It’s been a packed schedule for the Women’s WorldTour in the past week. Just as the Tour of California was drawing to a close the Emakumeen Bira was launching into four hilly days of hotly contested racing.
All the top teams were at the start line of the long-running Basque race but one would take an unexpectedly emphatic victory.
The power-packed Boels-Dolmans was the team to beat, as usual, but in the end it was Mitchelton-Scott that came out on top. The multi-pronged attack that Boels-Dolmans has been using to dominate the WorldTour is the exact strategy Mitchelton-Scott used to bring the Dutch team unstuck. The Australian team headed into the final stage with three riders in the top 10 and played their cards to perfection.
The team not only delivered Australian rider Amanda Spratt to a breakthrough Women’s WorldTour stage and general category victory, but took second and fourth on the general classification, plus two stage victories as well.
Read on to see the photos that tell the story of the four hard fought stages of Emakumeen Bira.
Stage 1: A hilly and aggressive beginning
The 108km stage had plenty of spots to launch a break, with three category 3 climbs. It lead to an aggressive start to the tour with favourites threatening to ride off the front in early splits. Ultimately the move that lasted came on one of the final steep slopes, the Atogoiti.
Women’s WorldTour leader Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans), Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo-Bigla), Sabrina Stultiens (WaowDeals) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) took off on the descent. The four riders built up a lead of a minute but as they approached the final 5km the advantage began to drop.
While the other riders hesitated, looking to each other, Stultiens attacked and went on to take a solo victory. The other three were caught. Winning the bunch sprint Lisa Brennauer (Wiggle High5) took second and Giorgia Bronzini (Cylance) third.
Stage 2: Taking time with a world champion
A 26.6km flatish time-trial was next up to begin the sorting of the general category. Wearing the rainbow skinsuit of world time trial champion, Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) was undoubtedly the rider to beat on stage 2 of Emakumeen Bira. However with Anna van der Breggen having finished just behind her at the World Championships, van Vleuten had to be at the top of her game.
As it turned out, she was. Van Vleuten not only won the stage but took the leader’s jersey as well. Van der Breggen took second and former world time trial champion Lisa Brennauer (Wiggle-High 5) stood on the podium for a second day with third. The gap between the two lead riders was tight, though, setting up a game of cat and mouse for the rest of the tour.
Stage 3: Multiplying the possibilities
Wet weather and plenty of climbs awaited the riders as they lined up for a third day of racing, on a route 114.5km long and containing category 2 and 3 climbs. The tough conditions lead to early splits in the field but ultimately it was at around 50km to go that the pivotal break got away.
None of the key favourites were among it, but an impressive fifth place in the time-trial the day before meant New Zealand champion Georgia Williams (Mitchelton-Scott) was within striking distance of the leaders. As the finish line approached and the break looked set to stay away the team instructions to Williams were to drive the group and take as much time as she could.
As the bunch of nine dashed toward the line, Amy Pieters (Boels-Dolman) gave the powerhouse Dutch team its first victory of the tour while Emilia Fahlin (Wiggle-High5) took second and Clara Koppenburg (Cervelo-Bigla) third.
Even though Boels won the day there was a different type of victory for Mitchelton-Scott. While a spent Williams didn’t have energy left for the sprint her ninth place finish meant she gained enough time to slot into second on the overall behind van Vleuten. The Australian team would head into the final stage with first and second on the general classification, as well as Amanda Spratt in 10th. This multiplied their options as they endeavoured to hold off van der Breggen. The Women’s WorldTour leader was sitting in third, 12 seconds behind van Vleuten and just nine seconds behind Williams.
Stage 4: A tight GC battle ends with a surprise victory
The weather was turning it on for the crucial final stage of the four-day tour but it was clear the riders were in for anything but a leisurely day in the sun. Heading into the 120km route scattered with tough climbs the tight margins between race leader van Vleuten and usually dominant rival van der Breggen meant that the contest would be fierce from early on.
It was less than 50km in when the first steep category 1 climb of the Urkiola splintered the peloton. There were only about 30 riders left up the front, including the key favourites of van Vleuten, van der Breggen and Moolman-Pasio. But it wasn’t long before Spratt, who started the day in 10th on GC, decided to push the advantage of her team’s strength with three riders in the top 10 and a strong presence in the lead group.
Spratt broke away and kept pulling out the gap till she had an advantage of over two minutes over a reduced chase group of around 11 riders at 38km to go. Meanwhile her teammate van Vleuten just needed to sit on her fellow Dutch rider’s wheel to make sure van der Breggen didn’t make up that handful of seconds to threaten her lead. It turns out, though, that the threat to the leader’s jersey was coming from a much more welcome source.
Finishing over two minutes ahead of the group of top contenders, Spratt took the victory, breaking through to secure her first Women’s WorldTour stage and GC win.