Inside Line: Tiff Cromwell on the World Championships Road Race

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On Saturday afternoon the elite women’s peloton contested the 2014 world championships road race in Ponferrada, Spain. The event was won by Pauline Ferrand-Prevot in a reduced bunch sprint, becoming the first Frenchwoman to win the worlds road race since 1995. Tiff Cromwell went into the race as the leader of the Australian team and was there in the deciding sprint. Here’s how the race unfolded from her perspective.

The world championships is always a special event. It is one of the few opportunities we have to proudly race for our country on the world stage. It was my fifth time pulling on the green and gold of Australia at a senior world championship. Every year I’ve been gaining more experience and targeting bigger and better results. With a top 10 finish in Florence last year and with another course suiting me this year I had big ambitions.

A string of strong results since the Commonwealth Games gave me confidence in my abilities and with the team support behind me I was excited but nervous for the race.

The course featured seven laps of an 18.2km undulating circuit that could be split into three different sections. The first section was in the city; mostly flat and fast with a number of corners as the course weaved its way through the centre of Ponferrada. The second section was a gradual, exposed 4km highway climb and the final section featured a fast and windy descent across the dam and around onto a 1km punchy climb — perfect for late attacks before cresting and flying down into town to the finish.

Having already tested out the circuit earlier in the year, we were expecting it to be a race of attrition that would build fatigue in the legs lap after lap and see a small selection reach the finish to battle it out for the win.

The Australian women’s team was made up of Carlee Taylor, Loren Rowney, Rachel Neylan, Katrin Garfoot, Lizzie Williams and me. In a rare occurrence I was given the role of both leader/protected rider and team captain on the road.

Normally the team leader doesn’t also act as the team captain in big races — when you’re the one with the pressure to perform it can add to the stress. The captain is ultimately responsible for any decisions made out on the road for the team, and it allows the leader to be able to just focus on her job when it counts. Due to having a relatively inexperienced team this year I was given both roles, and I was confident I would be capable to handle both.

In the days leading up to the race we had a few team meetings to assess individual goals for the race, the competition we were facing and the possible scenarios we could face before coming up with a final strategy. We identified the Dutch, Italians, Americans and Germans as the four ‘big’ teams who would potentially dictate the race. Being more of an ‘underdog’ team we didn’t believe it was up to us to make the race in the early parts — instead the plan was to be present in the moves and work off of the bigger teams.

If we still had numbers in the final two laps then we would look to start launching moves off the front for a possible late break. This would ultimately allow me to sit in, be patient and wait for one big attack or go with the major players and sprint at the finish.

Each nation was called up one-by-one to the start line in the order of the world rankings. After what felt like an eternity the gun was fired and we were off for seven laps and 127.4km of racing.

There was huge crash at the end of the second lap on the descent back into town which shook things right up. It began next to me but luckily I was able to avoid it. It was serious carnage; bikes and bodies flying everywhere, taking out a number of riders.

At the time I didn’t know if we had anyone caught up in the crash but I couldn’t see any of my teammates in the peloton near me. I had to stay focused on the front of the race, out of trouble and wait until it settled before assessing the situation and seeing whom we still had left.

With half the field either in or caught up behind the crash, there were groups everywhere chasing back on. Eventually the main peloton came back together leaving around 70 riders in the race. At first I only had Kat and Rachel still with me as Lizzie crashed out. Loren and Carlee came down but were able to get back on their bikes. Loren never made it back to the front of the race but Carlee did, albeit after a long chase.

Given the situation I had to quickly change our team plan and the roles slightly. Lizzie and Loren were originally going to be our late workers but with them out I asked Rachel to save herself for as long as possible to help me later in the race. Then I had Carlee and Kat to cover any dangerous moves that had the major teams represented. With four riders left in the race we had to be smart with how we played our cards and used our energy.

The next few laps were like a game of chess, waiting, watching. Who was going to play their cards first? Which team was going to take control and dictate? As each lap ticked down I would say to my teammates to be prepared for the attacks on the climb. I was sure fireworks were going to start soon.

I spent these laps staying in good position, conserving energy, watching the riders I was needing to watch and observing, trying to figure out what the other teams’ tactics were. The Italians and Americans seemed as though they were riding for a sprint, backing the likes of Giorgia Bronzini and Shelley Olds to be able to get to the finish. The Germans were riding a very controlled race and with the style of riders they had, it looked like they were waiting until later to use their firepower.

Then there were the Dutch. They had me confused; I didn’t know what they were playing at. They came into the race with nine riders — two more than any other team — including the one and only Marianne Vos. I was sure they would want to use their numbers, be aggressive, and race hard enough to get rid of the sprinters while keeping numbers at the front of the race. For some reason they were also playing the waiting game.

If nothing was happening by the time we reached the highway climb for the second last time, I had told my team to start attacking. We needed it to be harder to get rid of the sprinters — the non-technical flat sprint would make it hard for me to beat the ‘true’ sprinters.

Finally as we reached the penultimate lap the dangerous attacks began. Alison Powers of USA went off the front through the start/finish gaining an advantage. She’s a strong time trialist and powerful rider; you don’t want to allow her too much room. As we hit the highway climb for the second last time, finally the Dutch came out to play, firing off attacks, followed by the British and the Germans as they reeled in Powers.

It was a hard climb to gain an advantage on as it required a lot of effort to get away but it was not so difficult to close gaps or follow wheels at speed as the pace increased. Over the course of the climb there were numerous attacks and Kat and Carlee covered them well, allowing me to sit in.

Rachel Neylan goes on the attack.
Rachel Neylan goes on the attack.

Rain began to fall as we approached the top of the climb, making for a nervous descent. Rachel went on the attack over the top (see photo above) and was able to gain an advantage. She was off the front solo for a few kilometers but as we hit the second climb the Italians got nervous and Rosella Ratto came to the fore and closed the gap by the time we crested the top. The front group had significantly reduced to around 25 riders with all of the favourites still there as we headed towards the final lap.

As we hit the bell lap Chantal Blaak (Netherlands) attacked. She’s my teammate at Specialized-Lululemon normally so I know how strong she is. She isn’t someone you want to give much freedom to. She took with her Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Poland), Ratto, and Neylan as Germany’s Claudia Häusler quickly jumped across not long after. It had the potential to stick if everyone behind them sat up and looked at each other. The move had some firepower in it; for us it was good as we were represented and still meant I could sit back and just bide my time.

The one big nation missing was USA and they chased hard to bring the move back and did so before we hit the highway climb for the final time. Now it was my time. I still had Rachel there to cover the attacks as I kept myself at the front and in the moves with any of the favourites and still in contention for the win.

There were numerous attacks up the climb but again nothing was sticking — it was coming down to the final climb. Crunch time. I had to give it everything I had — I knew the vital attacks were about to come with the likes of Vos, Armitstead and Emma Johansson. Just before halfway up the climb Johansson was the first to put in a decisive attack taking Vos, Armitstead and Elisa Longo-Borghini with her as the rest of us scrambled to try and go with the move.

The four-rider group gets away.
The four-rider group gets away.

It was a strong four rider move that crested over the top. I didn’t have the legs to go with it but I didn’t give up. I fought hard with the others to the top, keeping hope that it might come back on the descent. I was with the Americans Evie Stevens and Olds — Stevens chased hard on the descent for Olds and Giorgia Bronzini was also with us. We collected Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Lisa Brennauer (Germany) on the way down amongst others.

The four in front were just ahead of us as we approached 1 kilometre to go. There was no cohesion in the front — no one wanted to take the front or work together and risk their chance at victory. Instead 11 of us came back and joined the fight for the line.

The Germans still had two riders and led the final chase; I was perfectly situated in third wheel as they stormed straight past the leading four riders. We hit the final corner with 500m to go and I knew it would be a difficult sprint to judge. But I had to remain calm — I was almost getting the perfect lead-out.

The sprint started early as the Italians jumped with around 300m to go. It was a messy sprint. I was boxed in with 150m to go with Vos on my left and others around me. I had to stop pedaling for a moment as we neared the finish. The door opened again and I was able to get out, pushing as hard as I could towards the line. I was so close but had so far to go.

“Could I actually get a medal?”, I thought to myself. But I faded in the final metres as I saw Ferrand-Prevot edging to victory to the right of me. It was a super close sprint with four riders spread across the line with not much between them. A photo finish saw Brennauer claim silver ahead of Sweden’s Johansson.

I ended the day in fifth. It was my best result to date at a world championships and the first time I was there actually fighting for victory in the finale. I achieved my goal of a top-five finish, but to be so close to a podium is always tough. You question if you could’ve done anything different in the finale that might have got you that medal.

Ultimately though I was happy and did have luck on my side. I didn’t have the legs to go when the four leaders went, and if they had co-operated I may not have even been fighting for a victory. It was a strange race with how the tactics panned out but I was very proud of how the Australian team rode and thankful of the support and belief in me to fight for the result.

It was great to see new faces on the world championships podium; I think it is fantastic for women’s cycling. We finally saw that Vos is human; she wasn’t her usual dominant self.

My performance was a great way to end the 2014 season. I proved to myself and others that I can be patient, and better utilise my strengths to make it count. I will never lose my aggressive style of racing but with the way this race panned out and the nature of the course, it was what I needed to do to achieve my best result.

As I continue to develop and strengthen as I rider I believe I am capable of fighting for the rainbow bands. I already have my eyes set on Richmond 2015. It sounds as though it is a classics style race; right up my alley. For now though, I am going to enjoy some much-needed R&R with time off the bike, holiday and enjoy being ‘normal’ for a few weeks.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me throughout the year and continues to follow my racing; it is what keeps me going, motivated and striving for more.

You can read more of Tiff’s writing at her website and you can follow her at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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