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After winning the 67-kilometre climbers’ stage from Briançon to the top of the Col d’Izoard with a 43-second lead, it seemed unlikely that anyone would be able to catch Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott) in the second stage of La Course on Saturday.
All eyes were on Marseille as Van Vleuten was the first to take to the course of a brand new race format: a pursuit-style time trial with start and finish in the Orange VéloDrome. Riders rolled off the starting line in the order and time gaps with which they had finished Thursday’s stage. Van Vleuten’s nearest rivals were Lizzie Deignan (Boels-Dolmans) with a 43 second gap, and Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5) with a gap of 1’23”.
While Van Vleuten powered off the starting block, tactics were involved for those following her. Deignan waited for Longo Borghini and teammate Megan Guarnier in an effort to work together in chasing Van Vleuten. But it became pretty clear early on that the race wasn’t so much in pursuit of Van Vleuten as it was for podium honours.
While Van Vleuten was able to start her victory celebrations 3km from the finish, the riders in pursuit were racing for second. In the end, the podium equalled that of Thursday’s stage with a dominant Van Vleuten taking the win, Deignan in second and Longo Borghini happy with third.
How the race played out
After three editions of the Champs-Élysées criterium on the closing day of the Tour de France, a renewed La Course moved away from Paris into the Alps this year. A second, experimental stage was added as well, but only Thurday’s 67-kilometre race up the Col d’Izoard was part of the UCI Women’s WorldTour.
Thursday’s stage saw 119 riders take on a short but challenging course from Briançon to the top of the Izoard. The race was dominantly won by Van Vleuten, who attacked an elite selection of riders halfway up the 10-kilometre finishing climb. Van Vleuten reached the summit sol0, 43 seconds ahead of Deignan and 1’23” ahead of Longo Borghini.
Only those riders who finished within five minutes of Van Vleuten qualified for the Marseille pursuit stage, which meant that only 19 riders took to the start of the time trial on Saturday.
Sharing the course with the men’s penultimate Tour de France stage, the women would complete a 22.5-kilometre time trial, starting and finishing in the Orange VéloDrome in Marseille. Riders rolled off the starting line in the order in which they had finished on Thursday at time intervals based on their gaps to Van Vleuten.
As the winner of Thursday’s stage, Van Vleuten was the first to roll off the start ramp at 1 p.m. sharp, being cheered on by the fans that had already gathered in the velodrome. This being a mass start event, technically speaking, Van Vleuten, like everyone else, started the time trial on her road bike.
When Deignan was given the go-ahead by the race commissaires, she didn’t start pushing the pedals immediately like Van Vleuten did. Instead, she waited for Longo Borghini and her teammate Guarnier. Clearly some alliances had been formed before the race.
The trio briefly discussed waiting for Shara Gillow (FDJ-Futuroscope-NA) as well, but with Van Vleuten’s teammate Amanda Spratt starting shortly Gillow, they decided to start accelerating with the three of them.
Gillow and Spratt eventually found themselves in another trio, with Lauren Stephens (Team Tibco-SVB). Similar groups formed behind, but with the significant time gap to Van Vleuten at the start of the race, they would surely not be in contention.
Without race radios to let Van Vleuten know about the gap to her chasers, she blindly powered on in her time trial. She did get a little nervous as her pace went down on the short but very steep climb, and she was seen glancing behind her for a sign of any chasers.
No one was coming, however. Guarnier got dropped from the chase group on the steeper section of the climb, and by the time Deignan and Borghini reached the top of the climb, they were already a minute and a half behind Van Vleuten.
As Van Vleuten powered on, Deignan and Borghini started their cat and mouse game early. The race had never been in pursuit of Van Vleuten, who was able to start her celebrations 3km from the finish. It had been a race for podium honours all along.
In the sprint for second, the British road champ beat the Italian champion with ease, resulting in the same podium as Thursday.
Guarnier arrived almost three minutes behind Van Vleuten in the VéloDrome, which means Van Vleuten managed to double her advantage on Guarnier during the 22.5-kilometre time trial. Spratt rolled in for fifth and Gillow finished sixth.
“It was a beautiful course, so I sort of enjoyed it,” said Van Vleuten. “I didn’t have a lot of information on what was happening in the race, but I just decided to stick to my tactics. On one of the sections where you could see each other, I saw the three chasers working together and thought: this is going to be hard! That made me a bit nervous.”
“But I just stuck to my plan,” she said. “I tried to go as hard a possible and smash the climb.” And that’s what she did. Van Vleuten takes back to back victories in La Course, and left everyone else to race for second.
“It was a very nice experience,” said third-place finisher Longo Borghini, adding she hoped that this format will be used again in the years to come, “because it’s exciting and it comes down to tactics. It was very, very nice to race it.”
At Team Sunweb, there’s also the dominating sentiment that it was a unique race to participate in. Their riders Leah Kirchmann and Sabrina Stultiens qualified by finishing 14th and 15th on the Izoard respectively.
“It was a really exciting event to ride today just before the men’s time trial,” said Stultiens. “I was only 10 seconds in front of a group with Leah in it, so the plan was for me to wait and then work together to catch the group in front of us.”
“We worked well together and could catch some girls,” she said. “On the climb I set the pace and the group got smaller. I won the sprint from the group I was in and managed to move up a couple of places.”
“We knew that it was going to be difficult to bridge such an advantage, but the girls worked together perfectly,” Team Sunweb coach Hans Timmermans added. “We made the tactical decision beforehand that Sabrina would wait for the next group of riders and then work as a larger group, which worked well as Sabrina was able to move up two placings overall.”
Tell us: what did you think of this pursuit-style time trial?