On Saturday it's the GP de Plouay, the final round of the women's Road World Cup. This is a series of 9 day races that cover the season - from Trofeo Alfredo Binda, which marks the start of the women's Classics season, to Plouay, which signals the build-up to the World Championships.
There should be live coverage of Plouay, streamed online, and a livethread right here on Podium Café - but to whet your appetite, or if you've missed any of the races that got us here, or just like the reminders, head below the jump - we've got the first four races, all iconic Spring Classics, with excitement, cobbles, daring breakaways and last-minute catches, with video coverage for each - and I'm sure you'll have heard of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and the Flèche Wallonne....!
The Road World Cup has 8 day races and a team time trial - and the first 20 riders across the line in the day races score points towards the overall competition, scored like this:
1st = 75, 2nd = 50, 3rd = 35, 4th = 30, 5th = 27, 6th = 24, 7th = 21, 8th = 18, 9th = 15, 10th = 11
11th = 10, 12th = 9, 13th = 8, 14th = 7, 15th = 6, 16th = 5, 17th = 4, 18th = 3, 19th = 2, 20th = 1
There's an overall team competition, but cyclists can ride for some races for a trade team, and in others for their national team, depending on which teams ride which race. Simple, right?
Race 1: Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Italy, 27th March
Always so exciting, this race - always worthy of the man it's named for - three-times World Champion and five-times winner of the Giro d'Italia, Italian legend Alfredo Binda. It's unfortunate that the UCI choose to schedule the Track World Championships so it conflicts with the race (bah!), which meant Marianne Vos wasn't able to defend her 2009 & 2010 titles this year - but even so, the field was packed with the cream of the classics riders. The race is 1 long loop and then 4 laps in the hilly country around Lake Maggiore in Varese province, with a great climb and descent - Monty gives more information about the course in his excellent race preview.
It was a cold, wet race, nasty March weather - making it a real race of attrition. There had been early attacks by Sharon Laws (Garmin Cervélo) and Olga Zabelinskaya (Diadora Pasta Zara) - and they even tried to get away together - but it was Laws' team-mate, the World ITT Champion, Emma Pooley, who lit up the early stages of the race. Pooley won this race in 2008, and just would not stop trying for a second win - including attempting to get a small group together - and later said she was attacking to try to make the race hard, and didn't expect to be allowed to go. At around the half-way point, she attacked from the back of the group, on a flat, dull section, taking everyone by surprise. Only the 2010 Norwegian Champion, Lise Nøstvold (Hitec Products UCK), was able to try to chase, but no one came to help, so she couldn't get far - and Pooley was off! Watch her attack, it was amazing!
By the time Pooley hit the climb on the small lap for the first time, she had 40 seconds on the chasers - this grew and grew, to two minutes, 2:20, until by the time she hit the climb for the last time, she had three minutes on the front group. Behind her, there were various crashes on the wet roads, and there was a big gap between the front 20-25 chasers and the next group. Emma Johansson (Hitec) had tried to get away as well, but hadn't been able to - and it was only on the final lap that the front chase group could start to bring down Pooley's lead - and try for something other than a bunch sprint for second! Christel Ferrier-Bruneau (Gauss) attacked on the last lap, followed by Loes Gunnewijk (Netherlands) and Ruth Corset (Australia) - there was a furious chase, as those three are superb riders - and all three were caught. Pooley won the race easily - and Emma Johansson won the hard sprint for second, with Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) in third. 80 riders finished out of 160 starters, with around 50 of those in a big group 11 minutes down. An exciting, exhausting race - setting the tone for the competition!
1. Emma Pooley (GBR) Garmin-Cervélo, 3:08:17
2. Emma Johansson (Swe) Hitec Products UCK, + 1:32
3. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Netherlands, s.t.
4. Martine Bras (Ned) Dolmans Landscaping, s.t.
5. Shelley Olds (USA) Diadora-Pasta Zara, s.t.
6. Chantal Blaak (Ned) AA Drink-Leontien.nl, s.t.
7. Judith Arndt (Ger) HTC-Highroad, s.t.
8. Grace Verbeke (Bel) Belgium, + 0:01
9. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Fra) France, s.t.
10. Lucinda Brand (Ned) Netherlands, s.t.
Race 2: Ronde van Vlaanderen, Belgium, 3rd April
Oh Flanders! Oh Spring! Oh cobbled climbs! It's apparently an amazing race to ride, starting before the men, so benefiting from the huge crowds and festival atmosphere. This year, they didn't get to ride the Koppenberg, but still, they had 12 climbs and 14 km of cobbles in their 130km - Monty's preview provides more information about the route and where it differed from the men's race.
One of the great things about this World Cup season is that we've had 15 minutes David Harmon-narrated coverage of each race, that has been shown on British Eurosport and hosted for free on the Cervélo website. Here's the programme that covers Trofeo Binda and Flanders - RvV starts at around 13:45
The race was fast from the start, with lots of of the old attack-and-catch, and by 60km, there were lots of small groups on the road - but the big escape of the day happened at the 85km point, when Nederland Bloeit's German rider Sarah Düster escaped, joined by Belgian Ludivine Henrion (Lotto Honda). They had an amazing race - with another Belgian, Lieselot Decroix (TopSport Vlaanderen) making a solo chase attempt. Düster is one of the best lead-out riders in the peloton with breath-taking descending and tactical skills (I think it was Lizzie Armitstead who described her as "crazy in the corners") and she's never shy of suicide attacks - it really looked like she might make it, especially after she shook off Henrion on one of the final cobbled climbs.
But behind her, the chase group was ferocious, bringing down her gap and fighting her all the way to the finish, dropping riders continually, and splitting on the Muur - and Düster was caught with just two kilometres to go - so close!
But although Düster was swept up, it wasn't the end of the race for Nederland Bloeit. They are such a strong team, and this was the first big race of year where they demonstrated the dilemma that traumatised the peloton throughout 2010, and even moreso this season - because Marianne Vos and Annemiek van Vleuten were both in the front group, and both are fantastic sprinters - if one attacks, chasing her down just helps the other one....!
About 12 riders were in that front group, and then, in the last km, Tatiana Antoshina (Gauss) jumped, and Van Vleuten was immediately on her wheel. The rest of the group were looking at Vos - and one of the reasons I'm such a huge fan is because Vos always seems just as happy for her team-mates to win as she is for herself, so she happily watched and waited. Van Vleuten rode beautifully, over-taking Antoshina in the final run-in, with time to celebrate her victory. Vos won the bunch-sprint for third, making it a fantastic day for the team
1. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, 3:36:03
2. Tatiana Antoshina (Rus) Gauss, + 0:01
3. Marianne Vos (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, + 0:10
4. Emma Johansson (Swe) Hitec Products UCK, s.t.
5. Judith Arndt (Ger) HTC-Highroad. s.t.
6. Joelle Numainville (Can) Tibco To The Top, s.t.
7. Grace Verbeke (Bel) TopSport Vlaanderen, s.t.
8. Ludivine Henrion (Bel) Lotto Honda, s.t.
9. Noemi Cantele (Ita) Garmin-Cervélo, s.t.
10. Emma Pooley (Gbr) Garmin-Cervélo, s.t.
Van Vleuten won the race, and took the World Cup leader's jersey with it - later on, I was lucky enough to interview her, and you can read all about the race from her perspective over here.
For more "backstage" coverage - including footage from the on-bike camera, including what it looks like to crash in a race, check out the AA Drink-Leontien.nl video - one of the many they've made this season, something I hope more teams do next year, it's fantastic, unique, very special indeed!
Race 3: Ronde van Drenthe, Netherlands, 16th April
The Drenthe World Cup is always one of the highlights of the year for me. It's part of a festival of cycling that includes 3 women's day races, a men's race and a junior women's stage race, and the course combines things every Podium Café reader should love - 132km with cobbled forest sections with three climbs over the VAM-berg - a grassed-over municipal dump, with 9% gradient. Course-setter ingenuity + insanity = exciting racing - see Monty's preview for more about the whole Drenthe series.
It's a hard race - various 90º corners from wide, smooth roads into narrow, cobbled lanes, and sudden changes in surface - and the race was marred by crashes, with Diadora Pasta Zara riders particularly affected. Possibly because of the crashes, the race had fewer attacks than in previous years, and the longest break of the day was Alison Tetrick Starnes (USA) and 2010's European u23 Champion, Janneke Kanis (Nederland Bloeit), which won Starnes the combative rider prize. Once they were caught, Shara Gillow (Australia) also had a solo break attempt, but no one was allowed to stay away, although with every cobbled section and climb, the chasing group shed riders.
On the last climb of the day, Emma Johansson attacked, but was caught - and Adrie Visser (HTC Highroad) and Liesbet de Vocht tried last-ditch attacks in the final sections, but it came down to a bunch sprint - and with Marianne Vos jumping at 50m to go to take the win, it was an emotional moment - Vos' first World Cup win of the season, and on home-soil - surprisingly, the first time she had won this one!
1. Marianne Vos (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, 3:23:15
2. Kirsten Wild (Ned) AA Drink-Leontien.nl, s.t.
3. Giorgia Bronzini (Ita) Colavita-Forno d'Asolo, s.t.
4. Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (Ger) HTC-Highroad, s.t.
5. Rochelle Gilmore (Aus) Lotto Honda, s.t.
6. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, s.t.
7. Martine Bras (Ned) Dolman's Landscaping, s.t.
8. Monia Baccaille (Ita) MCipollini-Giambenini, s.t.
9. Emma Johansson (Ned) Hitec Products UCK, s.t.
10. Lizzie Armitstead (Gbr) Garmin-Cervélo, s.t.
You can see some post-race video reactions from Vos here and Van Vleuten here - from the amazing WomensCycling.net team. They're always fantastic, providing race reports and photos on their website - but this year they've gone one better and added videos - I can't emphasise enough how great this is, for some races it's the only footage we see - a million thanks, as always, for their work!
Van Vleuten's 6th place meant she kept the World Cup leader's jersey for another round, with Vos in second place behind her. But the Classics season wasn't over...
Race 4: Flèche Wallonne, Belgium, 20th April
Hot on the heels of Drenthe came the last race in the Spring Classics section of the World Cup competition. In 2010, this had been won by Emma Pooley, breaking a three-year run of wins by Marianne Vos (the race only started in 1998, but Vos and another former Road World Champion, Nicole Cooke, have each won it three times). Pooley couldn't defend her title, as she was recovering from a broken collar-bone, unfortunately, but with it being the last chance for Spring World Cup action, everyone else was ready for a hard race.
I love this race - following more-or-less the same route as the men, on the same day, but skipping the men's warm-up section. The women ride 109.5km, starting in Huy and riding two laps of the loop (the men ride 3), ending on the legendary Mur de Huy. More course information in my race preview. Again, the David Harmon-narrated clip is below - FW starts at around the 13 minute mark:
Nederland Bloeit had been having a storming Classics season, and they were all over this race, despite early attack attempts by Amber Pierce (Diadora Pasta Zara), until around 50km to go, when Evelyn Stevens (HTC Highroad) attacked for a solo effort. Stevens had only been riding pro for two seasons, but she's an amazing rider (with a fantastic story - check out Jen's interview with her from April) and the peloton worked hard to chase her back, with Garmin-Cervélo and Nederland Bloeit working hard to get her gap from 1:15 down to 20 seconds at the top of the first climb of the Mur de Huy.
The chase had taken it's toll, and at this point there were only 20-30 riders in the chase group, and they kept Stevens in their sights until around 20km to go, when they swooped and caught her. From this point on, it was attack after attack - although at 10km to go, a big crash took out a lot of the riders, including Grace Verbeke (TopSport Vlaanderen) and Marijn de Vries (AA Drink) - and Olga Zabelinskaya got away using her incredible descending skills on the approach to Huy, and was joined by Vos, but both were caught at 3k to go by an HTC-lead chase, who worked like crazy. At the bottom of the Mur de Huy, HTC's Judith Arndt attacked again, Emma Johansson in her wheel. But behind them, Vos followed, timing her ride perfectly, accelerating at 150m, winning with enough time for a superb bow-and-arrow salute as she crossed the line. Johansson and Arndt followed her onto the podium - such great riders, both of them.
1. Marianne Vos (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, 2:58:27
2. Emma Johansson (Swe) Hitec UCK, + 0:03
3. Judith Arndt (Ger) HTC-Highroad, + 0:06
4. Elena Berlato (Ita) Top Girls Fassa Bortolo, + 0:15
5. Nicole Cooke (GBr) MCipollini-Giambenini, s.t.
6. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, + 0:21
7. Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (Fra) France, s.t.
8. Martine Bras (Ned) Dolmans Landscaping, + 0:24
9. Tatiana Guderzo (Ita) MCipollini-Giambenini, + 0:26
10. Kristin McGrath (USA) USA, + 0:27
After the fourth race in the series, Vos' win gave her the lead in the World Cup - here's how the standings were looking:
1. Marianne Vos (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, 185 points
2. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, 158
3. Emma Johansson (Swe) Hitec UCK, 145
4. Emma Pooley (GBr) Garmin-Cervélo, 86
5. Judith Arndt (Ger) HTC-Highroad, 83
6. Martine Bras (Ned) Dolmans Landscaping, 76
7. Tatiana Antoshina (Rus) Gauss, 66
8. Kirsten Wild (Ned) AA Drink-Leontien.nl, 54
9. Grace Verbeke (Bel) TopSport Vlaanderen, 49
10. Elena Berlato (Ita) TopGirls Fassa Bortolo, 41
It looked like a comfortable lead - but Vos had been riding since the Cyclo-cross season, and was due to take a break after the Classics season, missing the next round. Would she keep her title? Would it pass back to her team-mate Van Vleuten, or could another team wrest the leader's jersey from Nederland Bloeit? I'll tell you tomorrow!