Photo Credit: Jack Chevell
I’ve always wondered what happens behind the scenes at a world class cycling stage race. What do the riders do? Is there any panic on the team bus right before the start? Does everyone get on? On Sunday I got a sneaky insight while spending time with the Wiggle High5 Women’s Pro Cycling Team in London at the final stage of the OVO Energy Women’s Cycling Tour.
Sat relaxing in the shade of the Wiggle Tour Bus canopy on a sunny London afternoon are some of cycling’s most talented female road riders – Giorgia Bronzini, Audrey Cordon-Ragot, Jolien D’hoore, Emilia Fahlin, Claudia Lichtenberg and Elisa Longo Borghini. This is Wiggle High5’s team for the 2016 OVO Energy Women’s Tour; a mix of national champions, time trial champions, Olympians and road race winners. All looking remarkably fresh and smiley given that they’ve already covered 566km in the previous four days.
‘I’m tired, but my spirit is not!’ I hear Italian rider, Giorgia Bronzini, the team’s most experienced rider, who came fourth in stage 3, joke with a photographer.
It’s 2pm and the team are about to sign on for the final stage of the OVO Energy Women’s Tour – the crit race. 10 laps of the 6.2km circuit of central London. It’s flat, it’s fast and it’s a crucial stage for Wiggle High5, whose team member Jolien D’hoore (a former Belgian champion) is keen to retain the Red Sprint jersey she’s currently wearing. As a sprinter, the course should play to her strengths. But she says, after yesterday’s hilly stage, ‘We will have to see how my legs react.’
It could be tense times but you wouldn’t know it as the girls sit joking and chatting with each other, swiping through their phones and making calls. They look very relaxed, I remark. ‘They’re used to it,’ comes the reply, and I note that yes, this is their job.
From Left: Audrey, Emilia and Giorgia
Yesterday’s Stage 4 from Chesterfield through the Peak District was tough. Driving rain, punishing climbs and 2000+m of elevation led overall General Classification leader (and eventual Tour winner) Katarzyna Niewiandoma of team WPM to describe it as the ‘hardest race of my life’. Add to that that this is the longest Women’s Tour yet, and it’s unsurprising some riders are feeling jaded.
I grab some interview time with French rider and Wiggle High5 Road Captain, Audrey Cordon-Ragot, who’s retained the Queen of the Mountains jersey she took on Stage 1 of the Tour. Is she feeling this year’s extra distance on her legs? “Yes, we can all really feel it!” she says, smiling.
Me and Audrey
I check out the Team’s pristine-looking Colnago bikes, some of which are adorned with a pink ribbon and message written by a breast cancer survivor (a lovely touch from Breast Cancer Care), and I wonder why I’m one of just a few journalists grabbing time with one of the best professional women’s cycle teams in the world. Apparently this is the stark reality of women’s professional cycling. It seems such a shame – women at the top of their game, who put immense effort into training and competing, getting less recognition.
Despite this, it seems the supporter turn-out in the UK is an unexpected bonus for the team. “We’ve had a lot of support on the road. We’re not used to it,” remarks Jolien of Belgium, who describes the British crowds as ‘amazing’.
Photo Credit: Jack Chevell
Ahead of the start, Wiggle High5 team owner and manager, Rochelle Gilmore, an Australian former rider and Commonwealth Games gold medallist herself, drops by the bus for a quick chat and a hello with the riders before interviewing a few of them for ITV4.
Sprinter Jolien D’hoore is interviewed
Chatting on the phone before the race | Photo Credit: Jack Chevell
It’s now around 3.15pm. With earpieces taped in, Borghini, Bronzini, Cordon-Ragot, Fahlin and Lichtenberg make a final call, grab their bikes ahead of the 3.30pm start time and head along the closed roads to Regent Street, St James.
Jolien, looking focused, jumps on the rollers for 5 minutes, mentally preparing in silence.
Jolien D’hoore on the rollers with minutes to go | Photo Credit: Jack Chevell
I head to the start line as the final riders assemble. It’s amazing to see so many big cycling names only a few feet away. With so much to play for, I feel nervous for the Team. Earlier rumours that last year’s Tour winner, the usually affable Lizzie Deignan of Boels Dolmans, wasn’t doing autographs, set the tone for the seriousness of the race.
The countdown from ten arrives and they are off.
The start of the race | Photo Credit: Jack Chevell
By the time the peloton comes up to complete the first lap, a breakaway group has formed with all but one Boels-Dolmans rider keeping pace. Lizzie means business. I don’t spot any of the Wiggle High5 Pro Cycling Team in the breakaway group which seems to be extending its lead.
A few sprints pass and I know Jolien has missed out on crucial points.
After a ride in one of the race cars (a very cool experience), before I know it the bell has gone for the last lap. The heat is on. I’ve missed it, but with three laps to go the Wiggle High5 team have worked hard to catch up the breakaway group. This is going to make a thrilling stage 5 finish.
Approaching the finish, Wiggle High5’s Jolien D’hoore powers through a bunch sprint to take the overall stage win, with Hannah Barnes of Canyon SRAM second and Christine Majerus of Boels Dolmans in third! It isn’t enough to secure Jolien the points to retain her red sprint jersey, but it bags her a podium place for the stage win. Audrey Cordon-Ragot keeps her QOM jersey, taking the podium for the Skoda Queen of The Mountains award and Elisa Longo Borghini takes a top ten place in the overall General Classification, with Giorgia Bronzini finishing 7th in the stage.
Jolien takes the Stage 5 win | Photo Credit: Jack Chevell
As the riders all gather immediately after the race, Wiggle High5 director sportif, Donna Rae Szalinski, finds and congratulates them. Despite the immense effort of cycling 64km at speed after four days of racing, they still look fresh to me – even if they don’t feel it. “That race has aged me five years!” exclaims Emilia Fahlin.
“I think that was the hardest crit race I’ve done in my life,” adds D’hoore, fresh from the win.
The podium comes and goes, with riders swiftly packing up and heading back to their respective homes or training grounds in Europe.
So what’s next? For most of the team it’s the nationals and then the Giro D’Italia within weeks, where hopes will fall on Elisa Longo Borghini.
Thank you and good luck Wiggle High5 Pro Cycling, it’s been a pleasure!
Look out for my interviews with QOM Audrey Cordon-Ragot and sprint star Jolien D’hoore from the OVO Energy Women’s Tour, which will be going live in the next few days.
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