Watch more womens cycling!

That’s the conclusion as stated by Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig at the end of yesterday’s La Course after a hard (almost) two weeks of racing in Italy and France. It started with the Giro Rosa and ended with the passionate and exciting La Course, raced from Lac d’Annecy to Le Grand-Bornand in France.

In last year’s Giro, Annemieke Van Vleuten was a serious challenger for the overall win but blew her chances with a lack of concentration on one day. This year, her team Mitchelton Scott (MTS) was coming to the race on the back of some great form in the early part of the season and Vleuty’s main rival Anna Van Der Breggen wasn’t attending since she was having a go at some Mountain Bike racing. Not that there were no other contenders. Cervelo Bigla is a great team which had Ashley Moolman Pasio as their GC hope with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Lotta Lepisto playing support roles in this event. Sunweb had high hopes and Boels Dolman is a strong team even without Van Der Breggen.

Unfortunately, on this side of the world, you only get twitter highlights and post race video summaries, so you can’t partake in the energy of the event first hand, but it was still exciting to follow. Sunweb beat MTS by one second in the starting Team TT, which was enough to let them share the leader’s jersey among the team over the first few days. There were some nasty crashes that removed people like Rachel Neylan over the first half of the race and it wasn’t until the Individual TT on stage 7 that a real shake-up occurred. It was an uphill course with some seriously steep sections and most riders elected to use conventional road bikes for the better gearing. However, Annemieke used her time-trial bike and monstered her way up the the hills to win by almost 2 and a half minutes from Ashley Moolman Pasio.

The next test was two days later on the Zoncolan, which has gradients approaching 22% with an average of 11% for 10km. There was a massive battle from the start when Ashley attacked and Annemieke followed, with Eider Merino from Movistar and Amanda Spratt from MTS battling for 3rd and 4th places. Ashley couldn’t drop Annemieke who attacked in the last 2km and won by 40 seconds, cementing her hold on the winner’s jersey. Spratty was dropped by Merino on the lower slopes of the climb but fought back and overtook her rival in the last 20 metres to take third. It was a hard climb and the grupetto was almost 30 minutes behind the leaders.

To add icing to the cake, Van Vleuten won the final stage at Cividale Del Fruili by attacking on the last climb and time-trialing to victory on the descent to the finish. Overall she won by around 4 minutes from Moolman Passio, with Amanda Spratt in third place – the first Australian female in 24 years to stand on the final GC podium of the Giro (after Kathy Watt in 1994).

The women had a single day after the end of the Giro in which to get some rest and travel 800km across the top of Italy to Lac d’Annecy in the foothills of the French Alps, where la Course would start. If they were lucky they would also be able to get a look at the climbs (Col de Romme and Col de Colombiere) first hand. Notably Anna Van der Breggen would be participating and would be better rested, as would some teams like United Health Care, who did not attend the Giro. The pundits were saying that Anna was more likely to win, but that Annemieke would of course fight to defend the title after her win last year.

There was a loop south around the lake to start followed by a cat 4 climb over the hills to the east and a lot of the sprinters and smaller teams were pulled from the race at that point as they were too far back and caught behind a crash. However, a 4 rider breakaway including Lotta Lepisto – the Cervelo Bigla sprinter – took off along the valley floor following that climb at speeds of almost 50km/k. By the time they reached Cluses at the foot of the Col de Romme they had around 2 minutes over the peleton but that was quickly closed down as the favoured riders (Annemiek, Anna, Ashley, Amanda etc. came to the front and started riding in earnest.

The breakaway had fractured with only one UHC rider out front when Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Cervelo) attacked the peleton and quickly got over a minute’s advantage. She’s 22 and been vocal about wanting the race organisers to take women seriously and let them ride the same mountains as the men, and she really enjoys the challenge and thrill of racing up serious climbs. About a couple of kilometers from the top of the 10km climb, she started to lose the fluid pedaling style she’d shown so far and was visibly suffering, but she stayed away over the top and down the descent to the start of the Col de Colombiere. It wasn’t until about 2km before the top of that final climb that she was finally caught by a trio of Van Vlueten, Van der Breggen and Cecilie’s team-mate Ashley Moolman Passio. As both Anneniek and Ashley had ridden Giro, they were tired but they’d also ridden into form, whereas Anna was relatively fresh but lacking the other’s race fitness. After a few attacks by each of them, Anna rode away from them over the top of the Colombiere and down the other side with Annemieke in pursuit followed by Ashley, and Cecilie a distant fourth.

Annemieke was only a couple of seconds behind Anna by the time they hit the final wall up to the finish line in La Grand Bornand and it seemed inevitable that the fresher Van Der Breggen would win, but she ran out of steam in the final 25 metres with Van Vlueten emptying the tank to push past her and take her second win at La Course in two years. The mixture of joy, pain and exhaustion in the women as they recovered was overwhelming. Annemieke was too exhausted to speak but her eyes were beaming and she was almost in tears of joy as reporters were shouting questions at her that she hadn’t the breath to answer.

In contrast, Cecilie, who finished fourth a few seconds behind Ashley, was sitting on the ground (again surrounded by reporters) almost babbling deliriously about how wonderful and painful and exciting the day was and what a great time she’d had. It was marvellous to watch the raw emotion of pure joy mixed with utter exhaustion. It also turns out that fresh legs sometimes don’t count for much, as only two in the top 10 had not ridden the Giro and the rest had already raced the 10 days in Italy. This final day’s racing was like their Champs and an affirmation that women can compete in multi-week events in all terrain and that women’s racing can be (and usually is) more exciting and more of a spectacle than the men.

Cecilie’s interview is wonderful and silly and passionate and ends with a plea that everyone should watch more women’s cycling and I whole-heartedly agree. Given her passion and talent on display at this event, I’m tipping her to win at the World Championships in Innsbruck 🙂

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