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It’s the morning of stage four at the Aviva Women’s Tour, and I run into Christine Majerus in the lobby of the Village Waterford hotel. The day prior Christine took her first race win for her Boels-Dolmans team. She also jumped up the overall classification –from sixth place to first place –to pull on the yellow leader’s jersey.
I ask her how she is. How she slept. She shrugs.
“The hotel room was really hot,” she says by way of response.
She’s right. The hotel rooms were really hot. I hadn’t slept well either.
We walk outside to the team cars together to head to the Waltham Cross where Saturday’s 103.8km stage will begin.
Christine has been a professional cyclist for nearly a decade. She has never once led a general classification. As a super domestique for the number two ranked team in the world, the 28-year-old is well-accustomed to working her teammates. She knows what it feels like to ride for yellow. Today she will find out how it feels to ride in yellow.
“It was pretty cool,” she will say post-stage. “I’ve had the mountain jersey or the sprint jersey but never the leader jersey. It was pretty amazing for me. The stage yesterday was great. We were all really happy about it. Having that yellow jersey was an extra bonus. It gave me a little more motivation even to go for it today.”
The team had always planned to ride for the yellow jersey. They simply hadn’t expected it would be Christine in yellow. The plan was to ride for Lizzie Armitstead but that plan was derailed on stage one. Lizzie won, celebrated and then crashed, so Christine stepped up.
“I think we’re used to riding for yellow jerseys,” American national road champion Megan Guarnier says with a laugh. “We know it means we have our work cut out for us.”
We arrive at the stage start more than an hour before the race is scheduled to begin. Today’s stage is shorter than the previous two but lumpier. Much of the racing takes place on narrow, winding, hedge-lined roads. There is road furniture throughout and a technical finish.
“Racing here –you have to constantly be aware,” Megan explains. “You spend a lot of mental energy to always be alert. It’s twisting and turning and something can go up the road before you even realise what has happened because you can’t see anything.”
“It starts to wear on the legs,” Megan adds. “The climbs –they’re nothing, but when you’re hitting them every 500 metres….”
The riders travel to the start in Waltham Cross in the two team cars. I ride in the camper with soigneur ‘Smiley’ and head mechanic Richard Steege. When we arrive at the stage start, I will swap places with the riders, leaving them to the camper and assuming my position in the team car alongside sport director Danny Stam. Richard sits in the back seat.
When I ask Danny about his expectations for the stage, he tells me he is most interested in how other teams will handle the race.
“I expect it will be interesting,” Danny says. “I think riders are tired. Many raced in Spain, so there was racing there and travel to England and the stages here have been longer than usual.”
“The most important will be the sprint-sprint-climb,” Danny adds. “They come close together today.”
Danny is speaking about a critical moment in the second half of the race in which both both intermediate sprints and the second categorised climb come in quick succession. There is a fierce battle for the queen of the mountain jersey, which is worn by Australia’s Melissa Hoskins (Orica-AIS) at the start of the day, and the intermediate sprints offer bonus seconds in addition to the sprint points. With mere seconds separating the top five overall, those bonus seconds could prove critical.
There’s a four kilometre neutral section out of Waltham Cross –and then the proper start is given. If earlier stages serve as any indication, I know to expect aggressive racing as teams work to send riders up the road, but a disapproving peloton will chase down each and every attempt.
Activity begins as the peloton races into Hertford and towards the first QOM of the stage. The first ranked climb comes after only ten kilometres of racing.
Because Christine is the race leader, Danny is driving car number one. It means we’re normally the second car behind the peloton. Only the race official sits closer to the back of the bunch. The vantage point from our position allows us to see a reasonable amount of the action. When Megan raises her hand to call for the car, Danny spots her before race radio can call him to the front. He immediately advances into position.
Megan drops back to the car and rides next to the driver side window. She hands Danny an arm-warmer.
“There’s one more,” she tells him.
“Yes,” he says. “You have two arms.”
“I gotta go,” she says –and she pedals away to rejoin the bunch before the Port Hill QOM.
Elise Delzenne (Velocio-SRAM) beats Mel to the top of the climb. The duo are the primary contenders in the QOM competition. Although Elise has the upper-hand on this mountain, Mel maintains her hold on the jersey out on the road.
From here the peloton will not have one moment of relaxation, but things are fairly laid-back in the car. Richard pulls up the 2015 Baku European Games live stream on his phone and breaks out sandwiches. Danny cranks up the tunes.
As the roads narrow, there’s constant motion within the convoy. Motorcycles pass on both sides. Dropped riders fall back through the caravan and then fight to make their way back up. It takes skill to drive in the convoy, but Danny handles it so seamlessly, you might be tricked into thinking anyone could do it.
Race radio produces a constant chatter about attacks that do not materialise into breakaways and the animation at the front of the peloton. No single team has assumed control. The already active race becomes even more active as the peloton powers toward the first intermediate sprint.
I ask Danny why he thinks the peloton is hell-bent on keeping the race together.
“I don’t know the tactic of other teams, but if I were them, I would want the bonus seconds,” Danny says.
Danny’s talking about the bonus seconds on offer at the intermediate sprints –three seconds for the first rider across the line, two for the second and one for the first.
Light rain begins to fall. Initially, it’s only spitting. By the end of the race, it’s raining more heavily. It will make an already technical finish even more challenging.
Race radio announces that Audrey Cordon (Wiggle Honda), Elise Delzenne (Velocio-SRAM) and Malgorzta Jasinka (Alé Cipollini) have taken the top three spots on the first sprint. Danny laughs when I tell him the names that match up with the numbers read over the radio.
“Audrey and Elise were trying to lead out teammates,” Danny says. “The sprint probably wasn’t clearly marked.”
Christine’s yellow jersey is safe for now. Virtually, she remains in the overall lead.
The next sprint comes quickly after the first. We’re on the climb before we have names for the second intermediate sprint. We’re passing riders that have lost contact with the back of the bunch as we snake our way up the Therfield Heath climb. The peloton splinters over the top of the climb. Thirty-five riders make the front group selection.
“This will all come back together,” Danny says. He’s clearly unconcerned.
Twenty-five kilometres from the finish, race radio announces that Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle Honda) and Sabrina Stultiens (Liv Plantur) have escaped the peloton. Their advantage is small initially, but within ten kilometres it stretches out to 55 seconds. There are 15km left to race.
“They’re gone,” says Danny.
Both Longo Borghini and Stultiens sit 26 seconds behind Majerus on the overall classification. They are strong and smart. Longo Borghini won Tour of Flanders in a solo move. Stultiens is the U23 European road and cyclocross champion and relishes in these conditions.
Christine makes an appearance near the back of the peloton. Danny advances next to the official’s car.
“Christine, we have to chase,” he says –before she can say anything to him.
“We have to chase.” she confirms.
“Yes, we have to chase. It’s Longo Borghini on the front with Stultiens.”
Christine latches onto the back of the peloton within seconds, and we can see her working her way back toward the business end of the race. She will tell her teammates to get to the front and pick up the pace.
“I was sitting on the front waiting to hear from Christine,” Megan will explain to me following the stage. “Either people were going to start jumping or we were going to have to start riding. Those were the two options. Christine told us to ride, so we did. It was good. We were all there.”
Within three kilometres, Boels-Dolmans has taken back 15 seconds on the two leaders. Their efforts destroy the bunch. We pass rider after rider after rider as we drive toward the finish.
It’s raining harder now, but the wet doesn’t deter the crowds. They line the streets screaming and cheering as we drive past. The gap is down to 23 seconds as we pass the 10km mark. Five kilometres from the finish, it’s down to six kilometres.
Longo Borghini and Stultiens hit the flamme rouge four seconds before the peloton.
Twitter is faster than race radio once again. Velocio-SRAM announces that Lisa Brennauer has won stage four. The ten bonus seconds Lisa secures with first place on the stage is enough to put her back in the race lead. Lisa has narrowly edged out the ever-consistent Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS). Lotto Lepistö (Bigla) rounds out the podium. Christine is best of the rest in fourth place, which means she has missed out on bonus seconds.
“I think we rode well,” says Christine when we chat about the day back at the hotel. “It’s not like we’ve lost it by a minute or two minutes. It’s just seconds. When the break went away, which maybe was not perfect for us, the girls really did a great job bringing it back. I need to thank them for that. They put everyone in the hurt-box.”
“If it had been dry, it would have been the perfect finish for me,” Christine continues. “It was a little bit too tricky and too dangerous for me today. I had to take a foot out of the pedal in the last corner not to crash. I think fourth was the max I could do tooday without taking too much risks.”
“I’m someone that takes risks, but the season is long and we got them back,” Christines adds. “That’s what we wanted. I could have done a better sprint, but they started sprinting when I was still trying to get my foot back in the pedal. I was a little bit late with the sprinting part, but if I had not take my foot out, I think I would have finished in the barriers. That was the good choice today.”
Results are posted on Twitter quickly. Lisa has a nine second advantage over Christine, who now sits in second place overall. Jolien d’Hoore is third on the general classification heading into the final stage at ten seconds. Emma is one second further back in fourth.
“The general classification is still wide open,” says Megan. “I think we expect a hard day of racing from all the teams. The course itself is going to be hard.”
“The last two stages were really long,” Christine adds. “We were not normally used to that long distance. You see a lot of the girls are starting to be tired. That’s going to be doing some damage, too.”
“Sometimes in a stage race, on the final day, everyone is content to let a small group go up the road,” Megan says. “The overall is sorted, and the break can contest the stage. With the GC still up for grabs….”
“It’s not going to happen like that,” Christine says, finishing Megan’s sentence. “It’s going to be a really hard day tomorrow.”
The Aviva Women’s Tour continues on Sunday with the fifth and final stage from Marlow to Hemel Hempstead.
We’ll be back in the Boels-Dolmans car tweeting live updates at CyclingTipsLive. Follow along here.