It’s day three at the Aviva Women’s Tour and I’m riding in the race convoy with Boels-Dolmans. Their best-placed rider, Christine Majerus, finished third yesterday and started Friday’s stage in sixth overall, tied on time with three other riders. They all sit eight seconds behind overnight race leader Lisa Brennauer (Velocio-SRAM). Boels-Dolmans will support Christine again today and have targeted a stage result.
Christine was not meant to be the team leader at the Aviva Women’s Tour. Boels-Dolmans lined up for the five-day stage race with the clear intent of working for Lizzie Armitstead. The Brit had won the last two races she had started, and her most recent win, in Philadelphia, moved her into the overall lead of the UCI Women World Cup series. Her impressive form coupled with her extra motivation that comes with racing on home soil made her the obvious team leader.
Despite early reports of a suspected broken leg, Lizzie walked away with nothing but deep bruising and serious stiffness. No fractures. She announced her withdrawal from the race later that night.
In her absence, Christine has assumed the leadership role. Talk to Christine’s teammates, and they will tell you all the various ways in which Christine has contributed to their successes. Christine is a worker bee. She’s the one that toils away at the front off the peloton and drops back from the bunch to the team car to pick up bottles. She gives wheels and takes wind. The leadership role is slightly foreign to her.
As the day before, I am spending the 139.8 kilometre stage between Oundle and Kettering in the car with Boels-Dolman’s team manger Danny and head mechanic Richard Steege. Yesterday I was surprised when Danny’s music selection included the likes of Cheerleader, El Perdón, Hold My Hand and Love Me Like You do from the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack. I was even more surprised when he busted out in song.
This morning I’m prepared for the karaoke. I even sing along.
Today’s stage should be an interesting one, says Danny. It will be harder than the first two stages.
“Maybe there are more climbs, but they are not hard enough to make a difference,” he says. “I think it will end in another bunch sprint. It’s a long stage, and riders are getting tired. That could be a factor.”
The stage is long. In fact, it’s slightly more than four kilometres longer than the maximum distance normally permitted by the UCI for stages during a women’s stage race. The Aviva Women’s Tour had to seek special permission for those four extra kilometres.
The race is relaxed initially. Action picks up as we head toward the first sprint point at 19 kilometres, where bonus seconds are up for grabs.
Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS) wins the first intermediate sprint ahead of Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle Honda) and Hannah Barnes (Unitedhealthcare). Emma had been tied on time with Christine on the overall, but by gaining these three seconds, she jumps up to second overall virtually.
“Chute!!” calls out the race radio. Directly translated, it means “fall” in French. A crash has occurred in the peloton. Richard springs to attention in the back seat until race radio calls Team USA forward to service the fallen rider.
When I look out my window, I see Lauren Hall (USA) struggling to sit up in the grass on the side of the road. Several minutes later, race radio announces Lauren has abandoned the race.
The intermediate sprint has awaken the peloton and several teams are sending riders up the road.
We are 27km into the race, and race radio calls Boels-Dolmans up to the peloton. We make our way up the convoy on the right side of the road. When Romy Kasper sees the car, she drops back to the driver’s side and explains Christine has a headache. Does Danny have anything in the car he can give Romy to bring Christine? Of course he does, he says, and he digs through the center console to produce medication.
Danny hands two tablets to Romy and away she goes, back to the bunch to take care of her team leader.
“Christine is feeling the pressure,” Danny says.
The peloton splits over the first Queen of the Mountain, but the two groups reconnect quickly. The attacks have been non-stop at this point, and the peloton continues to chase down each and every move. As much as each acceleration is about launching a rider into a breakaway, the attacks also tire out the competition. The teams that chase will not be as fresh for the finish.
As we round a corner, we can see the front of the bunch clearly. Danny spots Kasia Pawlowska on the move. She has about 50 metres on the peloton, and a Team USA rider sits on her wheel. Race radio never reports the attack. Most do not gain enough of a gap to merit mention.
But Chloe McConville (Orica-AIS) does manage to slip away from the peloton and Heather Fischer (USA) jumps across to join her. The duo has doubled their advantage to 20 seconds by the time they hit the second intermediate sprint.
The two leaders eat up the bonus seconds on offer for first and second leaving the peloton with a single second up for grabs. Jolien d’Hoore (Wiggle Honda) sprints out of the peloton to pick up the bonus. She started the day in second overall, one second behind the race leader. Having finished third in the intermediate sprint, d’Hoore is now on virtual equal time to Brennauer.
Sharon Laws (Bigla) accelerates away from the peloton over the second Queen of the Mountain and keeps the pace high. Eventually her efforts allow her to bridge across to the breakaway. When Laws reaches the two leaders, the breakaway has a 2:30 advantage over the peloton.
Wiggle Honda is the first team to take control of the chase when the gap balloons out beyond the three minute mark. Eventually Velocio-SRAM follows suit and assumes position on the front.
“The breakaway that went away was not so dangerous for us,” Christine explains after the race. “Velocio obviously wanted to keep the jersey. With 30 kilometres to go, they started to ride. I was just sitting in the peloton with my teammates around me while Velocio did the work.”
“Chute!!” the race radio calls again. “Care and attention in the convoy. Please stop in the convoy.”
It’s immediately clear that this is a multi-rider crash. This time Richard does not wait to hear who has been involved. He grabs wheels and jumps out of the car. He runs up the road. Only a few seconds later, he’s back. None of the Boels-Dolmans riders were involved.
As we drive past the spot of road where the crash took place, only Alex Manly (Orica-AIS) is still receiving assistance for a mechanical issue. The rest of the fallen riders are up and riding toward the peloton.
We are 17km from the finish now. The gap to the breakaway is 1:20.
“It’s going quickly now,” says Danny. “They don’t want to catch them too soon.”
Four kilometres from the finish, the peloton sweeps past the three leaders. The trains are readying for the sprint.
“Who’s your pick for the win?” I ask Danny.
“If Christine can get a gap, she’ll take it,” he tells me.
He names a few additional riders as stage contenders and then asks me who I think will win.
“It’s the perfect stage for Emma,” I respond, referencing Emma Johansson. “The uphill technical bit suits her.”
Although Danny doesn’t seem to mind, I’m immediately embarrassed that I had not named a Boels-Dolmans rider.
The team cars take the deviation to team parking where we await to learn how the sprint has unfolded.
I break the news to Richard and Danny that Christine has won. British journalist Owen Rogers, who is at the finish line, tweets that the Luxembourg national champion has won her first race for Boels-Dolmans.
Danny hits the steering wheel and lets out a “YES!” It’s the only show of excitement I’ll see over the course of the next hour.
Later, when we’re waiting at anti-doping, I will ask him: “Why aren’t you more excited?”
“Because I’m busy planning the next days in my head,” he will say with a smile.
Romy is the first rider to return to the car following the stage. She lets out a little whoop of joy as she smiles and hugs Danny.
“She got a gap at the finish,” Romy says. “Just like you said.”
Kasia follows Megan through the parking lot toward the team cars.
“It didn’t go to plan,” Megan Guarnier comments upon her return. “But we did it!”
When I ask Megan to explain what exactly she means, she says: “We had planned a really true lead-out today. It ended up being that Amelie [Dideriksen] did a lot of work on the front with three kilometres to go into a little before one kilometre to go. By the time I hit the wind, the Velocio team came over me with three of them still in front of Brennauer. Christine tucked in on Brennauer. There wasn’t much I could do after that.”
As I am about to walk over to the podium presentation, Romy looks up from her phone and says: “She got two seconds!”
Her teammates immediately understand what that means. Having won the stage, Christine earned ten bonus seconds. With the ten bonus seconds plus the two second gap on the line, Christine has moved into the yellow jersey.
Backstage awaiting podium, Christine is grinning ear-to-ear.
“It was pretty fast downhill with the last corner at one kilometre and then a little chicane with 600 metres to go,” says Christine. “I’m pretty good at cornering, so Danny said if you can do a gap there, you will go out of the chicane with a few metres and just go full gas to the line.”
“It was a longer sprint than I expected at the end, but I had a nice gap and just kept going,” she adds. “When you see the finish line, it’s always easier.”
Following the first stage of the Aviva Women’s Tour, the Boels-Dolman riders had to climb on stage to receive the yellow jersey, sprint jersey and stage win prizes in Lizzie’s honour. The mood was somber. Two days later, Christine collects a yellow jersey under entirely different circumstances.
Has it been an emotional roller coaster? I ask.
“It has,” she says. “Lizzie was really strong coming into this tour. She was our only leader, and we were all prepared to work for her. She won the first stage, which was perfect. We did really good teamwork, and then she had the crash. We were all down about that. The stage win and the yellow jersey is a good way to say to Lizzie – hey, we’re thinking of you.”
“Yesterday Lizzie sent me a message that said: ‘If you win one, it’s going to make me smile again.’,” continues Christine. “I hope she’s smiling now.”
Christine’s duties as stage winner include a podium presentation, anti-doping control, multiple video and audio interviews, and the official press conference. Danny and I accompany her along to them all. Two hours following Christine’s win, we three walk back to the car together.
“What’s the plan for tomorrow?” Christine asks before Danny has even put the car into drive.
“I don’t know yet,” he says. “But it’s going to be good.”
The Aviva Women’s Tour continues on Saturday with stage four from Waltham Cross to Stevenage.
We’ll be back in the Boels-Dolmans car tweeting live updates at CyclingTipsLive. Follow along here.