The fourth round of the UCI Women’s Road World Cup is the first edition of the competition that brings the climbers to the fore; the previous races, though they include hills, all ending with sprint finishes.
The Fleche Wallonne, though, ends on the Mur de Huy, an incredibly tough climb with sections well above 20% and one corner at 26%. For that reason, British climber Emma Pooley was among the favourites to win; she finished in seventh place, but another British rider few expected to podium came just one second from victory.
The peloton stayed together until it first crossed the Cote d’Ereffe; once over, Bizkaia-Durango’s 28-year-old Russian rider Yulia Ilinykh lauched a rather spectacular attack that saw her riding solo almost a minute out in front for a time. Coming so early and with so many climbs ahead, the attack could never have stuck and the gap was reduced to 20” by the second climb, Cote de Bellaire; then Ilinykh was caught. She’ll have earned a big thankyou from the team sponsors for getting the logos on her jersey in front of the cameras, though.
Average speeds were high as the race arrived at the Cote de Bohisseau, splitting the peloton as it began to climb for the third time and it was obvious that two distinct groups were starting to form – one made up of riders who had no chance of winning and one from which the winner would be chosen. 31 riders from the latter group piled on the pressure on the Cote de Bousalle which, at 241m, was the highest hill on the parcours (though with an average gradient of 4.9%, far from the steepest), and were soon away; by the ascent of the Cote d’Ahin the gap was almost 50” and, with the first ascent of notorious Mur de Huy just ahead, it looked like the break might stick for a while at least. With the pace and gradients so demanding, the big lead group began to fracture and was soon split into three sub-groups, with the margins between them not strictly defined as riders moved from group to group and back again, causing some chaos for commentators as they tried to work out who was in which group and who was still back in the pack. Leah Kirchmann, riding for the Canadian National Team rather than her usual trade team Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, crashed in amongst the confusion but was uninjured and rapidly got herself back into the front group just as it merged together with the second.
A ripple of excitement went through the fans as Marianne Vos (Rabo-Liv) attacked, but even though Vos had informed the world prior to the race that she wouldn’t be at 100% following an extended break from competition after the cyclo cross season (and surgery to remove a cyst) and that as far as she was concerned she was there to support team mate Anna van der Breggen, nobody was going to risk letting her get away – the leaders reacted immediately and wasted no time at all in bringing her back just as the separate groups began to reconvene. She may, however, just have been testing the waters and drawing rivals’ attention away from Rabo’s real plans, because team mate Lucinda Brand attacked moments later, taking Lotto-Belisol’s Liesbet de Vocht with her. Deliberate or not, other riders attempted to make the most of the same opportunity and attacks began firing off all over the place: including, notably, one by Audrey Cordon on the second ascent of the Cote de Bellaire – to be followed by Ashleigh Moolman slaughtering the climbers on the last hills as part of Hitec’s plan to get Longo Borghini on the top step of the podium? Cordon quickly found 15” and the plan seemed to be working, but with 30km to go Vos was leading the pack. Marianne’s known for her heavy foot on the accelerator, and with her setting the pace Cordon was soon caught.
Vos attacked again on the Cote de Bohisseau and was first to the top, forcing the pace still higher so that Malgorzata Jasinska (Ale-Cipollini) and Trixi Worrack (Specialized-Lululemon) dropped out of the lead group; the World Champion’s team mate Lucinda Brand went with them, but the trio regained contact with 20km to go. De Vocht attacked next and took 10”, an interesting move going into the final climbs as it gave indication that Lotto-Belisol were putting their own race-winning plans into action. De Vocht was brought back on the Cote d’Ahin, but not before she’d forced the other teams to use up more of their energy reserves than they’d have liked at such a late point in the race – a superb example of race tactics that saw several riders drop off the back, and one that was followed immediately by an attack by Emma Pooley. As one of the finest climbers women’s cycling has ever seen, Pooley had been a favourite from the moment she was confirmed for this race and has won it once before, back in 2010.
Wiggle-Honda seem to frequently keep a low profile through the majority of the races they enter before suddenly swinging into action in the closing kilometres, and they did precisely that here. Once over the penultimate climb, Linda Villumsen suddenly appeared at the front and lauched an attack that got her 25” out in front, partly through her own efforts and partly because, well aware that the remaining 10km to the Mur would bring plenty of chances to catch her before they even got to the savage climb, the group behind her weren’t going to waste their strength going after her just yet. She was 45” in front when she reached the Mur, but the outcome was far from certain yet. Villumsen’s efforts will be, for many, the highlight of the race – she wasn’t caught until she was just 400m from the finish line.
Those 400m, on a gradient such as the Mur, seem far longer; they must have felt like 4km to Pauline Ferrand Prevot as she gave everything she possibly could – and her team mates gave eberything they could to help her – to remain just one second ahead of Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans; how wrong I was) and four seconds ahead of Longo Borghini. Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-Lululemon) was fourth.
1 Pauline FERRAND PREVOT (Rabo-Liv) 3:26:43
2 Lizzie ARMITSTEAD (Boels-Dolmans) +01″
3 Elisa LONGO BORGHINI (Hitec Products) +04″
4 Evelyn STEVENS (Specialized-Lululemon) +07″
5 Ashleigh MOOLMAN-PASIO (Hitec Products) +11″
6 Marianne VOS (Rabo-Liv) +13″
7 Emma POOLEY (Lotto-Belisol) ST
8 Linda VILLUMSEN (Wiggle-Honda) +21″
9 Claudia HÄUSLER (Orica-AIS) +24″
10 Ellen VAN DIJK (Boels-Dolmans) +28″
World Cup Top Ten
1 (1) Elizabeth ARMITSTEAD 420
2 (2) Emma JOHANSSON 260
3 (3) Anna VAN DER BREGGEN 238
4 (4) EllenVAN DIJK 220
5 (5) Elisa LONGO BORGHINI 215
6 (9) Pauline FERRAND PREVOT 200
7 (6) Annemiek VAN VLEUTEN 120
8 (20) Evelyn STEVENS 95
9 (7) Alena AMIALIUSIK 85
10 (8) Shelley OLDS 85
2 Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans)
7 Emma Pooley (Lotto-Belisol)
42 Dani King (Wiggle-Honda)
53 Laura Trott (Wiggle-Honda)
Jo Rowsell (Wiggle-Honda) DNF
Lucy Martin (Estado de Mexico-Faren) DNF
What’s really interesting from a British point of view about this outcome is Lizzie Armitstead’s second place. Lizzie is having an excellent season so far this year and seems to have found the best form of her life, but very few people were expecting her to do so well in this race because, while we all knew she could climb, she has hitherto been better-known for her sprint finishes. This year, though, she’s been climbing remarkably well; as seen at the Trofeo Binda and at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, both of which feature some very tough climbs and where she was second.
Another second, on the Mur de Huy, does much more than allows her to retain her World Cup leadership – it also proves that at 25, she’s beginning her best years and developing into a fantastically talented all-rounder. She is now more than capable of taking on the likes of Vos and Johansson (and, a few years younger but taking a similar course to the top, Longo Borghini); with the security of a long-term Boels-Dolmans contract, who knows what she’ll achieve over the next five years?
Pauline’s not-so-fabulous prize
So, what did Pauline Ferrand Prevot receive for winning one of the most important races in women’s cycling? €1128; which works out at €8.88 per kilometre – or 24 cents less than the €9.12 minimum wage she’d be paid per hour had she have climbed off her bike and got a job in one of the cafes along the route. Alejandro Valverde, winner of the men’s race (which several fans on Twitter claimed was far less exciting than the women’s race), receives €16,000 – €80.40 for each of the 199km raced.
The problem, of course, is that sponsors don’t want to give women’s cycling the backing they’re willing to put into the men’s sport, and so race organisers cannot offer the same prize funds. But why? You only need to search #flechewallonne to see that there’s a huge number of people who were eager for any scrap of information on the women’s race and who would have tuned in to see it on TV. If there was just one broadcaster willing to take a risk, they might find the rewards to be bigger than they could ever have dreamed.