Inside Line: Jessie MacLean on the experience of racing La Course

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Last Sunday Jessie MacLean was part of the Orica-AIS team that took part in the inaugural La Course by Le Tour de France, the single-day circuit race on the Champs Elysees held just before the final stage of the Tour de France. In this post, Jessie gives us an inside perspective on La Course and why it was a little different to your average bike race.

If you read any preview for La Course you will understand that this wasn’t just another bike race. Since the announcement of La Course by Le Tour de France there has been much talk surrounding the race. The most important question was: what lasting effects could this event have on the future of women’s cycling?

The media coverage for La Course (namely the live broadcast to over 150 countries) would be unprecedented. A successful event would encourage more investment and support for the female peloton. This was a litmus test, and it was a statement.

While my roomie Emma Johansson had a very reasoned attitude to the day — “yes it’s a big deal but it’s also just another bike race” — most of us were jumping out of our skin. Forget the morning coffee, what we probably needed was a camomile tea (but what self-respecting cyclists shuns coffee for tea?).

The staff were also primed for the big day — our DS Gene Bates had left the polo shirt in the suitcase and pulled out the business shirt for the occasion. Needless to say it doesn’t generally come out for our races. The tone was set — business shirt means business.

The centre of Paris felt sleepy when we arrived around 10:30am. The crowds were trickling in but it was mostly officials floating around. The atmosphere was the right balance of the building excitement you get at big events, and the calmness of knowing it’s another bike race – we knew why we’re there and what we needed to do.

We had a good warmup before going over the plan one more time in the camper. We were all excited but it was important we played it cool in the first half hour so we would be better placed towards the end.

Paris 2014 - La Course for women Elite

I’ll refrain from giving a blow-by-blow description, not because my memory of it consists of a speeding lactic haze punctuated by bursts of terror as bikes that were going straight suddenly jumped a metre left or right, but because this time it was shown live on TV which means many of you will know what happened. CyclingTips et al also have reports on the race that give you an idea of how it played out. Besides, you see a lot more in a fully televised circuit race than we ever see racing it. So instead, here are a few insights from my somewhat unique perspective.

Before the chaos of racing starts you have about 15 minutes of waiting together in the marshalling area. It’s a time for you to check out the competition, where your teammates are, and notice all sorts of random things while avoiding the inevitibility of the pain you are about to endure. Like the fact that you are the only team wearing the bright fluoro wristbands that were obviously for support staff, or pointing out the chainring mark on a rider’s leg (never ride near a someone who has a ‘hubbard tattoo’).

I like this time as you talk about the most random and normal things before accelerating at mach 1 to race a bike on some of the most famous (or small/beautiful/dangerous) roads in the world. It’s so completely normal, and yet so out of the ordinary.

The drag to the Arc de Triomphe was energy sapping because of both the rough road and the gradient. It wasn’t a hill but if you’ve ever done a crit with a drag or pinch you’ll know it doesn’t need to be much to take a toll if you do it enough times. It was also a headwind so if you wanted to move up you would expend a lot of energy to do so.

Marianne Vos was perfectly placed for the majority of the race in that small bubble in the peloton that holds the most consistent pace as the race waxes and wanes (very little waning this day). She is so good it’s both impressive and tiresome (I’m just jealous).

The tailwind downhill made it one fast white-knuckled ride as we gripped the bars and tried to avoid bouncing cyclists. Hitting small bumps at 70km/h can send hands flying off the bars, as indeed many did. I swear it looked so much smoother on TV.

What was great about this race was that despite the course (beautiful yes; conducive to unpredictable racing no) it was dynamic. The situation was constantly changing. Groups were escaping off the front, coming back, lone riders were going, people were jumping across. We weren’t the only team to try and make it a hard race, split it or isolate the favourites, but it was always going to be difficult for a small group to hold off a charging peloton down the Champs-Elysees.

We all had points where we looked at the lap board and went “really? Is that all we’ve done?”. When a race is so intense it can feel like you’ve been doing it for twice as long. Just after halfway through I started to cramp which also didn’t help — it’s not exactly conducive to a smooth pedalling action.

From our perspective the result was a little disappointing. I think everyone had spent so much already in what was a hard, aggressive race that by the business end Emma was isolated in the way we had wanted to isolate the others. Back at the camper post race we were acting like old women, little noises escaping our mouths involuntarily. It looked like we’d spent the day doing hard labour on the farm, drained from effort and heat.

What’s interesting to note, is that although the crowds were no doubt impressive, the atmosphere didn’t compare to say riding up the Cauburg at the World Championships in 2012. The difference being the road is so wide and open that you feel removed from the crowd. It’s not an intimate wall of noise and energy; it’s a massive stage where people watch from a distance.

I can’t say I particularly noticed the amount of people lining the fence until walking amongst and through them to meet our sponsors afterwards. It certainly didn’t register that we were looping the Arc de Triomphe each lap. That’s not to take away from what an incredible experience it is to race on the Champs Elysees. Driving on it later that night it was strange to think that hours earlier we’d been tearing ourselves inside out on that pave.

We are one of the lucky teams. Our sponsors don’t hand over money waiting for the results and advertising to flow. They adopt us, support us. So post race we had the privilege of meeting a few of the people from Orica who gave us a hero’s welcome despite our tired, sweaty (and no doubt smelly) state.

We got to meet some of the characters that have joined our passion for cycling and they also put names to faces. I applaud the men’s teams that also support a women’s squad but none include them in the way that Gerry Ryan and Orica have done. We don’t just share a name, we are one professional cycling team. This was highlighted by the way we were included in the functions and celebrations over the weekend. The only way this weekend could have been topped off was if we’d won. But in a sense we did …

We know how exciting and hard our races can be, we just needed others to see it so the stigma around women’s racing can continue to be lifted and our sport can continue to grow. The significance of the day was lost on no-one, presenters through to UCI officials, riders, family, staff and sponsors. I’m hard pressed to find a bad thing to say about La Course. This is not the beginning but another step towards a better future for the sport.

The Women’s Tour showed there’s support for women’s cycling if it’s given a place to shine. La Course showed how to incorporate men’s and women’s events and receive good exposure for both. Last Sunday close to 300 cyclists raced on the Champs-Elysees and close to half of them were women. We’re confident in the direction cycling and in particular women’s cycling is going; it’s exciting times for the sport.

It’s back to business on Sunday with the next round of the UCI World Cup (appropriately sponsored by The Sufferfest) in Germany and the Commonwealth Games Road Race.

La course by Le Tour de France (1.1) Paris → Paris

VOS Marianne
VOS Marianne Rabobank-Liv Woman Cycling Team
WILD Kirsten Team Giant-Shimano
KIRCHMANN Leah Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies

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