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On the morning of a date that felt like it would never come, women’s cycling will take center stage in France.
On August 29, the seventh edition of La Course by Le Tour de France begins in Nice before the start of the Tour. 23 teams have been invited to race the 96-kilometer course, which will be the third Women’s WorldTour race to occur since racing resumed.
The La Course by Le Tour de France route
La Course’s 96-kilometer course, which uses part of the route from the men’s race, will be raced along two large loops. It starts along the Mediterranean coast and heads north toward the category 3 côte de Rimiez, located just 8 km into the race.
“The Côte de Rimiez will allow for a solid group to break away,” said Jean-Marc Marino, the event’s sporting director. “All the more so as after reaching the line drawn for the mountain points, there will actually be several kilometers of climb left to the village of Aspremont. This springboard is perfect for really strong girls who get along well, especially since the descent is technical, and not very conducive to organizing a chase.”
The field will pass through the start-finish line in Nice before completing another large loop and a second climb over côte de Rimiez at the 56.5km mark. The women will then race back toward Nice for what is expected to be a sprint finish along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.
Team Sunweb’s Leah Kirchmann says that the route suits an all-rounder type of rider with a good sprint.
“The climb is still quite far for a solo rider to make it to the finish, but I think it could be a reduced bunch sprint depending on how the climb is raced, and team tactics in the run-in to the finish,” she said.
While the technical descent off the Côte de Rimiez might splinter the peloton, if a team can put together a good formation and stay ahead going up the second climb, then sticking together at the bottom might not be such an issue.
“A lot can happen if you get the right combination of riders up the road, then what other team is going to have a chance?,” said Lauren Stephens of Tibco-SVB. “If a breakaway gets up the road on the climb the second time up there’s a potential it could stay away ’til the end.”
Riders to watch:
Stephens will be one rider to watch on August 29. Although the Texas-based pro had a tough go at Strade Bianche due to severe hamstring cramps with 20 km left in the race, she had no issue being back in a chaotic peloton after so many months away.
“I’ve been racing over here now for 6-7 years, and I don’t think I’m missing that sharpness of racing,” she said. “I think I got that doing the Zwift stuff. I kept that sharpness. Even though there are girls with five races under their belt, I think that everyone’s still coming off that ‘no racing’ feel.”
One rider who made a commanding reentry to racing at Strade was Californian Leah Thomas (Équipe Paule Ka), who finished third in Tuscany. She will also be one to watch at La Course.
Tibco-SVB and Équipe Paule Ka are two of 15 UCI Continental teams joining the eight automatically-entered WorldTeams at La Course. While some teams are bringing their marquee riders (two Dutchwomen in particular), other women will be notably absent from the start line.
Boels-Dolmans’ Anna van der Breggen, who won the 2015 edition of La Course, will not be in Nice on the 29th. According to team director Danny Stam, the Dutchwoman chose instead to focus on GP de Plouay and the European road cycling championships instead.
Another contender, Team Sunweb’s Coryn Rivera will be sidelined due to injuries sustained during a training crash in Switzerland.
Will teams that have been training together for the past few weeks come to Nice at an advantage? If so, then Trek-Segafredo has a good chance to produce a winner at La Course. Dutch sprinter Lucinda Brand finished fourth at the race in Paris last year, and this year’s course also suits Briton Lizzie Deignan.
Of course, there are two riders who everyone will be watching in Nice next week, both of whom have two La Course wins on their palmarès. Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) is the defending champion of La Course, and Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) is the defending champ of every race that’s gone on since the revised season began. Without a mountaintop finish, can van Vleuten continue her streak, or does the La Course’s course better suit Vos?
Before the coronavirus upended professional cycling, La Course was intended to be a circuit race along the Champs-Élysées in Paris on July 19. After winning both the 2017 and 2018 editions of the race, world champion Annemiek van Vleuten expressed her disdain for the 2020 Paris route, calling it a “step back” after the previous years’ mountainous courses. When the race was rescheduled in Nice, the Dutchwoman was equally unimpressed. It’s “not really WorldTour level,” she posted on Twitter in mid-July. Other riders were quick to respond, including 2016 La Course champion Chloe Hosking (Rally Cycling)
“Personally, Annemiek, I don’t think it’s that atrocious,” Hosking tweeted back. “It will only be the second WorldTour race back after six months of no racing. For many riders, their first race.”
“The course and the distance will lend itself to exciting racing, which is what the peloton and the fans need right now,” the Aussie added.
Van Vleuten isn’t the first one to pick on La Course and its organizer ASO. The race has been at the center of debate since its inception for failing to offer a true equivalent of the men’s Tour de France. For two years, it was run over two stages, but more often it’s taken the form of a short circuit race. Earlier this year ASO announced that it intended to launch a women’s stage race by 2022. For now, riders have to take advantage of the publicity and exposure that the one-day La Course offers them.
“Having a race at the Tour, whether it’s one day or multiple days is a great opportunity for women,” Stephens said. “The exposure that you get racing at the same time as the men, we just can’t match that on our own.”
Kirchmann agreed that the Tour de France offers an important platform for women’s cycling. Although she is among many riders who believe that the ASO should organize a women’s Tour de France stage race with profiles that suit different types of riders, La Course is still an opportunity.
“To show the world how dynamic and exciting women’s racing really is, hopefully bringing new fans and sponsors to the sport,” she said.