Ladies Tour of Qatar: The First Two Stages

I have a strange obsession with the Ladies Tour of Qatar.

It may have started in 2009 when I didn’t get selected in the Australian National Team to compete in the first edition of the Tour. Then again it may have started when I finished third in my first ever stage of the Tour and in my first ever official race with my new professional team HTC-Highroad the following year. Come to think of it, it may have also started in 2013 when I lost the yellow jersey because of a puncture in the last kilometre of the penultimate stage.

Whatever the reason, I’m sure you get the point.

I’ve been coming to Qatar for quite some time and each time I look forward to the Tour with nervous anticipation.

These two things can at times be a lethal mix and when there’s no wind to shatter the peloton it generally is.

Why nervous? It’s the first race of the season for most, barring the Australian’s who have been racing basically since the season stopped way back in September. Yeah, we do that.

The first race of the season means a few things. Firstly, everyone is eager to prove something to their team directors, their teammates and themselves. Secondly, while you can train well for three months, maybe everybody else trained harder. You have no way of knowing exactly where your form is at until you hit the cross winds and the field starts splintering.

These two things can at times be a lethal mix and when there’s no wind to shatter the peloton it generally is.

In want of hills, mountains, or technical sections which shatter the peloton as in Europe, the infamous winds of Qatar are meant to do the job but on the first stage of this year’s Tour the wind decided it wasn’t going to play so the peloton twitched, swerved, crashed, and twitched some more for the entire 98 kilometre opening stage.

The stage was somewhat similar to what I imagine giving five shots of espresso each to a group of four years olds and then letting them loose in a china store. The nervous energy in the bunch created so much tension that it was like everyone was riding with straight arms and even the slightest movement sent a tidal wave through the bunch. The amount of front wheels I heard go to pedals, frames, and back wheels was unnerving.

I took a slight tumble about 50 kilometres into the race after someone hit a cateye and swerved into the peloton. Unclipping with my left foot I breathed a sigh a relief thinking to myself, ‘phew that was close’, before someone hit my left butt-cheek and I tumbled over on my right side. Getting back up quickly I had to laugh. I even looked around to see if any of the cars had seen it. As the saying goes, it didn’t happen if no-one saw it. It was really a nothing crash and I was back in peloton within a kilometre but a good example of how nervous the peloton was.

Going into the stage the team plan was for me to try and up pick up some time bonuses in the intermediate sprints and then set up the lead out train for Jolien, our Belgian sprinter. I managed to get two-seconds out on the road which was good but not great.

After the second intermediate sprint at 68-kilometres we switched our attention to the lead-out train. It was clear the peloton wasn’t splitting so we gathered together at the back with about 15-kilometres to go and slowly started making our way to the front.

Elisa Longo Borghini lead the charge followed by Emilia Fahlin, Audrey Cordon, myself, Jolien Dhoore and then Giorgia Bronzini (Gio). It was pretty cool to see a line of six Wiggle Honda jerseys snaking through the peloton.

But with a peloton of fresh legs it was hard to control the front the race and Emilia ended up having to hit the front a lot earlier than we had planned. When that happens it’s like a domino effect and you end up running the risk of leaving your sprinter alone and in the wind too early.

As we hit the 1km to go banner it was just myself, Jolien and Gio left but we’d been swamped from behind and I had to make a call. Sitting about 15 riders back and with the final right hand corner approaching should I wait or should I try and bring our sprinters as far to the front as possible?

I went for it. On the outside I powered past one girl, two girls, three girls. I bombed through the final corner first with Jolien and Gio glued to my wheel. Head down I just kept going until Jolien flew past me with Gio tucked onto her wheel.

Gio ended up finishing second which was a result we were happy with after our first attempt at a lead-out as a team. We’d picked up a podium and bonus seconds for the general classification. For the first day of a four day tour we’d set ourselves up well, and maybe more importantly we’d all stayed upright, well pretty much at least.

The second stage of the Tour had the potential to split the field. Studying the race book with our trusty wind apps you could see the 112km race started with a long stretch of cross wind. Whether or not the wind would be strong enough to split the peloton was the real question.

We didn’t have to wait long to find out, however. As soon as the neutral flag dropped it was game on. It was clear teams like Boels Dolmans and Orica-AIS wanted to rip this race apart and within 10-kilometres the race was in pieces. Conserving energy I had decided to not battle the front ten girls to be in the front echelon, it was a decision that very nearly resulted in me missing the front group.

In this type of racing all it takes is two seconds of indecision for your race to be over. Sitting about 25 riders back I looked up and saw a fast forming echelon creeping off the front of the peloton. I knew I couldn’t wait.

Whacking it my biggest gear I sprinted up the left hand side of the peloton and fixed my eyes on the back wheel of Tiffany Cromwell who was the last rider in the echelon. It’s amazing deep you can dig when you have something to focus on. Latching onto the back of the echelon the job wasn’t done yet.

The first battle of echelon riding is making the front the group, the second battle is getting into the echelon so you don’t get left out in the gutter with no protection. Once the echelon is established it’s even harder to get in and when you’ve already dug deep to make the front selection the period of time you can hang in the gutter without getting a few seconds of recovery as you ride up and through the echelon is pretty short, unless you’re Ellen van Dijk or Marianne Vos.

Knowing this I took a risk and dived in under Amy Pieters. Thankfully she let me in. Like when you check your bank account balance and see you haven’t overdrawn I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

As I rolled up the echelon my teammate Jolien who had done the smart thing and been there from the beginning saw me and said ‘okay, good’. I had to agree with her, I definitely left that one a little close. I was the last rider to make the 16 rider selection.

For the next 60-kilometres our lead group of 16 worked together extending our lead on the chasing peloton which had shattered into multiple groups on the road to more than 2-minutes. Jolien, Elisa and I had all made the front selection which was a good outcome for Wiggle with only Orica-AIS having more riders than us in the lead group.

The first intermediate sprint of the day came after 72-kilometres and after some great help from Jolien I managed to win it picking up three important bonus seconds.

The final six.

The final six.

But the fun was only just beginning. Boels Dolmans had two riders in the lead group of 16 and were obviously not happy with the ratio. With just over 20-kilometres to race Ellen van Dijk and Lizzie Armitstead launched themselves down the left hand side of the road as we hit a tough crosswind section of the local finishing laps.

They caught pretty much the entire front group off guard. Only Trixi Worrack, Emma Johansson, Elisa and I could respond to their powerful attack. All of a sudden there was six. The field had been absolutely devastated.

Our lead group of six slowly built our lead up to about one-minute and 30-seconds. The duo of Lizzie and Ellen was always going to be tough to beat and when Ellen launched an incredible attack with 700-metres to go I hesitated a moment too long. Elisa had worked so hard she couldn’t respond and I decided to play the gambling game hoping that Johansson would go. She didn’t. Trixi did however and I missed the second jump of the day.

I ended up finishing fourth behind Ellen, Trixi and Lizzie. It was a disappointing finish to what had been a fantastic race for Wiggle Honda. I laid in bed last night going over the race in my head frustrated at the mistakes I made. I’m now sitting fourth on GC, seven-seconds behind race leader Ellen. The race isn’t over, but it’s not going to be easy either. Let’s see what the next two stages bring.

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One Comment on “Ladies Tour of Qatar: The First Two Stages

  1. Pingback: Videos & more from the 2015 Ladies Tour of Qatar | Unofficial Unsanctioned Women's UCI Cycling Blog

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