My La Course by Le Tour
What a difference a year makes. For those who don’t know, my 2015 La Course by le Tour finished somewhat differently than this year’s edition. I helped my teammate Jolien d’Hoore to a well earned second place. She was beaten only by Anna van der Breggen who rolled the dice and took off in front of the peloton with just over a lap to race.
That night, happy with our performance as a team and caught up in the buzz that surrounds the Tour de France, we went out. My evening ended after I cut my hand on an unfortunately placed glass. I cut three tendons and a nerve in my left hand. As I discovered, this was not a good idea. Some people said to me afterwards in an effort to comfort me, “at least you didn’t break it.” I wish I had broke it, I would have been back racing in a month. Instead, I flew home to Australia, closed the cover on my 2015 season and began three and half months of intensive hand rehab.
It was a hard way to learn a lesson I probably should have already known. Still, it instilled in me a new sense of focus and work ethic that had been missing from my training and preparation previously.
A year on and the renewed focus and new strength I gained after spending five days a week in the gym when I couldn’t ride is starting to pay off.
2016 is the third year the women’s peloton has raced La Course by Le Tour and it has established itself as one of the biggest races on the calendar largely because of the small event it proceeds — the final stage of the men’s three week Tour de France. But also because of the amount of exposure it receives, this year it was broadcast live in 38 countries.
The course is iconic in the world of cycling; the long, wide boulevards of the Champs-Élysées, the imposing shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, the towering figure of the Luxor Obelisk in Place de la Concorde. I have grown up watching the sprint stars of the men’s peloton battle it out for the final stage honours of our sports biggest race. To be given the opportunity to sprint on the same roads, in front of the same crowds, for the past three years has been a monumental step forward in women’s cycling.
Out team director had split the race up into three sections and designated riders for each sections; our young Brits — Amy Roberts and Lucy Garner — were to look after things early while Dani King and Audrey Cordon would take over towards the middle and end of the race. Our dutchie, Amy Pieters, had a free role; she could go in moves if it felt right and would help me in the finish if it came down to a bunch sprint. I just had to wait.
It doesn’t sound like rocket science, but nor should it.
It’s hard for me to give a blow by blow account of what actually happened from kilometre one to kilometre 89 because —largely — I had no idea what was happening.
Given my role was to wait I made the decision to sit back in the peloton and stay protected from the wind. After two editions of the race I had learnt how much energy you can save by sitting around 50th position, particularly on a course like the Champs-Élysées.
I remembered thinking last year how strange it was that the majority of the Rabobank team were sitting quietly out of trouble only for Anna van de Breggen to school the entire field in how to win a bike race.
I was hiding so well that I totally missed when the first dangerous break of the day went. The first I heard of it was our director in the radio listing the rider names, ’28 seconds to Brand, Blaak, Barnes, Zabelinskaya’.
Oh man. It was like Kim Kardashian’s wedding to Kris Humphries; it happened so quickly it was easy to miss. I could only hope that the break would be as short lived as Kim and Kris’ nuptials.Before I even had a chance to start talking in the radio to raise the alarm Audrey and Amy were on the front trying to close the gap. 21 seconds. 15 seconds. The break hung in front of the peloton for 2 or so laps before it was finally reeled in. If we counted it in dog years it may well have lasted longer than Kim’s wedding.
Around 3 laps to go I started to creep closer to the front. I made my way to where I needed to be just in time to see Amy P cannon ball off the front with Lucinda Brand and another Tibco rider. It put my teammates and I in the perfect position behind her. Dani and I, almost in unison, screamed into our radios, ‘Go Amy! GO, GO!’.
With a little less than a lap to go however as we vibrated along the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe the peloton swallowed up Amy’s triplet. It was going to be a bunch sprint, or so I assumed.
Audrey led me around the outside of the peloton to the front to keep me or of trouble and all my focus turned to finding the right wheel for the final.
…all of a sudden Ellen van Dijk shot out of the peloton…She obviously hadn’t read the script, this was meant to be a bunch sprint.
With 3km to go I had found Lotta Lepisto’s wheel. Orica had started their lead out train too and the fight for position was really on. Imagine the customs line at an airport, then imagine being on bikes. This is what it’s like coming into the final kilometres of a race like la Course.
Then all of a sudden Ellen van Dijk shot out of the peloton and down the ramp into the tunnel faster than you backtrack when you say you’ll come to something with your family and then find out you have to pay. She obviously hadn’t read the script, this was meant to be a bunch sprint.
I literally thought, ‘oh shit’. I had no one left, they had done their jobs already, and I learnt after the race, had all been caught in crashes. I couldn’t chase Ellen myself. I had to wait.
The Canyon-SRAM team obviously felt the same sense of urgency as I did and flicked out of the compact group in pursuit of Ellen who had already established a solid gap with about 1.5kms to go.
The issue was there was only two left in the Canyon train — Alena Amialiusik and Tiffany Cronwell — and one of the had to sprint leaving only one to chase Ellen, a former world time trial champion. Position third and glued to Tiffany’s wheel as we powered towards the final kilometre I was willing Alena to keep going but I could see her starting to rock on her bike. We weren’t going to catch Ellen.
Then as we rode under the 1km to go banner I could feel riders coming up on the right hand side. I started to move out and somehow found myself on Pauline Ferrand-Prevot’s wheel. She was flying. She took it through the two last corners but Ellen still had twenty metres on the peloton with 350metres to go.
I was looking under my arms to see if any wheels we creeping up behind me but nothing came. The finish line kept getting closer and no one was coming around me, ‘this can’t be real’.
And then Pauline swung to the right. She was done. I was on the front. This is way too early.
It is amazing how much actually goes through your head in a sprint, it seems like you have minutes to make decisions but really it’s milliseconds. I decided to go. I figured I could jump and maybe hang on for a podium or get swamped and come away with nothing.
With Pauline in the middle of the road and Ellen glued to the barriers on the left hand side of the road I put the power to the pedals and steered my bike for Ellen’s back wheel. I figured I could run at her wheel and maybe use her as a wind break to close the last few metres. I must have passed her with 200metres or so to race. Then I just had to keep going.
With my elbows out and head down I just tried to put everything through the pedals. I was looking under my arms to see if any wheels we creeping up behind me but nothing came. The finish line kept getting closer and no one was coming around me, ‘this can’t be real’.
Then I won La Course by Le Tour de France. The words still seem foreign, like a dream.
While crossing the line with my hands clasped over my mouth was an amazing feeling, I think searching my family and fiancé out of the crowd moments afterwards topped it. My mum was in tears, my Dad had a smile that could challenge Denzel Washington’s and my Fiancé was lost for words.
I felt all these emotions and more. To win on the Champs-Élysées; I still feel like I’m dreaming.
But for those who are wondering, I didn’t get caught up in buzz this year. I was tucked up in my bed, and not a hospital bed, by 12am. My Dad always told me nothing good happens after midnight.