A hugely successful Aviva Women’s Tour rolled to a high-speed and tightly-fought finish in Hemel Hempstead last Sunday, and Gord was there to check out the happenings on stages 3 to 5. It was an experience that seemed to transport people back a little, to the era before the men’s Tour de France got so massive.
Riders and fans mixing, a relaxed atmosphere and a cracking competition at the end of it all …
Stage 3, Oundle to Kettering
The kids come charging out of school, a building that looks like something out of a classic English period drama; the girls in yacht-sail culottes, and the boys draped in blazers and confidence. All that cool goes out the window when the Aviva Women’s Tour steams past.
Oundle is out in force to support the race, but while the crowds are big, they’re not as huge as last year. The reason? Today’s route goes through so many of the satellite villages that the fans have stayed home to watch from their own doorsteps.
A couple of girls grudgingly turn back towards school, handing a little flag they’d been waving at the riders to their mother. Just a marginal loss of street-cred.
There’s a fascinating collection of photographs and jerseys in the window of Cafe Bar No. 4, and it turns out that Nicki who works in there has a well-known mother-in-law. Shirley Hockridge was one of the best women riders of her time, finishing third in the 1957 Women’s Tour de France and winning the British championships.
She went up against the likes of Elsy Jacobs, the first women’s world champion. Now in her 80s, Shirley still rides about 25 miles a week – something to aspire to.
Another shop just by, Coleman’s Stationery, has Hannah Barnes’ mum as one of their staff. The window is full of Hannah’s jerseys, and her very first bike. Team Barnes is out in force for a girl who grew up not that far from Oundle.
We’ve got three passages through Oundle: the immediate roll-out, a processional and a thundering, race-speed charge.
As the crowds start to melt away, to get back to what looked like perfectly affluent lives in a perfectly affluent little town, it was off to the rental car again to head for the finish in Kettering
The photographers and soigneurs/soigneusses are located just around the corner from the finish line, so we can’t see who wins straightaway – we just have to wait and see who emerges smiling. It’s Christine Majerus, Boels Dolmans and Luxembourg, who hoves into view, with a look of disbelief on her face.
As Majerus and her team-mates celebrate, Giorgia Bronzini hits the deck; Audrey Cordon has to act as emergency masseuse to alleviate the cramp.
Stage 4, Waltham Cross to Stevenage
It’s still dry, just, when I reach Port Hill in the town of Hertford. It’s the first Queen of the Mountains point of the day, a short, steep ramp up through the houses. There’s a good crowd out again and the riders come barreling past, full gas. Bigla are lining out the right-hand side of the road, working for Sharon Laws. Orica-AIS have Mel Hoskins in the polka dots, and she won’t give it up; someone is going to have to rip it away.
Rabo-Liv’s Moniek Tenniglo has had a problem but she’s flying along behind the team car; she was bleeding and bandaged at the end of the stage.
I jump in the car, arriving at the finish in Stevenage in time for an al fresco salsa class, but the only team staff to have made it so far are the German National Team and the Optum presented by Kelly Benefits Strategies guys. The car park that will soon be crammed to overflowing is nothing but a grey, urban canvas to fill.
The rain delivers on the morning’s threat; the field is still a good hour away as the heavens provide a soaking smirr of rain. It’s not lashing, but it’s enough to leave a treacherous film on the road surface.
Sabrina Stultiens (Liv-Plantur) leads Wiggle-Honda’s Elisa Longho Borghini into the last 1000 meters, but the field is right behind them. It’s a technical, criterium-style finish which gives them a chance … but only a small one.
There’s a chorus of agonised, stuck-pig squealing, the sound of brakes of greasy rims; the peloton teeters precariously around a tight left-hander just outside the red kite and no one wants to take chances.
Sixty seconds later, the noise of hands battering on boards, and thunderous cheers, swells up the finishing straight. The riders appear like ghosts out of the murk, and the break has dissolved. It’s Brennauer, Johannson and Lepistö across the line together. In the car park, Johansson explains that she went early, possibly too early, and that she knew she’d lost out to the German.
For Lepistö, it’s a huge step up to get a podium on a stage like this, especially after her hand was in such a mess after Wednesday’s crash.
Stage 5, Marlow to Hemel Hempstead
The sun ducks and dives in and out of the clouds, as my precariously small hire car bobs and weaves its way down the M1. Marlow turns out to have a lovely high street, and just a little away from the start line there’s the ultimate image of bucolic England – boys playing cricket. There’s still a bit of finesse to be learnt; I watch for a couple of overs and the batsmen are trying to hit everything out of the ground, even if the ball isn’t really playable.
It’s the last day of a hugely successful Aviva Women’s Tour, and everyone is full of praise for the race. As a first experience, it looks to be really well organised. The rolling road closures are carried out with a no-messing-but-cheery efficiency by the police outriders.
The riders are still focussed, as the general classification is so tight, but there’s a relaxed vibe doing the rounds. Optum’s Lex Albrecht is busy photobombing and signing autographs
The overall leader Lisa Brennauer waits calmly on Marlow High Street, certain only of the uncertainty of her victory. So many bonus seconds available in the two intermediate sprints and on the finish line; so many riders within race-stealing distance.
A classic southern English accent wafts across the barriers: “Blimey, she’s tall!” Bigla’s Vera Koedooder casually cruises to the start line after a great ride this week: in the break on day two, working hard for Sharon Laws in the QoM contest, working for Lotta Lepistö in the sprints. She’s a hugely respected rider, and classy with it.
In which other sport would you get the chance to guide a world champion around? These guys got to hang with the legendary Marianne Vos, and shoot the breeze with Optum’s Brianna Walle who tagged along. Not your average Sunday-down-the-pub story, for sure.
As the field departs, it’s back to the car and off to the finish in Hemel Hempstead; the shorter stage makes getting out on the course and then to the finish in time too tricky.
The leaders have a tenuous advantage, with Liv-Plantur’s Claudia Lichtenberg now clear with Audrey Cordon-Ragot of Wiggle-Honda.
The break is swept up with just 300 meters to go – I spoke to Lichtenberg after the stage, and she was sanguine about it. “It looks great for the spectators but not for the riders! But that’s the way it goes. My form is getting better, at least!”
The sprint unwinds, and it’s a clear and hugely important win for Hannah Barnes: the stage, the best young rider, and the best Brit. All those posters in her mum’s shop window the other day must have worked.
For Wiggle-Honda, it’s another frustration. They won stage 2, but like yesterday with Elisa Longo Borghini, the peloton timed their chase perfectly. Cordon puffs out her cheeks, shakes her head, chugs a drink and rolls to the team camper van.
A little further along the road, Velocio-SRAM are counting the seconds … and Brennauer is safe. The overall win, the points and a stage win, on the back of a thoroughly professional team performance from the likes of Delzenne, Worrack and Cromwell in the engine room.
A very worthy winner of a cracking race. More of the same in 2016, please!