Is the Aviva Women’s Tour too easy?

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Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS) is preparing to head to the airport following the fifth stage of the Aviva Women’s Tour. She has a flight out to Oslo four hours after the British stage race has ended. Emma’s been on the road for two straight weeks – and she’s very much looking forward to reuniting with her husband in Norway. They will travel to Sweden tomorrow for the Swedish National Road Champions where Emma hopes to add two more national titles to her overflowing palmares. It’s busy times.

She started the day in fourth overall. Her team had been vocal about ambitions to get Emma onto the general classification podium. It was not to be. The first four stages of the Aviva Women’s Tour ended in a bunch sprint – and the fifth did, too. Emma finished in seventh place on the stage, missing out on the 10-6-4 bonus seconds offered on the finish line.

While Emma has a quick kick and can sprint brilliantly from a small group, she doesn’t fancy field sprints. She’ll tell you the risks are too high, and the speeds ever-so-slightly too fast –and yet she managed to finish on the stage podium twice at the Aviva Women’s Tour. She was third on stage one, second on stage four and in the top five on all but one stage. She’s nothing if not consistent.

Unable to collect bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint out on the road or on the finish line in Hemel Hempstead, Emma is forced to settle for fourth overall, and while it’s been a great week for the team, she speaks about her frustration about finishing off the overall podium freely. Emma lines up for every race expecting to contend for the win, and she’s versatile enough that she can pull off a result in a variety of different scenarios.

She’s tired and a bit disappointed and eager to get home. Which is to say, perhaps Emma’s operating without a filter. But who knows? Emma’s filter is fairly flimsy even under typical circumstances.

Aviva Women’s Tour race manager Guy Elliott walks up to Orica-AIS compound and approaches Emma following the podium presentation -presentations in which her presence has not been required.

“You know –a lot of people had their money on you,” Guy says to Emma. He means it as a compliment, but I’m not convinced she will take it as one.

“It’s too easy,” Emma says, bluntly. “You need to make it harder. I’m not going to come back next year if it’s like this again.”

She smiles sweetly and adds: “That’s a promise.”

Guy doesn’t skip a beat when he tells her that there are plans to add more variety and tough hills next year. There’s a small group listening in now as he explains that the course this year is harder than the course from the first edition of the race. He speaks about progression. Emma has excused herself from the conversation by the time Guy begins to describe a ‘Poggio-like’ climb he has ear-marked for next year’s route.

The Aviva Women’s Tour is widely celebrated as the top dog of professional women’s cycling –and while the race organisation gets nearly everything right, the one area that could really use improvement is the route. I was speaking to a few other journalists throughout the week about how we’re all loathe to do anything but gush about the Aviva Women’s Tour because what has happened during the last five days gives us so many reasons to celebrate the sport and its players and the communities that embrace them and a race organisation that is committed to elevating women’s cycling while making a strong statement about the importance of equality.

I’ve noticed an understandable inclination to focus on all the feel-good –and with an over-abundance of feel-good, there’s plenty to write about in that vein. Which leaves certain things unsaid.

Unless you’re Emma –and then you just say them.

I’ll go on record and back up Emma’s frankness. When I wrote my ode to the Aviva Women’s Tour, you may have thought my list of things to love excluded mention of the actual racing to point to all the rest. That’s not true. I contemplated discussing the racing but intentionally left it off the list. Simply put, the Aviva Women’s Tour lacks some of the excitement we see elsewhere – at less prominent races, less well-organised races, at races without all the crowds and the fanfare and community involvement.

And while we certainly saw some interesting racing, it was racing that lacked in diversity. Each stage ended in a sprint. Every breakaway was caught in the final kilometre. All the early attacks were neutralised. The intermediate sprints and queen of the mountain climbs were the predictable points of animation. And the race was decided on bonus seconds. Better, I suppose, than a race decided on count-back, which could have been the case had bonus seconds not been on offer.

I’m thrilled to hear Guy voice his commitment to a more challenging course that will undoubtedly bring even more exciting racing. Because when they get that right, the Aviva Women’s Tour will stand heads above the rest, issuing an unspoken challenge to other race organisations to up their collective games.

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