So, I've told you a little bit about what happens "backstage" before women's racing, at least at the GP Elsy Jacobs and GP Nicolas Frantz - now here come my race reports, with a bit of "what I did on my holidays" about life in the team car with Horizon Fitness, and after the races.
Before I start, about the photos: I realised very quickly that I'm not cut out to be a sports photographer - so for proper professional race photos, I strongly recommend Bart Hazen, who's a really good photographer and a very nice guy too. His photos are up on the Daily Peloton - my pics are unashamedly fan-type shots!
Both races shared a very similar route, with the same big 54.2km lap, then smaller laps of the start/finish towns - Garnich for GP Elsy Jacobs, Mamer for GP Nicolas Frantz. There are maps and descriptions of the races in my Luxembourg preview, but what I hadn't realised was how incredibly pretty it would be. Most of the race was through beautiful valleys, surrounded by rolling hills, and fresh green forests. We passed about seven different castles, and
beautiful houses (one with its own vineyard!), and a couple of rivers and streams that made me want to get out of the car and paddle in the clear water. It felt like a bit like driving through fairy-tale land.... Even the little towns we passed through were pretty - not old, but neat and clean. Garnich is more rural, village-like, and Mamer is a quick commute to Luxemboug itself (and presumably to Belgium) so it felt much more town-like. The roads were for the most part very smooth & well-kept, so great for cycling...
But onto the races...
GP Elsy Jacobs - 30th April
25 teams were racing - about 167 riders - and the first thing you realise is how little you see from the car convoy, unless you're right at the front - and even then, it's just the back of the bunch - well, apart from as they streamed past us, climbing out of town as the race began. There are no radios to the racers, as it's a UCI 1.1 race, but we all had race radio, which was almost all in French, with the occasional English translation. It was mostly race information, with some details about the places were were about to pass, which reminded me of Tour de France coverage.... It must be hard to judge what to put out on the radio - in both races there were reports of riders getting away, or attacking - but by the time I'd got halfway through writing a tweet about it, they'd already been caught. On the one hand, you want people to know what's going on, but on the other.... a gap of 4 seconds? In both races, riders were trying to attack - but it seemed like the big teams were just waiting for the hills on the last laps...
As we drove, Stef Wyman, Horizon's DS, told me a lot about the tactics and answered so many of my stupid questions - but whenever the radio snapped on, we stopped talking, and scoured the startlist to see who they were talking about. The most nervous times were hearing the word "chute" - and holding our breath as they read the numbers of affected riders. Cars would speed up as they were called to the front, beeping their horns & weaving around bends - and I have to say, for a race with no radios, I was especially impressed with one car's telepathic connection with their rider, as they went flying up about twenty seconds before the crash was called on race radio...
At 7.5km, Bridie O'Donnell (TopGirls) and Loes Gunnewijk (Nederland Bloeit) attacked - and Grace Verbeke (TopSport) made many attempts, but wasn't allowed to escape (she's too dangerous when she does that). Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit) was another who was involved in escape attempts - and there was the obligatory Sharon Laws (Garmin) attack, trying with HTC's Amanda Miller - but again, those two weren't going to be allowed to go. At 50k, on the approach to Garnich, riders were being shed off the back of the race - we passed Garvélo's Lizzie Armitstead, who had a stomach upset in the race, and the further we went round, more pairs and threes and fours of riders.
I jumped out of the car to hang around by the finish line - it was 6 laps of a 10km circuit, so plenty of action to see. The big silver Romers.nl van was there on the line, running the results for all three races - and playing a selection of Europop, including everyone's favourite song (it's still in my head, so the least I can do is share it with you!) I've never been to a bike race in real life, so it was interesting to see what it was like - with the laps, there were plenty of opportunities to see cyclists zoom past, and there were updates over the tannoy (I'm sure my tryingtounderstandGermanface was especially pretty!) so we could keep track of the action. As they flew past, I tried to recognise as many riders as possible, but by the time I'd spotted them, they had gone past, my "go Helen!" trailing behind them!
For the first lap, the whole bunch came through together, but there was a big attack on the first climb, and by the time they crossed the line again, Marianne Vos and Evelyn Stevens (HTC) attacked, chased by a small group including Emma Johansson (Hitec) and Jesse Daams (Garmin). Vos and Stevens were caught by Johansson, Judith Arndt (HTC), Lucinda Brand (AA Drink), Nicole Cooke & Tatiana Guderzo (MCipollini), Pauline Ferrand Prévot (France) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Nederland Bloeit) - and that group stuck together for a few laps, within a lap or two gaining a minute and forty on the next group, which had Shara Gillow (Aus), Martine Bras (Dolman's), Sharon Laws (Garmin), Edwige Pitel (Vienne Futuroscope), Ash Moolman (Lotto), Rossella Callovi (MCipollini) and Grace Verbeke (TopSport) who themselves had a minute on the group after them. Helen Wyman (Horizon) had crossed the line on the front of the chase group - but disappeared from view - it turned out she'd been taken out by a rider in front of her crashing. I have huge sympathy for her, because she was having a great race up until that point, and she was injured out of the rest of the weekend. Bras was another who was caught in a crash earlier in the race, and had had to chase back alone, making it to and past the second group, but not all the way to the first.
With every lap, the front group's lead increased, as they upped the pace, trying to shake off riders. Then on the penultimate lap there were attacks again - and a three-woman group of Vos, Arndt and Johansson escaped. By the time they crossed the line into the final lap, they had 1'30 on Cooke, Guderzo and Van Vleuten - who had one minute to poor Lucinda Brand, who just couldn't keep up. She wasn't content to wait for the next group to catch her, however, and putting on a huge painface, chased by herself all the way home.
In the end it came down to a sprint between Vos and Arndt, with Johansson coming in just behind - and Vos won, with time for her arms in the air in her typical victory salute. Nederland Bloeit weren't content with just the win - Van Vleuten gave a huge sprint to win fourth spot from her group-ette.
With riders pulled off the road when they dropped more than ten minutes behind the leader - and that leading group driving at a cracking pace - only 80 riders actually finished. On each lap, officials were pulling riders off the course - including one Danish rider who was pleading to be allowed to finish, as she only had one lap to go.
1. Marianne Vos (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, 3:01:29
2. Judith Arndt (Ger) HTC-Highroad, s.t.
3. Emma Johansson (Swe) Hitec, s.t.
4. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, + 2:14
5. Pauline Ferrand Prévot (Fra) France, s.t.
6. Nicole Cooke (GBr) MCipollini-Giambenini, s.t.
7. Evelyn Stevens (USA) HTC-Highroad, s.t.
8. Tatiana Guderzo (Ita) MCipollini-Giambenini, s.t.
9. Lucinda Brand (Ned) AA Drink-Leontien.nl, + 2:31
10. Martine Bras (Ned) Dolmans Landscaping, + 4:48
11. Liesbet DeVocht (Bel) TopSport Vlaanderen, + 7:00
12. Sofie Duvuyst (Bel) Lotto Honda, s.t.
13. Rossella Callovi (Ita) MCipollini-Giambenini, s.t
14. Ashleigh Moolman (RSA) Lotto Honda, s.t.
15. Grace Verbeke (Bel) TopSport, s.t.
After the finish, the riders would turn round and ride back down the road to get to their buses. Vos stopped to chat with Johansson, the pair congratulating each other and laughing together, before they headed off for the podium. After the usual hanging around, they received their flowers - Arndt & Johansson got two bouquets each, for their mountains points - and two big bouquets were a perfect defence against Vos' champagne-spraying abilities! She does it with such panache - but then again, she's had a lot of practice! As the podium ceremony came to an end, the rainstorm that had been threatening all afternoon hit - everyone scattered, off to prepare for the next day of racing.
GP Nicolas Frantz - 1st May
Sunday was very similar racing - except the course had been shortened to 96.7km - only 6 laps of the final 7km circuit. Amber Neben and Evelyn Stevens had left for the Panamerican Championships, but HTC had replaced her with Ina Teutenberg. Teutenberg and a shorter race? Before the start, people were thinking bunch sprint - and of the need to get away early to prevent it. The racing was a lot more nervy than the day before - again escape attempts were made, but no one was allowed to escape (it sounded like Nederland Bloeit and HTC had it pretty easy, as the other big teams chased things down, at least from the radio reports). At 42km there was a crash, and it took down Garmin's Iris Slappendel (who's had terrible luck this year), Froydis Waersted (Hitec), Grace Verbeke and Nederland Bloeit's Patricia Schwager. Watching Schwager wind her way through the cars to get back was so impressive - she has such great skills. Verbeke's return took longer, but was slightly easier - the TopSport car was called back to the front, for a problem with another rider, so she was able follow it back. The twisting roads made everything harder - and Stef explained the codes from the horns used to tell cars in front that riders were coming through, everyone helping each other's riders where they could.
By 50km they were all together, and the speed was around 40kph. As we took the second hill of the lap, Ronny Couliez, the Horizon mechanic, predicted he'd soon be needed - and a minute or so later, the call came for car 22. It couldn't've happened at a worse time - the road had narrowed to one lane, with tight corners on the incline, so it took us a while to get to our rider, Nancy, who had chain problems. Ronny leaned right out of the window to fix her chain - but despite his gloves, ended with a burn on his arm from the heat of the bike.
While we helped Nancy out, Trixi Worrack (AA Drink) had attacked on the climb, and she crossed the line into Mamer with 15 seconds on the group. Riders were continually shed off the back - and it slowed the cars right down as the cyclists surged forward and fell back. As we went through the feed zone on the first hill of the lap, we heard that Worrack's lead was down to 7 seconds, but had won the first mountain points - and Ina Teutenberg, leading the chase, was second in the mountains comp. It was back round the narrow, twisty lap, with its two climbs, and I hopped out of the car at the feed zone to see how the race ended from the side of the road.
The feed zone was full of riders who'd finished their race, for one reason and another - some looking downcast, others cheering on their team-mates. Helen Wyman, who hadn't started due to her injuries, was doing a sterling job handing out bottles. On the 3rd lap from the end, Vos, Johansson and Ferrand Prévot passed us alone, with about a minute on the next group, still lead by Teutenberg - with two to go, at the feedzone again, the front three had been joined by Noemi Cantele (Garmin), Judith Arndt and Annemiek van Vleuten, with Ash Moolman chasing - and at two to go Teutenberg was still leading the chase, but with an Aussie rider desperately trying to get away.... When they crossed the line going into the final lap, the Vos group was all together - but then, at what must have been a few kms to the end, I thought I must translating VERY badly.... Vos had gained 16 seconds, from that group? In the space of something like half a 7km lap? The front car passed us.... then the motos.... more motos (there's a long delay between the front car and the first rider...) and then all by herself, Marianne Vos! She'd done it again!
1. Marianne Vos (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, 2:32:03
2. Judith Arndt (Ger) HTC-Highroad, + 0:42
3. Emma Johansson (Swe) Hitec UCK, s.t.
4. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, s.t.
5. Pauline Ferrand Prévot (Fra) France, s.t.
6. Noemi Cantele (Ita) Garmin-Cervélo, s.t.
7. Liesbet de Vocht (Bel) TopSport Vlaanderen, + 1:06
8. Rochelle Gilmore (Aus) Lott Honda, s.t.
9. Christine Mejerus (Lux) GSD Gestion, s.t.
10. Lucinda Brand (Ned) AA Drink-Leontien.nl, s.t.
11. Lise Nøstvold (Nor) Hitec UCK, s.t.
12. Charlotte Becker (Ger) HTC-Highroad, s.t.
13. Grace Verbeke (Bel) TopSport Vlaanderen, s.t.
14. Vicki Whitelaw (Aus) Lotto Honda, s.t.
15. Sara Mustonen (Swe) Hitec UCK, s.t.
This time after the race, I wanted to find out what happens to riders who aren't on the podium... and to collect the swag promised for VDS prizes, of course! Riders came streaming down the road again, on bikes, with backpacks full of gear (or dragging suitcases) for showers - or they were sat in the sun, chatting with the mechanics, or each other... or looked a bit dejected. Or if they were Sharon Laws, were hunting for the car she was supposed to be going home in (I hope I pointed you in the right direction, Sharon!) The atmosphere seemed varied, depending on teams - and riders telling their war stories, with wry grins... "I had bad luck - but that's racing!"
It was still amazing, after three days, that riders of the calibre of Teutenberg were just walking past, or sitting on walls, or just there. It didn't take long for everyone to pack up and pull out - cleaned up and showered, ready to go home for another race, or a little break before the stage racing starts...
Again, massive thanks to Horizon for inviting me over, and looking after me - I appreciate it immensely. I learnt so much about racing and about riders, and I'd definitely recommend everyone goes and sees any race that comes anywhere near them.... and when you're there, pluck up the courage to say hi to the riders!
Next part will have the video interviews I did, with riders and DSs, and some more random photos - portraits, details, that kind of thing.... once I'm back in the UK! I don't want to leave, but I definitely hope I'll come back.... How about a Podium Café meet-up in Luxembourg, next year?
Photos and report by and copyright Sarah Connolly