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This weekend, the women’s peloton will line up for a renewed, two-stage edition of La Course by le Tour de France, and the feedback has been mixed.
Started in 2014, the first three editions of La Course were a circuit-like race on the Champs-Élysées in the heart of Paris. While the race was short, the ambience, the TV coverage, the crowds and the fact that it was held on the same day as the final stage of the men’s Tour de France made it one of the most exciting events on the calendar.
In 2017, however, La Course will move away from Paris and into the Alps as well as Marseille. Formerly a race for the sprinters, the 2017 La Course will suit hill climbers.
The new format
The new format is two-pronged. First, there is a climb up the Col d’Izoard on Thursday, July 20, followed two days later by a pursuit-style individual time trial alongside the men’s Tour de France time trial in Marseille on Saturday, July 22.
On stage 1, the women’s peloton will take on a 67-kilometre course between Briançon and the Izoard, with a 10-kilometre climb to a summit finish that former Tour de France director Jacques Goddet once described as “[a] harrowing trial which establishes the boundary between difficult and terrifying”. Only this first stage is part of the Women’s WorldTour.
Stage 2 is something new entirely. Sharing the route, publicity and fanfare of the men’s Tour de France stage 20 in the streets of Marseille, a select women’s peloton will compete in an unprecedented race format. Starting and finishing in the Orange Vélodrome, the race is similar to an individual time trial, but instead of a race against the clock in which riders are sent off in 30-second or 1-minute intervals, the riders’ start time and gaps are based on their results of the Col d’Izoard stage.
The riders start their time trial behind the Izoard stage winner, in the actual time that they finished behind her on the climb. The rider who crosses the finish line first, wins the two-day event. This pursuit-style race likens the style of racing you see in cross-country skiing and which was introduced in the closing Hammer Chase of the new Hammer Series event by Velon.
The select peloton will consist of “the first 20 ladies and/or the ladies who have finished within 5 minutes [of the stage 1 winner],” ASO’s Fabrice Tiano told Ella CyclingTips. “And the race directors have the possibility to change the number of riders regarding the gap at the finish at the Col d’Izoard.”
So we’ll just have to wait to see exactly who will get to compete on day two, but it’ll likely be those with the best climbing legs.
What the riders think
When the new La Course format was first announced, the changes were met with a mixed reaction. At the time, the new La Course was presented as only a one-day race up the Col d’Izoard, and many considered the move away from the Champs-Élysées criterium – with its exceptional media coverage, large fan attendance and hype – a step backwards.
Kathryn Bertine, one of the lead advocates who made La Course possible, was not impressed.
“The race will move from the Champs-Elysées to a mountain. For one day. Not two. And they want us to applaud, to see the progress! But when it comes to supporting change, equality and activism, here’s the golden rule to which we must adhere: Never mistake progress for shapeshifting,” she stated.
“If we see more days added in 2018, you can still be a leader. If we don’t, you’ll remain a passive-aggressive shapeshifter. Come on, ASO.”
Taking some of the criticism to heart, in April, ASO added the second stage.
“In the beginning, I noticed some scepticism about the length of the mountain stage and the changed format. But I am optimistic. It’s a fun, renewed format for both the riders and the public,” said Marianne Vos, a lead advocate of the creation of La Course three years ago and winner of the first edition.
“Three years of having La Course on the Champs-Élysées was a great pilot, but you did notice that it was losing its novelty. It was a smart move to try a new concept. You will see that another type of riders will be at the forefront. I hope to be with the best in the stage to Izouard so I can participate in the pursuit on Saturday.”
Winner of the 2015 edition, Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans), likes the idea of a hill climb. Originally, the new La Course was on her race schedule, but after a tough Giro Rosa, in which she wore the pink leader’s jersey for nine days, she decided to take a short break before defending her European road title in August instead.
“I like that it’s more of a climbing race…I think it’s a pretty cool idea to do,” the Olympic champion told Ella CyclingTips.
“I don’t know why it’s so short,” she added. “But yeah, we still finish on a really tough climb, so the race will be really hard and nice I think, for the climbers especially.”
Van der Breggen was sceptical about the pursuit-style second stage, however.
“The second race, I don’t really have in mind how it’s going to look like,” she said. “Personally I like both, climbing and time trialing, so that’s good. But I don’t think there are many climbers that also like to do a time trial. And you have a lot of time trial specialists who like to do the time trial, but they cannot because they can’t do the climbing, so… yeah, that makes things pretty difficult.”
“I think it’s good that there is attention and that they are trying something new,” Van der Breggen concluded. “But I’m not sure how this is going to work.”
After three years of the same criterium-style race, Orica-Scott’s Annemiek van Vleuten also welcomed the change to a climbing stage.
“I like the new concept,” Van Vleuten said. “I like that it’s no longer the criterium on the Champs-Élysées. [La Course] is supposed to showcase women’s cycling; the climb towards the top of the Izoard will definitely be better racing.”
Curious what sprinters make of this, we asked Leah Kirchmann (Team Sunweb), runner-up in the inaugural La Course back in 2014, about her thoughts.
“I was excited with the prospect of something new after racing the same event on the Champs-Élysées for the past three years,” Kirchmann told EllaCyclingTips. “Racing up the Izoard presents a completely different kind of challenge. The more selective course will highlight different team tactics and will give the climbers a chance to shine.”
“Personally, I would have loved if they added the Izoard stage while continuing to hold a race on the Champs-Élysées,” she added. “My hope is that the race this year will serve as a test for running a women’s race alongside the men’s in the more remote locations of the Tour, leading to a longer multi-stage race in the future.”
While Kirchmann, like many professional road racers, has never done a chasing time trial before, she warmed up to the idea. “The more I think about it, the more potential I see in this event format,” she said.
“The more I think about it, the more potential I see in this event format,” she said.
“The race will be so unpredictable, making it exciting for the fans to follow. I just learned the start and finish [of the time trial] will be in the Orange Velodrome in Marseille which can hold up to 67,000 spectators, so the race location will provide some fantastic exposure for women’s cycling.”
“I think it’s an interesting combination to have the pursuit follow the Izoard climb,” Kirchmann continued. “The two events favour different kinds of riders. The pure climbers will probably excel up the Izoard, while a good time trialist or all-rounder might be able to keep the gap close enough to make up that difference in the chase the next day.”
Tactically, Kirchmann is looking forward to learn how the teams will race the two-day event.
“It is really hard to predict the tactics of all the teams racing, which will have an impact on the final time gaps,” she said. “We have never done a one day race on a course like this before, so the race is completely open.”
“I think La Course suited me a bit better when it was held on the Champs-Élysées, as I’m more of a sprinter. However, I did show at the Giro last year that I can also be competitive in the mountains. I’m looking forward to helping Team Sunweb achieve the best possible result on the day this year in France.”
How to watch – live!
The most appealing aspect of La Course for the women’s peloton has always been the worldwide media coverage, with live television capturing the race for millions across the world to view. Most women’s races still don’t have video coverage and when they do, it’s either not broadcasted live or not in as many countries as the Tour de France.
With the offer of the live broadcast of Tour de France stages from start to finish came an additional offer (or obligation, we’re not sure) to all TV channels buying Tour de France live coverage in 2017: the broadcast of La Course was included in the contract between ASO and the broadcasting companies. Which means even more live coverage of La Course across the world!
We know for sure that Eurosport and SBS will start their broadcast at 10.00 a.m. CET (4.00 a.m. EDT, 6.00 p.m. AEST) on Thursday, showing stage 1 of La Course live before switching to Tour de France stage 18. The broadcast of the La Course pursuit-style time trial on Saturday starts at 1.00 pm CET (7.00 am EDT, 9.00 pm AEST).
Check your local TV listings for broadcast times. We’re counting on most of you being able to watch both La Course stages live.
Let’s hear it, dear readers, what do you think?