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The Emma James Diary 2003
Welcome to one of Cyclingnews' up-and-coming female talents, Australian Emma James. Emma's enjoying her second year as a scholarship holder with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) road cycling team, based in Tuscany, Italy. She's a gutsy rider who's decided that she'd rather be testing the waters of professional cycling than testing the salinity of the Sydney's waterways as an environmental scientist - which used to be her previous occupation before Emma decided to take the plunge.
Tour de Haute Vienne, part one
A couple years ago I managed to get a start in this tour, with a bit of persistence on the telephone, and my schoolgirl French helping so much that at the start of the time trial that year, when they read out the palmares of riders just before they started, they had not much more to say about me except that I was Australian, and spoke very good French (compared to what they had expected!)
It was at this race two years ago that I managed to get a start in my first Grande Boucle (the women's Tour de France). I have very fond memories of wonderful people helping me, and it was great see all the familiar friendly faces at this race. I won the tour overall last year with the help of the Mantes la Ville team that I was riding with for the Grande Boucle in 2002. I was keen to come back and try to win a second year - and to get a stage win.
Car-dodging to a prologue win
The first stage of the race this year was a prologue. The circuit covered 4.8km, technical and hilly, the same as last year. I did not have an ITT bike, and I had thought that might put me behind the eight ball in my efforts to win the tour again. I was hoping to have a good ride, and lose as little time as possible to the other riders that would be competitive on GC. I pulled my foot on the start line, but got it back in quickly, and flew into the first corner with the adrenalin flowing. Over the first little crest on a main road, a car had not quite understood what was going on with marshals directing him to the left, and he tried to take the lane with me veering to the right. I didn't slow at all, but focused on the gap between the gutter and the side of the car, using 'the Force' to ensure I made it through a smaller than desirable gap!
I got as much speed as I could on the rough straight downhill section leading into the next twisty hilly part. I held my speed through the corners, and tried to push it over each crest. I thought I'd over done it at one point, and cursed my legs for not being able to sprint harder on the tough pinches. On the final little steep assent, I gave it everything, gritting my teeth, and then recovering a little on the descent, with a rabbit now just ahead for me to chase in the last kilometer. I squeezed past the following car for the rider in front, and was just behind her as she crossed the line.
I warmed down as best I could with no where much to go, and then found out the time I did was much better than I remember from last year. 6:45 compared to just over 7:00. The ITT bike must not be so advantageous on this circuit, or I must be riding a fair bit better than last year! I had been one of the first to start, so I had time to kill, but with friends reminding me that my time was still the fastest time to that point during the evening. We saw a couple of the Dutch riders coming in, and along the fast flat finishing section they were flying!
I was surprised and very happy when the last riders had finished, and I had won the stage, with two seconds advance on Loes Gunnewijk (Ondernemers) who won the flat final ITT in the Giro a couple weeks ago, and I was five seconds ahead of Minke Van Dongen (also with Ondernemers). I was reminded by another friend that keeping the leader's jersey over the following three days of racing would be difficult, and that I may have to let it go, and then try to take it back on the final day unless I had a strong team to help me.
I was in a team with three Irish girls, and two Swiss girls. The Irish contingent included Geraldine Gill who lives and trains in France, and Louise and Maree, both who work, and race mainly in Ireland. The Swiss element included a good sprinter Annette Beutler and a former road world champion (1996) Barbara Heeb. It was interesting to see how the Swiss girls raced, but communication made it difficult to race with them as a team. We did try to help each other, but it seemed like we had different ideas about how to realize the same goal.
Stage 1: Battling to keep the lead
The first road stage was basically five laps of a 15km loop with a bit added on at the start for 91km all up. There were three mountain sprints on a short 200m pinch just after the long drag up through the finish line. Karine Dalmais (Saint Julien en Genvois) cleaned up this category, taking all three sprints ahead of Loes Gunnewijk, Barbara Heeb and me. Karine is a small, wirey rider, a talented climber, and former gymnast. She will be riding her fourth Grande Boucle with the French National Team in a weeks time.
There were three intermediate sprints that Annette contested, winning one, and finishing second behind two different Chinese riders with the UCI CMC (Centre Mondial du Cyclisme). This gave her the lead in the sprint classification. I was nervous at all the sprints, making sure I had good position to go with any moves that would threaten my narrow lead on GC. I was forced to chase a few times, and Annette helped when I really needed it at one point. I tried to cover things quickly, or wait a little to see which other individuals would spark the chase. I was fully aware I could not do it all alone for three days. Towards the end of the stage there were a few opportunistic moves before the fast descent and run at the line. Sharon van Essen (Ondernemers) won the sprint, and revealed on the podium (to me as the translator!) that their team plan was for Gunnewijk to try to take back the couple of seconds separating her and me on GC with an attack in the final kilometre. The sprint had been a mess of 30 riders, and I found myself boxed in a bit on dead wheels. The Dutch attack had strung out the group, and helped her team mate to win, but I still held the two second lead on Gunnewijk, and the pink leader's jersey.
I was surprised that in such a tough stage there were still 30 riders together for the sprint. The climb had not been too long, and the commitment not there to break the group. The strength of the field was impressive. Hard racing guaranteed for the next couple of days, and all good preparation for the Grande Boucle.
A toute a l'heure