Clear blue skies, warm temperatures and a shining sun welcomed the peloton as we lined up in Laveno on the banks of Lago Maggiore for the second round of the World Cup series in Italy.
After spending the opening part of season racing in Qatar and Northern Europe, it was time to leave the cobbles and wind behind for a week and allow the climbers to come out to play.
The Cittiglio World Cup is the first hilly race of the season. It takes place in the Varese region of Northern Italy, home to the Australian road cycling program, the AIS European Training Centre and the Orica-GreenEDGE/AIS service course.
As you can see there is a strong Australian connection here and as an Australian rider it feels like a home race. I have spent many years training on these roads since first visiting the area in 2006 as a junior. It is where the foundations were laid for my international cycling career and it has been, and still is the training ground for many Australian riders.
The course was defined by a 7.6km circuit that began along the edge of Lago Maggiore before winding its way through the undulating valley roads and through the finish line for the first time in Cittiglio.
It then headed out on a 37.7km course through two intermediate sprints and over the first climb of the day, a 4km-long, 6% climb to the town of Cuveglio. The race continued up and over the highest point of the course in Brinzio before coming back across and down to pass through the finish line once again.
From there the business end of the race takes shape with four laps of a 17.1km circuit course, each of which includes the Orsino climb, a 3km ‘stair step’ climb that takes prisoner to many suffering legs throughout the day.
This was my fifth time lining up at this race and it has always been a hard-fought battle that becomes a race of attrition as the climbs (with limited chance of recovery) build up in your legs. I have had some strong showings here but also some very dismal races too.
In recent history the winner has either been solo or from a very select group, and the race is normally battled out in poor weather conditions. The one year it finished in a sprint between a group of around 10 riders the sun was shining and the riders were treated to lovely racing conditions.
Coming into the race I had a very busy race program with the Specialized-Lululemon team, competing in all of the early season classics combined with a balanced training program at home between races. I have been working a lot with my coach on my power and ability to create meaningful attacks, with plenty of high intensity efforts both on the flat and on climbs.
My target for the early season is the Tour of Flanders and I have been using the races so far as building blocks. Cittiglio is the perfect race to measure my climbing form as it also suits my strengths better than the flatlands of Qatar and the Netherlands.
As a team we came to Italy a week early and raced the UCI 1.2 GP Cornaredo on the outskirts of Milan before heading to Lago Iseo for a team training camp between races. It was the perfect location to prepare for Cittiglio as there were plenty of climbs and we had the chance to do quality training together. [ed. Tiff is being modest here and failed to mention that she came second in the GP Cornaredo (see video below).]
The fresh arrival of Evie Stevens from America added to our climbing strength, meaning we went in with a strong squad at Cittiglio. We didn’t want to sit back and wait for the race to happen. We went in with a plan to be aggressive after the first climb, trying to form an early move and putting pressure on the other teams to chase whilst saving Evie for a final lap attack if we didn’t succeed in our breakaway attempts.
How it unfolded
The flag was dropped and we got underway with 124km to race. There was suppose to be a 2km neutral out of town although it felt like we were racing from the word go. It could’ve had something to do with the fact we had a Ferrari leading the way for us, perhaps?
The opening 30km flew by, the pace high with the peloton strung out through the winding valley roads. I started at the back so it was a bit of a mission making my way through the peloton but if you stay calm you eventually find enough gaps to make it to the front.
With the new intermediate classifications in the World Cup series — a sprint classification and a mountains classification — it adds extra elements you need to take into consideration throughout the race. That was definitely the case in this race.
The first intermediate sprint came 3km before we turned left off a big, wide open road on to a much smaller narrow road with a small climb. This was followed by a little technical descent back on to the larger road 1km before turning left into the second intermediate sprint which went directly into the first climb.
So while some riders were chasing sprint points we also had teams who were fighting for position to be at the front by the time we hit the bottom of the first climb. With everything in quick succession and the pace never letting up, you quickly worked out if you had good legs or not.
By the 40km mark the peloton was already down to 65 riders and it was time for our team to start playing our cards. The team tried a couple of attacks before Trixi Worrack went clear solo, gaining a small advantage.
With Trixi’s strength and pedigree the peloton were never going to allow her to get too far. Teams quickly came to the front to chase and with riders launching attacks to bridge across it all came back together.
We wasted no time in going on the attack again and other teams had the same idea. Finally a group of six riders went clear as they began the final circuits: Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans), Lucinda Brand (Rabo Liv Women), Amanda Spratt (Orica-AIS), Lisa Brennauer (Specialized Lululemon), Mayuko Hagiwara (Wiggle Honda) and Valentina Carretta (Ale Cipollini).
For us it was good that we were represented but we weren’t happy with the combination of riders in the break. Having the likes of Guarnier and Brand, who were both suited to the course, Lisa wasn’t sure if she could back herself when it came to the crunch.
The break managed to open a maximum gap of 43 seconds but it was continually fluctuating with the action from behind. We had Lisa sit on while we looked for opportunities to send another rider across to the break. It was my turn to get involved in the action.
I had just drifted to the back of the peloton on the climb and in my race radio the next thing I heard was from our director. “Tiff, attack now!” The tone in my director’s voice made it clear that if I didn’t I would be in trouble after the race. [ed. Race radios are only allowed during World Cup races for women.]
Somehow I found space on the side of the peloton as I went from back to front and on the attack. I certainly didn’t have amazing legs but it shows how much of a mental game cycling can be. It’s sometimes best just to do it, rather than playing games with yourself, telling yourself you have bad legs.
I managed to open up a gap on the peloton as I tried to bridge to the break but I was quickly chased down and by the top of the climb the race was all back together again.
It took an entire lap before another break was established when Guarnier went clear over the top of the climb and was quickly joined by my teammate Chantal Blaak and by Lucinda Brand.
With two laps of the 17.1km circuit to go there were three leaders and the main peloton was continually reducing in size. Fireworks continued each time up the climb as the three leaders were reeled in one by one and the chase group split in two. But by the time they came through the finish with one lap to go it was all back together with 29 riders fighting it out on the final lap.
We had three riders in the front group and our Evie card still to play but we needed to look at our best options on how to win the race. We decided that we would set Evie up to attack on the climb. With Chantal having just been in the break we decided for me to attack from the bottom of the climb to then allow Evie to launch of it and hopefully go clear.
The pace was high as we headed towards the climb for the final time and the moment the road pitched up I put in one last dig and attacked as if I was sprinting for the finish. Despite opening a decent gap a chase quickly formed from behind.
At the moment I was caught Evie countered, attacking over the top. For me that was race done — I had nothing left. For the rest there was still a race to be won.
After Evie’s initial attack, in which she didn’t go clear, she tried again but this just set off the other contenders and caused Evie to drop off the pace.
Eight riders formed over the top of the climb and went on to battle it out for the victory. It was my former teammate Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS) who proved victorious edging out current World Cup leader Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) by millimetres at the line. Alena Amialiusik (Astana Be Pink) rounded out the podium in third while Armitstead maintained her overall lead in the World Cup series.
The team was disappointed with the final result but we weren’t disappointed with how we raced. We raced strongly as a team and went on the attack as we had planned.
Looking back, and with the weather conditions and the past history of the race in mind, it ended up being a race of attrition and those who were in the final group were the ones who sat back, were patient and used their energy when it counted.
If we were to race it again with the same weather conditions we would’ve waited a little bit longer to be aggressive because ultimately we tired ourselves out and then didn’t have the legs when it counted. That’s bike racing though! You learn from your experiences, you debrief and it all makes you stronger in the future.
From here I return home to Monaco for five days before heading back up to Belgium on Friday for World Cup race #3: the Ronde van Vlaanderen on Sunday. It’s one of the most prestigious one-day races on the calendar and as a team we will come back fighting on the battleground of Flanders.