Products teammates and I lined up with the other 150 or so women for the first ever La Course. A television crew grabbed a quick interview with me before the start and asked me how I was feeling; I told them I had just had to force down a rice cake which to anyone who knows me speaks volumes because:
a) I’ve never had much problem eating (I train so I can eat, not eat so I can train) and,
b) I love rice cakes.
Needless to say, despite my best efforts to keep the nerves at bay they were well and truly present when we rolled away for our 13, 6.8 kilometre laps of the Champs Élysées.
My Hitec Products team had come to the race with a strong squad; we had Elisa Longo Borghini and Audrey Cordon who had just finished first and second overall at theTour of Bretagne last weekend, our pocket rocket sprinter Emilie Moberg who gets stronger every race, super domestics Cecilie Gotass Johnsen and Tone Hatteland, and myself.
While the race had been labeled one for the sprinters since the day it was announced in January we weren’t so sure.
The course is deceivingly hard; with more than half of the 6 kilometre circuit on rough, centuries old pavé and a 3-4 per cent drag from the finish line up to the Champs Élysées it has this draining effect on your legs. Where you would usually be trying to ride a cadence anywhere between 90 and 110rpm in a race, it was easy to fall into the trap of just finding a big gear and grinding it out.
Knowing that a number of teams would be extremely aggressive combined with the fact that the course was actually harder than many expected we choose to hedge our bets on the scenario that a smaller group would come to the finish, maybe 20 or so women, rather than a mass bunch sprint.
Our plan was fairly simple. Our director Marc Bracke and team owner Karl Lima had identified one danger team – Rabobank – and our tactic revolved around them. In our team meeting Marc pointed to Elisa, Audrey and I: “Anything with Rabobank in it you’re in too.”
Then he looked to Emilie: “You glue yourself to Kirsten Wild’s wheel”.
And then Cecilie and Tone: “And you try to go in breaks to put pressure on the other teams.”
The Lead Up:
The day before Elisa and I had come out for our pre-race day trainer session to find our mechanic, Juan, surrounded by three official looking men.
“Oh no, what’s going on here?” I said to Elisa. Staying in the centre of Paris Juan had been forced to get creative with the parking of his truck. I was convinced the men were the police either telling Juan the truck was going to be towed or simply just arresting him.
However, after some initial language barriers we figured out that they were actually inviting us to park all our team vehicles in their fire barracks just around the corner from our hotel.
We didn’t need to be asked twice; everyone has heard the stories of team vehicles being broken into and equipment being stolen. All of a sudden we had free, 24 hour surveillance. What’s more, we no longer had to do our trainer session on the street and be gawked at by passers-by, instead we were gawked at by the entire Notre Dame fire brigade who were more than happy to help out people who were in the Tour de France.
The enthusiasm of the firemen was just the taster for what we were to experience when we actually arrived on the Champs Élysées. After parking our team vehicles at the station overnight we packed into the cars and drove through the centre of Paris to the iconic parcours.
Driving past the Louvre we saw the famous ‘Norwegian corner’ which at 10 in the morning already had a fairly sizeable crowd. Honking as we drove past we received a crazed cheer from the early bird crowd and it all started to sink in.
We were about to race on the Champs Élysées, just hours before the men rode their final procession of the 2014 Tour de France. What an amazing day for women’s cycling.
With no opportunity to ride the course beforehand the opening lap was for my Hitec Products teammates and I the first opportunity to get a feel for the course. The rough pavé shook our bikes and bodies but did nothing to slow the pace. From the very beginning the pace was on.
I rode the first two laps around the middle of the bunch trying to calm my nerves and settle into the race. Riding up and down the Champs Élysées the crowds were fantastic; my family who – as has become an accepted law of physics – when there’s enough women’s cycling energy around a particular event manifest themselves, had found a position on the barriers 200metres past the finish line. I could hear them screaming hysterically ‘Go Chloe!’ every lap.
On the fourth or fifth lap I had moved further up the peloton and was sitting comfortably in the top 20 or so. As we passed the finish line with 9 laps remaining the bunch was grouped on the left hand side of the road. I saw Lizzie Armitstead glance at Emma Johansson and then launch herself to the other side of the road. Johansson immediately followed and I did the same.
While the road was all bumpy pavé there was a small gutter about 30cms wide that was smooth pavement which offered respite from the constant vibrations and also less resistance. Lizzie, one of the best bike handlers in the peloton, was going full gas in the gutter. Following her and Johansson’s wheel was terrifying, with your pedal just centimetres from the step up to the pedestrian footpath it was like when you’re full but you try to fit that last scoop of ice-cream in; you know it’s not the smartest but you do it anyway.
As we circled around the Champs Élysées the peloton had been shattered and a small group of 15 or so had distanced themselves which included Elisa and I.
For Hitec it was the perfect situation. There was just one thing not in our favour; Giant Shimano had missed it. With Kirsten Wild caught out behind they dragged back our short lived break away.
While up until that point our race had been perfect, it seemed that luck just wasn’t on our side. As soon as Giant Shimano pulled back our small group Elisa got a rear puncture. With still 8 laps remaining this usually wouldn’t have been an issue but as soon as we were brought back other teams started attacking again.
Specialized lululemon, Orica-AIS, Rabobank, Boels-Dolmans. The speed was so high – we averaged 45km/hr – that Elisa’s puncture meant the end of her race. She never made it back to the peloton. We were down to five.
While Elisa was trying desperately to rejoin the race at the back of the peloton Lisa Brennauer of Specialized lululemon who had been extremely active already launched herself up the road and gained a good advantage on the peloton. Smelling opportunity Ellen van Dijk (Boels Dolmans) chased after her.
Uh oh. I couldn’t think of a worse scenario than Ellen and Lisa getting away in a break together; two of the best time trialists in the women’s peloton together up the road is a potentially lethal combination. But Ellen flew straight past Lisa and went solo.
Giant Shimano and Wiggle Honda were clearly not happy with this situation and worked hard to drag Ellen back which they did with about six laps remaining. But Ellen’s catch just gave way to a barrage of attacks from Rabobank and other teams. One rider would launch, and then another.
Then our next bout of bad luck hit; another puncture, this time for Audrey, fortunately she was able to get back as the pace slowed momentarily but not without having used a lot of energy. Tone had also fallen off the pace by this point.
Coming into the final lap it was chaotic. Audrey and I found each other and started dodging our way through the peloton. Like every other lap the group stretched as we circled the Champs Élysées for the final time and a break of three managed to escape of the front.
It was a dangerous move with one Rabobank there. Audrey did one final heroic effort to close the gap before dropping me off where I need to be; near the other sprinters. And then I was alone.
I started picking my way through the bunch. I saw Bronzini, Johansson, D’hoore, Armitstead, Vos, Wild. Which wheel should I try to glue myself too?
As we swept through one of the final corners Rabobank had organised the perfect lead out train with Vos in prime position. I snuck under on the inside and tried to fight for Vos’ wheel but found myself only half protected, the other half was riding in the wind.
I had two choices I stay half on Vos’ wheel, half in the wind and use extra energy but keep my good position or I drop back to save energy but risk getting swamped. I choose to stay put. In hindsight I should have dropped back because the energy I used riding in the wind for 800ms probably was the energy I needed for the sprint.
As we flew under the 1km to go banner Wild, her usual huge imposing self, hit my handle bars as she pushed her way out of a hole that to any body else probably didn’t exist. Fearing for my life I lost Vos’ wheel but was still able to remain fairly well positioned.
Then came the sound no-one likes to hear; barriers scratching against asphalt and bikes slamming into riders. It was behind me, so I didn’t see it but riders like Armitstead and Pauline Ferrand-Pervot were caught out.
Sitting on Leah Kirchman’s wheel the pace which was already above 50km/hr just seemed to get faster and my decision to sit in the wind two kilometres earlier came back to haunt me. I couldn’t match the pace set by Rabobank and as we rounded the final corner with 350metres to go I got out of my saddle – one pedal stroke, two pedal strokes – but my acceleration was gone.
Like Edward Cullen sucking the blood of mountain lions the 13 laps laps of the tough circuit had drained my legs dry. I watched as rider after rider sprinted past me.
…while Vos won, at the risk sounding like one of those overly positive preachers, the real winner was women’s cycling…
Vos won ahead of Wild and Kirchman. It was probably the most emotion I’ve seen her display after a victory in the six years that I’ve bee racing in Europe, which just goes to show how important this race was; for the riders racing, for female cyclists everywhere and for the sport in general.
While it was a disappointing finish for me and my Hitec Products team it’s hard to be negative because while Vos won, at the risk sounding like one of those overly positive preachers, the real winner was women’s cycling.
I saw, hours later when the men had reached the Champs Élysées and were just kilometres away from final showdown of the 2014 Tour de France, that ‘#LaCourse’ was still trending on twitter.
It was a fantastic showcase of women’s cycling and something I am proud and honoured to have been a part of. I had goose bumps when I started the race and I have goose bumps writing this blog. For me this was the start of something potentially huge. I can’t wait to see what’s next.