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The AIS Women's Team Diary 2003
Welcome to one of our more unusual diaries, with entries from the various members of the Australian Institute of Sport's Women's team as they conduct their European campaign.
With rising stars such as Oenone Wood and established power riders like Olivia Gollan, the team has been making a strong mark on the European scene this season. Under the management and coaching of James Victor that success looks set to continue for the year.
A tough warm-up for the World's
Giro della Toscane Femminile, Italy, September 17-22
This tour is one of the last for the season and is held in the Tuscany region of Italy. It is a memorial race for a winner of the Women's Giro d'Italia, Michela Fanini who died in 1995 in a car accident. The tour is close enough to the world championships to be a good environment for speculators, all keen to know who will be the riders to beat this year in Zolder, Belgium in a few weeks time.
The first stories I heard about the race from those who did it last year focused on tales of the late night, dangerous criterium and prologue stage in the dark. There was discussion about the 'relaxed' Italian style of organisation which can turn a race into an obstacle course of parked cars with riders never being quite sure if the road is closed for the bike race. The next details were that all the good teams were going to be racing Toscana this year. The rumours had the number of starters at over 200, but it was confirmed at about 170 on the first evening, by far the biggest number of riders I have lined up with for a race.
Prologue - September 17: Siena - Siena, 2.15km
We arrived late in the afternoon in Siena, in the beautiful old part of the town with narrow twisting paved roads leading to and from a huge open area, Il Campo. This large, open, slightly bowl-shaped space was littered with people lying back in the sun - waiting for nothing, a wedding group taking photos, and pigeons keeping an eye on everything. The huge clock and bell tower looked amazing, and the whole place had a real atmosphere of history and age.
We tried to warm up on the circuit an hour before the first rider was to start, weaving through crowds of shoppers, not quite at the same pace we planned to race over the two kilometre circuit. The presentation of teams on a stage in Il Campo started late, and the Australian team was one of the later groups - turned away in the end - as the logistics became overwhelming with too many girls and bikes milling around the start line in the few minutes remaining before kick-off. This gave us a chance to really do a trial run of the circuit. With the first rider preparing to line up for an 8pm start, we flew into the first corner, trying to decide what gears to use and scanning the paved streets for smooth fast sections. It is great to be familiar with a circuit, especially when every second counts.
A couple of us jumped in the team car to follow the first of our riders, Alison Wright. It was scary seeing how close the team cars drive to their riders. Luckily it doesn't feel like they are that close when you are on the bike. The light from the team car was helpful, but compared to the Giro prologue where changing from the floodlit start line to the pitch black first corner was painful, the constant dim light for this circuit seemed to be OK. Following a rider at race pace in the car is worthwhile as you can see more easily the best line to take through corners and you also get more familiar with the circuit. We each had plenty of time sitting around, warming up and enjoying the atmosphere over the roughly three hours it took to get through all the riders.
I had a good ride, with only a few things not going to plan. I had been warned not to back pedal on the start line as the chain does not sit perfectly with big chain ring and large cog on the rear cluster. As I clipped into my pedals the chain dropped to the smaller chain ring at the front so I started in a smaller gear than planned. I quickly changed up and rode strongly through the uphill sections of the circuit. There were a few corners that I took a little slower than I should have, but all in all I was happy with the ride and it was a decent time, 4:15.
Sara Carrigan was the last of the Aussie girls to start. She had a great ride to finish fourth with a time of 3:56. Olivia Gollan rode very well to finish eighth in 3:59. Suzanne Ljungskog won in a time of 3:49, Miriam Melchers one second behind, and Tatiana Stiajkina in third, 3:52.
Stage 1 - September 18: Vecchiano - Altopascio, 122.9km, 42km/hr
The large bunch set off, starting with three laps around a ten kilometre circuit with a small hill, and long fast sections. In the second lap there was an attack by Marcia Eicher-Vouets, my team-mate earlier in the year in the Mantes-la-Ville team, but riding for the Swiss national team for this race. She got a gap of one minute very quickly, and managed to get to the first climb at the 60km mark just ahead of the bunch. She told me later that she tried to sprint for the GPM at the top of the climb, but Zinaida Stathurstkaia claimed the mountains jersey - just getting ahead of Marcia on the line. Marcia managed to stay with the top four climbers as they worked solidly for the remaining 60km of the race, and finished fifth in the stage, Ljungskog wining ahead of Stathurstkaia, Brandli and Boubenakova. The main bunch was led in by Felloni (Edilsavino). I was a little further back in a second group. I was nearly over the crest of the climb with the front group, but lost contact on the final part of the descent with gaps opening up and the pace really on.
The main bunch tried to bring back the five rider break away, but the chase would need to be perfectly coordinated and extremely dedicated to bring back such strong riders when they are willing to work together to give themselves all a good advantage on GC on the first day. Sara Carrigan was awarded the white jersey as leader of the young rider category (under 23).
Stage 2 - September 19: Porcari - Volterra, 105.4km, 39km/hr
The stage started at the Rox shoe factory, one of the sponsors for the Italian Michela Fanini team. We were all given a pair of fluoro orange, big fluffy slippers with a bright green hat - like a witch or a pumpkin (we are still not sure). I think they will be great for when the weather is cold, but they're definitely indoor attire.
The race profile included a couple steep climbs up to the town of Volterra, but was flat and fast for the first part of the race. Most of the Aussie team trying to help Alison Wright win the intermediate sprints to get the blue sprint jersey. She was placing each time, but with tough competition from Katia Longhin (Acca DueO).
Up the climb the peloton broke into about four groups. The front group of about 30 riders leading the race over the final 25km down the descent and back up to Volterra. The town on top of the hill is quite impressive. The finish line was up a steep paved section of the old town centre, and the atmosphere was great with plenty of people cheering the riders on. Up the final climb Boubenakova rode aggressively to break the group and finish third behind Zinaida Stathurstkaia who won the stage and Brandli who was second. Sara finished 20th, which might not sound like a good result but if you saw the competition you would be impressed. The top girls can really climb, and any weekend warriors thinking that girls' racing is not competitive should line up against the top 20 from this race. Olivia and Hayley finished in the second group, and Alison and I in the third group about four minutes down.
Stage 3a - September 20: Pontedera - Pontedera, ~45km, 44km/hr
The stage was shortened from the planned 60 km to about 45km, and the start was delayed, possibly due to difficulty closing roads around the start town. The circuit was all over familiar territory from the Women's Giro d'Italia this year, but it did not make it any easier to get up the climb with the front group. The race seemed fast, and after it split on the climb, the front group did not appear to ease up.
Olivia tried to get away in the final few kilometres of the race on a freeway overpass, but was not lucky. Three riders did manage to get a gap soon after, Parente (Edilsavino) winning ahead of J.Polikeviciute and A.Capelloto. Stathurstskaia brought the rest of the front bunch in 8 seconds down.
Stage 3b - September 20: Circuito Campi Bisenzio, 54.6km, 43km/hr, 12 laps of a 4.6km circuit
The infamous night circuit race was still talked about as if it was some mystical, crazy event as we got ready for the stage. We arrived when there was still plenty of daylight, for the 6.30pm pre-race meal. People talked about crashes the previous year, with riders slamming into the back of one another on roads lit up by lights only every 300m. After being told "…the back part of the circuit is the worst", and "…watch out for the last corner after the cobbled section," we went for a ride around the circuit, and all thought that it wasn't so bad after all.
I managed to start the stage on the front (bit of luck lining up at the right time), and the pace was on from the gun so many riders were dropped quickly, leaving only the stronger, smoother and more relaxed riders in the group. It was much easier to ride in this peloton. I was a little nervous in the first lap, uncertain of how hard the girls would push into a sharp corner just after a fast, wide downhill section about two kilometres from the finish line. I was happily surprised to find all the girls near me riding reasonably and not chopping one another in the dark. You had to trust the riders around you. As we weaved through narrow, twisted roads in the dark, you did not dare to brake for fear the riders behind would crash into you, and everyone else was thinking the same so you could just follow the smooth wheels in front. It was like riding a track bike on a velodrome, or the peloton on a really wet day when the brakes on road bikes are totally ineffective, and the bunch seems to be really smooth. The only exception to this was a bit of aggression in the time bonus sprint that resulted in a water bottle being squirted at someone who seemed to be willing to a push smaller riders way closer to the barriers than is reasonable.
Tanya Hennes-Shmidt (German team) attacked in the first lap, and Sara Carrigan (Australia) and Zoulfia Zabirova (Chirio) went with her. Zabirova continued on her own after a couple laps, driving it like she was on a motorbike. She remained just ahead of the group for almost the entire race with a gap of between 6 and 18 seconds. Zabirova said she was scared on the start line in the dark and obviously thought the safest place was 100m ahead of the group. Alison was getting the better of Katia Longhin in the sprints, and was equal on points and awarded the jersey at the end of the night.
I went with a few moves, one early on where I was doing every thing I could to stay on the wheel of Alessandra Cappelotto (Bik-PowerPlate) through the start/finish line in a break with a few others, but we never got much of a gap. The circuit included a bridge on a wide road. It was quite steep, and attacks often went towards the top, with one side of the bunch swamping the other. In the second last lap, an Acca DueO rider, J. Silva, who had attacked often on the bridge was moving up on the right. I followed her wheel, and just before the crest a little group had a tiny gap on the field. Aussie rider, Sara Carrigan was on the front of the group, but not in a position to bridge across to the break. I attacked and just got onto the wheels of the girls in the group ahead at the bottom of the bridge. We caught Zabirova at this point, and she stayed with our group of about eight riders. A couple of the girls drove it hard for the next few kilometres. I was just following the wheels in front, and trying not to let a gap open up. As we went through the finish line as hard as we could, our team director said that it was all back together with one lap to go. I was surprised and disappointed as I was on the rivet and thought we had a gap. I found out later that the race radio had said that Zabirova had been caught by the bunch and had not pointed out that there was a group with a small gap and she was with them (us!).
I was watching for counter-moves, and I did not look back to check how big the gap was (in the dark it is hard to see much behind anyway). I imagined we would be swamped by the peloton at any point, and was thinking more about trying to get a little break from this group that might then have a chance to stay away. I attacked over the bridge on the final lap (3km to go). I didn't manage to break our little group, and was on the front maintaining at a steady pace with less than two kilometres to go. I was hoping for someone to come around to keep the pace reasonable, and I didn't think leading for the last two kilometres was a good idea. I was watching for attacks as I rode close to the left of the road. Just before about one kilometre to go a few girls came past me, and then Jenny Algelid (German team) attacked. Silva (Acca DueO) went to cover the move, but could not close the gap. I was a couple wheels further back, and came into the final corner about fourth wheel. The rider in front was slow coming out of the corner, and I went to the wrong side of her (should have gone to the inside). With 500m to go, I sprinted hard, and moved up a couple places, but the gaps ahead were too big. It would have been better to lead it out from two kilometres to go than to get caught up among the riders in this small group in the final corner. I was disappointed with the sprint, but happy to have come sixth in the stage. I was feeling good on the bike, and confident that I had the strength, fitness and form to go with attacks at hard points in the race. Bit of work on my sprinting could help. I'll have to get back to chasing red letter boxes for the 'serious' post office championships when I'm back in Sydney.
Algelid won the stage ahead of Zabirova, and the other riders in the break: Silva, Kolding, Newstead, Me (James), Semuck and Van Essen. Ljungskog brought in the main field about ten seconds down.
Stage 4 - September 21: Segromigno in Piano - Capannori, 112.7km
The good Tuscan weather we had been enjoying seemed to have disappeared as we headed to the race. It rained heavily in the hour before the start, and from the warmth of a dry corner in a coffee shop we all hoped that the neutral would be shortened, and the race delayed a little so that we could race under the clear skies that were appearing. We were lucky. It was nearly dry as the race started at the cemetery where there is a nearly life size statue of Michela Fanini on a bike in a victory salute. After a short ceremony, and a minute's silence the riders rolled off for the race over four small climbs, and then one large eight kilometre climb about ten kilometres from the finish.
The first climb was not too bad (or I was feeling better than earlier in the week). The girls took it quite easy on the descent which I was happy about. It had been wet, and there was a fair bit of road works leaving loose gravel on the corners. On the flat fast roads soon after Zabirova got in a break with about five others. No Aussies were in the move and we had wanted to get Alison to the first sprint to get as many points as she could for the sprint jersey. Zabirova was now quite close on points in the sprint jersey after spending most of the evening criterium a few hundred metres ahead of the bunch - claiming maximum points for the intermediate sprints. Olivia and I tried to attack and counter-attack to keep the pace high and bring back the break, but we had not acted soon enough and the gap got too big. Our team was not entirely committed to bring it back because the tough final climb would decide the stage, and there was another tough climb before the next sprint. Talk-back radios would have been good to help make a decision. I was a little indecisive and not sure how we should play it.
The second climb was long and quite tough, but the descent was fast and small groups managed to get back on within a few kilometres. We did another two laps up that climb, and I found myself with the same group of riders chasing back on the bottom of the descent each time. Back in the bunch with 30 kilometres to go, I was wondering if there was anything we could do to get a good result for one of us in the stage or to get Sara back into the young riders' jersey as she was now about one minute behind Nicole Cook. Alison told me she was confident that the best of the climbers were going to smash over the final climb, and that if I was feeling good now would be a good time to have a go. I wasn't feeling particularly good, but I knew that on an eight kilometre climb I would not be over the top with the front group.
I waited till the bunch spread across a wide road, and then attacked from the rear of the field, and easily got a gap. There was still 25km to go, and I wasn't sure exactly how it would pan out. After a couple of minutes I was joined by the Polish national champion, Bogumila Matusiak. She was not keen on the idea of working with another rider, so it was a rather painful experience. She would do a 20 second turn and then stop pedaling, swing across the road and sit up looking for me to come through. I would simply maintain the pace, but her antics made me sure that as soon as we got to the climb she would be off, so I was not going to ride particularly hard to the base of the climb for her.
When the climb started she rode away from me. I have climbed well from time to time, but today I didn't have particularly good climbing legs. I continued up the climb, and was about half way up when Zinaida Stathurstkaia flew past with Ljungskog, Brandli and Boubenakova. Zinaida sat up a couple hundred metres past me, as the others had responded to her attack and appeared to be on her wheel. She waited a little and then attacked again and I didn't see anything more of them. The next few groups of good climbers came through, and I held onto the second group over the top of the climb. I finished with about 15 riders, probably in about 30th or 40th place, but not sure of the result. Sara rode well and picked up a place in the young rider category - she was now third. Zabirova won the stage, a well-deserved effort after the previous night, and a long breakaway for this stage. The other riders in the initial break of about seven were caught by the front group on the descent in the last ten kilometres.
Stage 5 - September 22: Quarrata - Firenze, 109.4km
The weather was all bad for this stage. There was no hope of clear skies appearing, so we put on all the wet weather gear, including a plastic bag with holes for our arms and head to wear between our undershirts and race jersey. We did not warm up much, but with a little coffee and Coke, we were ready for the stage. The neutral zone included some fairly tight corners over rough roads in the wet, bringing the bunch to a standstill. I was glad to be at the front, but when they tried to lead us into a driveway of a factory - we all just refused. We realised soon after that it was to do a u-turn to then start the race on the same road in the opposite direction - but at the time I thought some one had just read a map wrong or had no idea what was a fair thing. I ended up at the rear of the field, but there were not so many riders now, maybe 80, nowhere near the 170 who started.
There were seven laps of an eight kilometre circuit and then another 50km to Firenze, with a final climb just on the edge of the city. The third lap and the seventh lap were the ones that were crucial for the blue sprint jersey which Alison Wright (Australia) still held, on equal points with Katia Longhin (Acca DueO). I was feeling strong and keen to help the team control the bunch before the sprint to ensure Alison could get the points.
With a lap to go I tried to follow any attacks that went. Into the final lap, I helped Ali to move up, and then maintained the pace on the front. There were a few small attacks from the Michela Fanini team, and from Edilsavino, but I covered these easily. About four kilometres from the sprint, we had a few Aussie riders on the front, and we kept the speed steady. There was a little sharp pinch over a railway line with about a kilometre to go, and just before it an attack went and was covered messing up our plan a little. I tried to stay with the front ten riders (now only Alison and Sara from the Aussie team). They eased up a little with 500m to go, and I moved up alongside them - but was not sure how to help at this point. I thought I might be able to give Sara a little shelter before she led Ali out. AccaDueO launched the sprint at the right moment. Alison was right with Katia, but could not come round her. Alison warned that we had gone a little too early, perhaps I'm a little too keen to be on the front for half a lap when I'm feeling good.
We rested for a while, all the girls needing a little recovery after the effort for the sprint. The next intermediate sprint was in the seventh lap. It came up really quickly, and again I thought that I could best assist by doing more early on and keeping the faster riders fresher for the final lead out in the last kilometre. My diesel engine is strong but I don't have much of a kick - yet. There were a few more Acca DueO riders helping out for the second sprint. Alison had to win to get back to equal points with Katia. We had the whole Australian team on the front with about four kilometres to go. I was keeping the pace high until about one kilometre to go. AccaDueO again led it out well, and a little unlucky, Alison ended up second again to a very fast Katia who claimed the jersey. It was a well-fought competition… I just wish I could have done more to help out earlier in the week.
We rolled on towards the finish. I was looking forward to the end of the stage. The weather was not great, and with GC still very close, the chance of getting away for the stage was very limited. Mirjam Melchers tried to get away, and I was glad to be able to sit in the bunch flying towards the finish at high speed. I was counting down the kilometres. Up the final climb the bunch split up. The final five kilometres included the descent overlooking Firenze (really beautiful cathedral dome - even just from a quick glance to my left.). The last couple kilometres were over old paved roads to the city centre. Ljungskog timed it perfectly and attacked with a kilometre to go. She won the stage by ten seconds and confirmed her position as the winner of the tour ahead of Stathurstkaia and Brandli.
I was awarded the 'Generosity Jersey', a special prize a bit like the 'Elegance Jersey' or the award for the most aggressive or 'combative' rider. I still don't know exactly how they choose who to give that stuff to, but it is good to get different people up on the stage. I was given a very nice jersey and enjoyed a little bit of podium time which is always fun. We all looked very dirty from racing in the rain. We cleaned up as best we could, and then a few of us hit the shops in Florence. We got some bizarre looks from some of the security type guys minding the expensive women's clothes shops. I was happier to window shop in my post race casual attire. The first thing I saw was leather pants for 250 Euro. Our prize money split wasn't going to cover much on that front so we wandered back for the presentation, and soon were heading back on the 2-3 hour drive home.