A replacement for the COVID-19-affected Women’s Tour, the Skoda V-Women’s Tour was created by Tour organisers Sweetspot as a virtual alternative, giving teams, riders and fans a taste of competitive action. The closest thing we’ll get to top-level road racing on British shores in 2020?
Utilising a pair of classic stages – and a flat out Canary Wharf criterium – the event featured numerous class winners from previous events and a mix of top British and international teams to do battle in their homes and claim the first virtual Women’s Tour victory.
As predicted by our contributor Jenny Holl in her latest journal, the start of the opening stage – 38.4km into Bury St Edmunds – started at an extraordinary pace. Within the first two kilometres the pack, sticking solid at 50-strong, was already hitting 60km/h as the riders all fought to stick at the front.
That ferocious speed continued throughout, aided by the relatively flat nature of the opening test, and it meant that there were no true breaks to speak of, with no one willing to put in even more watts to try and head out on an early lead.
Indeed, the first real test of the peloton’s resolve came just after 14km as Dani Christmas (Lotto-Soudal Ladies) launched the first of a few exploratory sprints off the front of the bunch. She pulled a few lengths clear of the pack but couldn’t sustain the pace and was quickly swallowed back up.
There was the odd attack or two at the halfway mark as the peloton started to settle into a rhythm which quickly fizzled out, but it was in the final kilometres that the action really started to heat up once again.
What seemed like the race-winning move came from Lizzy Banks (Bigla-Katusha) as she utilised a right-hand bend onto the final run-in to launch a sprint to the line. But with just one hundred metres to go, she ran out of energy, allowing Christmas and Illi Gardner (CAMS-Tifosi) to lead a tight-fought sprint to the line which was edged by the former by a wheel – Banks crossed in sixth.
Amelia Sharpe (Team Breeze) took third just behind the lead duo, with Team TIBCO Silicon Valley Bank’s Kristen Faulkner and Leah Dixon claiming fourth and fifth respectively.
Compared to the opening stage – which was a relatively flat affair with an explosive finish – stage two, the last 35.6km into Burton Dassett, was a mammoth test for the peloton.
The start was a mirror of stage one with the pack going full gas and averaging over 50km/h from the first kilometre as everyone pushed hard to avoid being dropped early on.
That’s where the similarities ended though, as the gradients started to pick holes in the group with an early bunch falling off the back that included race leader Christmas.
It fractured further as the riders got to the first of three ascents of the 1.7km climb that was the crowning feature of the second stage. A group of 30 riders attacked the slope together, but as the gradient truly started to bite that was soon pared-down to a core of 10 which included Sarah Storey, Illi Gardner and Lizzy Holden (Bizkaia Durango).
Indeed, it was the second pass of that climb 11 kilometres later that truly shook the race. As the road started to climb, Lauren Stephens (Team TIBCO Silicon Valley Bank) powered clear and charged up the ascent quickly followed by her team-mate Leah Dixon.
The pair worked together to pedal out of site of the group behind with RGT Cycling’s drafting feature working perfectly to let the duo take turns at the front. With less than 5km to go they were more than 200 metres clear of the chasers behind with no one able to make a solid attempt to bridge the gap.
Heading up the climb for the final time – which doubled as the run to the finish – Dixon dug deep into her energy reserves to leave Stephens behind, taking the stage victory by 60m as the latter couldn’t put in the same late burst to try and contest the sprint. Dixon’s commanding victory also gave her the leader’s jersey heading into the final stage.
In the distant chasing group, Lizzie Holden (Bizkaia Durango) edged a close battle with TIBCO’s third rider Kristen Faulkner to take the final spot on the podium, denying the American outfit a 1-2-3. Faulkner’s second fourth place in as many stages did move her to second in the general classification, just under 22 seconds behind Dixon.
After falling off the group in the opening 5km, Dani Christmas pulled off a remarkable recovery ride to power her way to ninth and drop to just seventh in the GC, 55 seconds from the lead.
After two days of hard riding, everything came down to a fast and furious criterium around the streets of Canary Wharf on a relatively flat course that was set to be a test of what endurance the peloton had left.
And that’s what proved to be the case. Initially the group powered along as one big mass of riders with a bit of spreading through the 90-degree corners as riders got to grips with how best to ride through them on their smart trainers.
It was after the 12km mark that the bunch really started to break, with a good number of riders unable to maintain the same high-level of pace at the front for what proved to be an hour-long sprint with a core group of 16 – from a starting number of 50 – still pushing ahead at the front.
As the kilometres clicked through and lap times staying at a fairly consistent 1 minute 58 seconds, the lead pack quickly whittled down and with the end in sight, the contenders numbered just eight – with GC leader Leah Dixon joined by TIBCO team-mates Kristen Faulkner and Lauren Stephens to try and set the pace at the front.
However, with the group getting closer to the finish, it was another member of the pack who seized the initiative – NXTG Racing’s Cathalijne Hoolwerf. Bursting through a row of three riders ahead of her with 200 metres still to go, the 20-year-old opened up an advantage of 10 metres through the final two corners.
That attack caught the pack by surprise, with the Dutch rider powering to a comfortable victory with Stephens and Faulkner unable to bridge across, settling instead for second and third.
Fifth, just behind Leigh Ann Ganzar (Rally Cycling), was enough for Leah Dixon to secure the overall GC victory by 21.9 seconds over Faulkner having just run out of energy in the sprint finish.
Despite losing more time on the final stage, Dani Christmas fought back to round out the GC podium – just squeaking ahead of CAMS-Tifosi’s Illi Gardner by less than four seconds but almost a minute down on the TIBCO duo.
Full results to follow.
What we learned
- Virtual racing will be here to stay… Yes, it’s not quite the same as the real thing but Sweetspot should be applauded for pulling off a more than capable replacement. The V-Women’s Tour was a hard-fought contest from the very start of the opening stage and from looking at the rider cameras it was clear to see how seriously it was being taken. Listen to the riders and their DSs talking about successes – and defeats – and it’s clear to see that the campaign for the V-Women’s Tour jersey was a big affair for those taking part. Add into that mix a professional production with two commentators who were fountains of knowledge (chapeau to Marty Macdonald and Joanna Rowsell Shand for spot-on commentary) and its hard to pick out any negatives. As a keen spectator, it was just nice to see some semblance of competitive action once again…
- Riders had to learn quickly… Jenny Holl predicted that the pace would be furious from the off but the other aspect that riders quickly learned was how focused they had to remain. One second looking away from the screen to grab a drink or wipe their face with a towel and they were falling away from the pack meaning a big effort had to be made to crawl back in. Dani Christmas reckoned her sprints to rejoin the group on stage one were bigger than her late burst to the line and showed just how much peripheral vision is lost by only being able to see as much of the group that fits onto a screen in front of them.
- Tactical calls had to be spot on… With the pack cracking on at a fair lick right from the off – more than 50km/h average in the first 5km of each stage – there was no time for the DSs to sit back and contemplate what was unfolding they had to act, and react, instantaneously. That then, makes the calls made by Team TIBCO Silicon Valley Bank’s DS Rachel Hedderman during stage two even more remarkable. First Lauren Stephens powered away before the second go at the stage’s feature climb, and then Leah Dixon quickly caught up with her and worked together in what was the only successful break of the entire tour.
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