Saturday 25th August
The cookie-monster that is ASO has taken over virtually all cycle races run in France, but here's a curiosity - it doesn't run one single race for women within the borders of its homeland. That is instead left to outsiders such as the Comité des Fêtes de Plouay who, without the ability to package their race up for TV along with the Tour de France, have to find different ways to attract both public and Euros. What started out way back in 1931 as an opportunity for Bretons to see their local stars kick some foreign butt has now developed into a week long festival of cycling that attracts upwards of a quarter of a million spectators and some of Dirk Hofman's finest Corinthian leather (and at just 4 Euro per day to park, who wouldn't be tempted).
So what do those 4 Euro a day get you? Here's the programme, taken straight from the official website:
Thursday 23 August
• 17h00 : BMX Demonstration
Friday 24 August
• 8h15 : La Cyclo Morbihan - a number of cyclosportifs for road bikes, MTB, and walkers
• 8h25 : Championnat de France des Journalistes
• 18h30 : Track Challenge for those aged 44-56 (did I mention that Plouay has its own velodrome?)
Saturday 25 August
• 9h00 : GP de Plouay Amateurs
• 13h00 : GP de Plouay-Bretagne CDM (World Cup)
• 16h55 : Challenge Sprint Pro
Sunday 26 August
• 10h40 : GP Ouest-France (UWT)
And scattered in among that are various musical divertissements, a boule competition that attracts over 600 players, and the picking of Miss Morbihan. Anyone who can't find something there to enjoy will clearly not be satisfied by less than a giant inflatable lobster. If you want more information on any of the other races then head to that official site, because from now on I'm going to be looking only at the final round of the 2012 World Cup.
Plouay has traditionally had a great circuit. It's never been a race for the sprinters, but the circuit was just hilly enough to make a climber believe she could get a gap which she had a chance to hold to the finish, such as Emma Pooley did in 2010 burning Marianne Vos off her back wheel (fast forward to 1:40 if you just want the gruesome bit)
but by contrast last year showed that a punchier rider like Annemiek Van Vleuten could grit her teeth, just about hold on to Evelyn Stevens wheel on the climb, then attack when the terrain turned in her favour (Plouay coverage starts at 17:45 in)
This year however there is a whole new loop added to the circuit, and instead of 6 laps of 19km, they are riding 5 of 27km. Gwena has a couple of maps that show the differences clearly, or you can download this official map which shows that a few kilometres have been shaved off that 19km circuit to bring it down to 14 (for the cyclosportif), then a long diversion into the neighbouring countryside has been added. The extra section seems to add a gentle climb, a sharp descent and, and it's this that might change things the most, a five kilometre section of flat. That'll make things tougher for a solo breakaway.
Who's turning up? The World Cup is already settled, place one for sure is Vos, and in place two Judith Arndt is all but uncatchable. So this one's for the glory. There's a start-list about as reliable as they ever are. Marianne Vos is back, but after her gold medal celebrations (this year she even gets to swim with the dolphins and push Andy Schleck off a log) her heart may not be in it. Nah, her heart will be there too, and with Van Vleuten and Pauline Ferrand Prevot beside her, Rabobank Women have a triple threat that could easily fill the podium. Orica-AIS also have more than one winning card with Arndt and Claudia Hausler well supported. Emma Pooley is still riding towards the south of France in the Haute Route and proving pretty conclusively that your average weekend male rider doesn't have the slightest hope in hell of beating a top woman pro, but she's on the start-list too. Who knows. I'm not sure if AA Drink have anyone else suited to this course, but the 2012 version may tempt Shelley Olds. Hitec-Mistral have their A-list out with Emma Johansson, Christel Ferrier Bruneau and Elisa Longo Borghini, Mcipollini-Giambenini come straight from their storming of the Trophee d'Or (five riders in the top eight), and Noemi Cantele heads up Be Pink, the Millwall of the peloton.
And the stars here are not just limited to those on the bikes. If you are one of the racers who read the Café's coverage of women's cycling regularly then you'll know how much we are, ahem, inspired in our coverage of French races by one Gwenaelle Riou, aka Gwena, author of cyclismefeminin.over-blog.com, far more commonly known as Le Blog de Gwéna. Plouay is Gwena's home race, so if you are there for the weekend and see this figure asking to take a photograph or three, put on your best smile, because if you win a race you'll see that photograph again, and then tell her how brilliant we all think she is.
Finally a word on TV coverage. For the past couple of years France 3 have shown the men's race live nationwide, but the women's just locally. To enable others further afield to enjoy the race they then streamed it from their website without any georestrictions, thus enabling those of us not in the golden pentagon to enjoy Emma Pooley burning off Marianne Vos (Did I already mention that bit?). This year they are still only showing the women on their Bretagne and Pays de Loire regional channels (at 16:20 CET - or maybe 16:00 - for live coverage of the finish), but they have sold the other rights to Eurosport who will be showing highlights at various times across their different channels. So far I have seen one hour scheduled at 15:45 CET on both French and German Eurosport 2, repeated at 21:45 on French Eurosport 1 only, and thirty minutes at 19:30 BST on UK Eurosport 2, all on the Saturday. That's good news in that the coverage on proper TV will help the sponsors tick the return achieved box, but it's a bit tough for those further afield who won't be able to enjoy one of the few occasions where we've been used to proper live coverage. Dark cloud? Silver lining? It's your call.