Anyone who watched Annemiek van Vleuten’s sickening, bone-crunching crash as she was heading for gold in the women’s road race at the Olympics last summer will have been roaring her over the line in the concluding stage of La Course on Saturday. Van Vleuten was a worthy winner, having battled back to fitness after suffering three spinal fractures and a severe concussion in Rio. Her victory means a Dutch rider has won the race in three of the last four years.
The previous three editions of La Course took place on the final Sunday of the Tour de France, with a sprint on the Champs-Élysées, but the organisers introduced a new format this year. On Thursday, riders raced a 67km mountain stage from Briançon to the top of the fearsome Col d’Izoard. The top finishers from Thursday qualified for a 22.5km pursuit-style individual time trial in Marseille on Saturday.
The first attack on Thursday came from world time-trial champion Linda Villumsen as the race neared the foot of the Izoard, rearing up out of the Alps and climbing to 2,360m through the eerie parched landscape of the Casse Déserte, the backdrop for so many grand exploits on the Tour de France. Boels-Dolmans, the team of British champion Lizzie Deignan swept to the front of the race, controlling things perfectly for Deignan to launch her own brutal attack on the lower slopes, shedding all but four of the elite group of 20 riders still left in contention: Megan Guarnier, Shara Gillow, Elisa Longo-Borghini and Van Vleuten.
However, despite having a team-mate as experienced and capable as Guarnier – who won the Giro Rosa and the Tour of California last season – Deignan could not keep up with Van Vleuten when the Deignan attacked with just over 4km left to climb. Van Vleuten has been focusing on her climbing since Rio and her recent training at altitude paid off handsomely. She knew she had to build a lead before Saturday’s pursuit stage and her tactics paid off. “You also have to think about the legs,” she said after the race. “In the end it turned out great and proved to be the right time to go.”
The second stage of the race was largely academic given van Vleuten’s healthy time advantage – 43 seconds – and Deignan’s decision to drop back and wait for team-mate Guarnier and Longo Borghini who had started some 40 seconds behind her. The gamble did not pay off for the British rider, who eventually beat the Italian in a two-up sprint inside the Stade Vélodrome to finish in second place.
Deignan was critical of the new two-day format, saying she had considered Thursday as a race but the pursuit as a “bit of fun”. “The format needs some work – it was good but there is definitely work to be done. I’m open-minded to the concept, but it needs tidying up. We took it as seriously as probably we felt the organisers took us today.”
Judith_Arndt, the three-time world champion, was more scathing: “I’m not sure I understand what’s good about presenting people with a poor product if you actually have a really good one.” Kathryn Bertine, one of the original movers and shakers behind La Course, said the organisers had substituted “progress for shapeshifting” but Marianne Vos was more diplomatic, saying: “I am optimistic. It’s a fun, renewed format for both the riders and the public.”
Naturally, Van Vleuten was more impressed. “It was super,” she said. “There were so many people on the course. It made us go really fast. Hopefully we entertained the people.” Van Vleuten’s Strava file from the Izoard shows she was the second faster rider on the climb that day – only Warren Barguil went quicker. “I think people really like to see that; girls are also pretty fast on the bike,” she said. “It was a great moment to ride up the Izoard with lots of people to watch.”
Although women riders have tackled the epic climbs of the Grand Tours in the past, this was the first time in over 30 years they had raced on a mountain parcours on the roads of France. When Laurent Fignon stood on the top step of the podium in the 1984 Tour, he shared the honours with American rider Marianne Martin, who had romped to victory on the relentless slopes of the Joux Plane. That women are reduced to riding a shortened mountain stage and a novelty pursuit 30 years later seems a huge step backwards.
Meanwhile, Donnons des elle au Velo J-1 were busy winning the hearts of the French public by riding the entirety of the Tour de France route one day before the professional peloton. It’s a timely reminder, if one were needed, that women are more than capable of handling a three-week Tour.
Helen Russell, the Current British quadrathlon champion, is someone who knows how much suffering and triumph is involved in riding the route of the Tour de France. She rode the route in 2015 alongside former footballer Geoff Thomas as part of the One Day Ahead team in a bid to raise money for Leukemia Research. “The idea that the Tour de France route would be too hard for women has been proven to be wrong by the amateur women who have ridden the route over the years,” she says.
“They’ve shown that the mileage and terrain is not beyond the capabilities of women riders. In years gone by women weren’t allowed to run marathons due to concerns over their health. These days that seems laughable and hopefully one day the idea that there can’t be a women’s Tour de France will be just as laughable.”
With the Izoard stage of La Course pulling in one million viewers in France alone, the demand is clearly there. As cyclist Leah Kirschman put it: “Fun to race in front of the crowds in Marseille, but time gaps much too big. Who votes for a stage race next year?!” The reply is clear: the viewing public. It’ll be interesting to see if the organisers step up to the challenge in 2018.