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Six months ago, the day before she won her first UCI Women Road World Cup of the season, Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) insisted that repeating as World Cup overall winner was not a priority in 2015. By the time she had taken her second World Cup win in Philadelphia, Armitstead had changed her tune. She was back in the series leader’s jersey and had determined she’d quite like to keep it. Poised to do exactly that with two rounds left to race, Armitstead suffered from bad luck and a bit of nerves in Sweden, slipping to third overall in Vårgårda. The British national champion would need a very special performance at GP de Plouay to win the overall.
With full backing from her Boels-Dolmans teammates, Armitstead delivered in the finale of what just might have been the most exciting professional women’s road race of the year. Relentless attacks had whittled down the leading group to six with a small gap on a chase group of three in the final three kilometres.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle Honda) put in one final attack just beyond the flamme rouge in an effort to avoid a six-up sprint. Anna van der Breggen (Rabo Liv) closed the gap. Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS) jumped with the finish line in plain view moments before Armitstead unleashed her powerful kick.
Five metres from the finish, Armitstead had enough of a gap to zip up her jersey before saluting across the line. Armitstead won her third World Cup of the season six spots ahead of Van der Breggen, and, in doing so, she repeats as World Cup overall winner. With the UCI rolling out the Women’s World Tour next year, Armitstead is in all likelihood the final (ever!) winner of a World Cup and the series overall.
“It was a tough task to have Lizzie take the World Cup overall back, but it was really great to have another excellent team race and come away with success,” said Megan Guarnier (Beols-Dolmans), who was instrumental in setting up Armitstead for the final. “I’m really proud of Lizzie for winning the overall World Cup and the final race of the series.”
The terrain and timing of GP Plouay typically create one of the most aggressive and animated races of the season. A calm start to the afternoon belied the non-stop action to follow. The peloton stayed together for nearly the entire first lap of the five-lap race. Just before the first passage of the finish line, a short-lived four-rider move had broken clear. Flavia Oliveria (Alé Cipollini) countered the catch but was unable to put any daylight between herself and the peloton.
The second time up Côte de Ty-Marrec, the last climb on each circuit lap, put a number of riders in difficulty at the back of the bunch. The front of the peloton remained intact until Anna Striker (Inpa Sottoli Giusfredi) and Marion Sicot (French National Team) slipped away at the start of lap three. Evie Stevens (Boels-Dolmans), Elena Cechinni (Lotto Soudal Ladies), Shara Gillow (Rabo Liv), Elena Berlato (Alé Cipollin) and Johansson bridged across to create a strong seven-rider breakaway.
The seven frontrunners gained a maximum advantage of 10 seconds before attacks from the peloton up Ty-Marrec spelt the end of the breakaway. Armitstead tested the waters with a forceful attack. Van der Breggen marked the move. Stevens countered her teammate’s catch and got a slight gap. 2014 Plouay winner Lucinda Brand (Rabo Liv) jumped, and Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle Honda) followed. Rachel Neylan (Orica-AIS) and Katrin Garfoot (Orica-AIS) both attempted to bridge across to Stevens.
Guarnier was all over every attack, marking each attempt to bridge across to Stevens. The attacks, counter-attacks and marking continued all the way to finish line. As the peloton began lap three, three distinct groups had taken shape.
Rabo Liv went on the offensive up the Côte du Lezot, the first of three notable climbs featured in each 27-kilometre loop. While their efforts put several riders under pressure, the reduced bunch crested the climb together. Beyond the climb, Guarnier attacked but was immediately chased down by Rabo Liv. Aude Biannic (Poitou-Charentes Futuroscope.86) countered Guarnier’s catch, and Brand responded. The Dutch national road champion made good use of her impressive descending skills to put distance between the leading duo and the peloton.
Thirty kilometres from the finish, a group of seven, including Guarnier, Lizzie Williams (Orica-AIS) and Mayuko Hagiwara (Wiggle Honda), bridged across to Biannic and Brand. With most major teams represented, the leaders were granted a bit of breathing room until Brand suffered from a mechanical when another rider in the breakaway rode into her back wheel. With Brand out of the breakaway, Rabo Liv was forced to respond. Roxanne Knetemann (Rabo Liv), racing for the first time since she fractured her arm on the final stage of the Giro Rosa, drilled it on the front of the reduced peloton.
Knetemann had the seven leaders within shouting distance when the peloton reached Ty-Marrec for the penultimate ascent. Attacks up the climb shut down the breakaway and further split the peloton. Double world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Rabo Liv), third in Plouay last year, went on the attack. Longo Borghini and Guarnier followed. Armitstead could be seen shifting into a huge gear and just as the race commentators noted that she seemed to be preparing to make her move, Armitstead threw down a massive attack.
“Lizzie was so strong and so smart today,” said Johansson to Ella CyclingTips. “It wasn’t up to me to close that gap, but if I had to, it wouldn’t have been possible I think. That’s how good she was. She made everyone suffer.”
Although Van der Breggen hadn’t been able to react immediately, she was able to dig deep and bridge the gap Armitstead had opened. Longo Borghini and Johansson followed. Eventually a six-rider selection took shape. Armitstead, Van der Breggen, Johansson, Longo Borghini, Ferrand-Prevot and Ashleigh Moolman Paiso (Bigla) led the race ahead of a ten-rider chase.
As the peloton set off for the final lap – this one using only 14-kilometres from the original 27-kilometre circuit – the leading group and the chase group rejoined. Rabo Liv outnumbered Boels-Dolmans in the selection – four to three.
While the attacks were constant on the final lap, Ferrand Prevot, Stevens and Guarnier all merit special mention. The trio of riders were constantly up the road or on the front. Ferrand-Prevot had hopes of a personal result while also supporting Van der Breggen’s World Cup overall ambitions. Stevens and Guarnier’s work was exclusively devoted to Armitstead, and Stevens earned the Suffer Prize for her efforts.
“Like every race, we came into today wanting to win it, so there was no more or no less pressure than usual,” Guarnier told Ella CyclingTips. “We were aggressive today, and that put other teams on the defensive.”
With eight kilometres and the final time up Ty-Marrec still to race, Stevens slipped away with Claudia Lichtenberg (Liv-Plantur). Cecchini jumped across, and the leading trio managed a 30-second advantage before the final climb. A seven-rider chase group that included all the favourites bridged across on the lower slopes of the final climb. Near the top, Armitstead attacked again.
“I had nothing left by then,” noted Johansson. “I was so tired I could barely see. It was all blurry, and I felt dizzy. That’s how deep I went and how much pain I was feeling. Usually when I’m hurting, I know everyone else feels the same way, too. I think everyone did – except Lizzie. She was on another level today.”
Longo Borghini assumed responsibility chasing down Armitstead’s final missive. With Moolman Paiso, Van der Breggen and Johansson on her wheel, Longo Borghin bridged the gap to Armitstead. The quintet eyed one another as they pedalled toward the finish. Behind, Stevens, Ferrand Prevot, Lichtenberg and Cecchini attempted to regain contact. Three hundred metres from the finish, Stevens and company latched onto the back of the leading five just as Van der Breggen closed the gap to Longo Borghini, who had attacked in the final kilometre.
“I put in my race winning move over the climb, and thought: ‘Oh no it’s finishing with a sprint again,’” Armitstead said in an interview with Owen Rogers for Cycling Weekly. “It probably looked pretty strange on the TV. We approached the line at a snails pace. I slowed it right down so I could see who was going. Elisa went early, which was great, and Anna closed it. I just went off that. I’m so relieved, it’s so good.”
Johansson was the first to open her sprint, and when Armitstead unleashed, no one could respond. Armitstead handily beat Johansson to the line. Ferrand-Prevot, who had only rejoined the leaders 300 metres before the line, rounded out the podium on home soil.
“I’m so proud of the way we rode as a team today,” Armitstead said. “We got it exactly right. I wouldn’t have won it without them. I was worried about being isolated but we were stronger and we did it. I’m just very proud of the team effort.”
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