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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.
The rain in Spain...
Vuelta Ciclista Castilla y Leon Feminas
Spain, March 26-28, 2003
Our trip to Spain started with a couple hours' drive to Milan in the early morning, a flight to Barcelona, and then 750km driving across the north of Spain to reach the town of Palencia, 80km from Leon. We were staying in a very flash hotel and had a day to recover before the three day tour started.
Compared to Italy, Spain looks much more open and sparsely populated from the main autostrada in the north. There were large vineyards and expansive fields. There were plenty of really green fields too; suggesting good soil and plenty of rain. We were able to confirm the 'plenty of rain' bit over the next few days.
Wandering around in Palencia in the afternoon was wonderful. The town has a beautiful pedestrian mall with heaps of shops, a nice path along the river running through the town, and an elegant piazza near the main cathedral.
We had interesting food at the hotel. It was almost silver service with waiters tending our tables. Entrée would be either a plate of rice with a tomato based sauce and a fried egg on top, or pasta with a tomato and meat sauce. The main course would be steak and chips! It would be a large piece of meat (at least 500g!), that could easily be enough for three. We shared the serve of meat between a few of us or just went the basic salad option (lettuce, tomato and onion). There was plenty of food, with fresh bread on the side, and dessert options of fruit or yoghurt. We can eat vegetables next week, and be vegetarian for the next month!
Stage 1 - March 26: Palencia - Palencia, 99 km
The first stage started just a couple blocks from our hotel. It was 100km including two categorised climbs and two sprints. On the first climb, just 5km from the start, Olivia Gollan (Australian Team) attacked. She was covered by Nicole Cooke (Ausra Gruodis -AccaDueO with different sleeves). Oenone Wood (Australian Team) kept the bunch under control, and took the third place for the mountain sprint. Nicole took the three points in the mountains competition, with Olivia just behind.
The road had been really rough before the climb, and continued like that for the first part of the race. The pressure was on, but the bunch of 150 riders took up the whole road. I tried squeezing my way up on the sides of the bunch, but was making little progress. The smoother line with fewer potholes was much more in the centre. We came to a sharp left hand corner which caused the bunch to come to an almost complete stop. It was strung out over the next little crest, but we all regrouped and jostled until the first descent at about the 20km mark. There were a few riders crashing on the descent, so the bunch was totally spread out ahead of me for what looked like a kilometre. I had to chase pretty hard to close gaps that had opened up on the descent. It would be so much better to have started the descent at the front.
The first sprint was at 27km, just after the descent, in the town of Duenas. When I got there, the bunch was just ahead with a few groups of five or so riders just ahead of me. A motorbike marshal was waving his arms wildly, and a old-looking woman was lying face down on the left side of the road. Stahurstkaia (Chirio) was just getting going, and I followed her back to the main field. The woman had apparently not understood what the procession of lead cars for the race was about, and even when the motorbikes with the race called out to her, she kept walking straight into the path of the peloton. A fair few riders came down. Sara Carrigan (Bik-Powerplate) was very lucky not to be hurt in the crash, going from 65km/hr to nothing in no time at all. The sprint points went to Debby Mansveld (Vlaanderen), Katia Longhin (AccaDueO), and Rosa Maria Bravo Soba (Spanish 'Mauco Embutidos' team).
The bunch kept rolling along to about the half way mark in the race, when the rain came down, and I reckon it even hailed at one point. It was really cold, and the climbs were tough. I rode as hard as I could, but was struggling to stay with the group. I chased back on the a few other riders, but the race was about to blow apart. The next mountain sprint was at about 65km, and a couple kilometres at four percent grade. Cooke (Ausra), Brandli (Prato) and Ljungskog (Aliverti) took the points as the field split into at least a few groups.
Over the final 30km of undulating roads the front group dwindled to just 25 riders, including Oenone and Olivia from our team. The next 25 were one minute down, and then a group at three minutes, and the group I was at arrived five minutes down. There were a few more groups behind with the last third of the field. There are some very good European riders not in the front group now. It is still early season racing, and within a couple months things will change. The stage was won by Regina Schleicher (Chirio), followed by Mirjam Melchers (FarmFrites) and Adrie Visser (Netherland National Team).
Stage 2 - March 27: Cantalejo - Cantalejo, 92.6 km
The second day started in similar wet and miserable conditions to the day before. I was a little better prepared for the cold, expecting it to be wet all day, and my expectations were met. It is sometimes better when it is just wet all day. The bunch moves more smoothly in wet conditions, not stopping so abruptly as road brakes seem to just slow you down a little but keep you sliding in the wet, which is better for those behind! The conditions made the race painfully difficult, especially when you can hardly feel your hands to brake on descents, and when everywhere else in Europe it is 25 degrees and sunny (including Sweden!)
The start of the stage was two flat circuits to bring us to about the 50km mark. There was a fair bit of aggression from the Spanish and Italian teams, with other teams looking to go with any moves. The roads were much smoother and wider than the previous day, so it was easier to move through the bunch. We soon headed for the hills for the last part of the race. The roads narrowed, and a small descent before the climb onto rough roads had the bunch strung out. I felt better on the climbs, and was with a small group not too far behind the leaders. The climb continued after the mountain sprint as a long drag. There was a bit of crosswind and gutterball action with groups riding hard to catch those just in front.
I was in probably the second group, and we came across Mirjam Melchers (Farm Frites) just getting a wheel change just before the second climb for the day. She supposedly had a problem at the start of the first climb too, making her result of finishing in the front select group of eight riders even more impressive. She seems so unlucky with mechanical problems and mishaps. Her chain broke in the World Cup in Geelong with just three laps to go, when I was expecting she would attack and break the race apart.
Over the second climb I was with a group of about ten who I thought would keep a good pace in to the finish, swapping off just enough to keep warm. A few of them were desperate to salvage their 40th place in the stage, and with a little motor pacing from their team cars, were able to finish in the second group. I rolled in, saving my legs for the next day, and escorted the last kilometre by a bunch of about 30 riders from behind.
In the front group there were attacks from the remaining ten riders after the descent with Zouflia Zabarova able to get clear with about five kilometres to go. She finished about 20th ahead of the others, but had lost time the previous day, so those just behind are the ten riders still on equal time in the tour with just one day to go. Olivia and Oenone are among this group with Melchers (FarmFrites), Arndt (Nurnberger), Ljungskog (Aliverti), Pucinskaite (Fanini), Brandli (Prato), Boubnenkova (Prato), Cooke (AusraGruodis) and Stahurstkaia (Chirio). We should be in for an interesting day!
Stage 3 - March 28: Aranda de Duero - Aranda de Duero, 93.1 km
The final stage was 94km in a large loop out from the town of Aranda Duero. The profile showed basically a gradual incline to the cat three climb at about the 50km mark, and then a gradual descent back to the finish. The weather was dry to start, but as the roads started to crumble and we neared the climb, it started to bucket down. We could hardly see the road - and choosing a path around puddles and potholes was not really an option.
Olivia punctured early in the stage when the bunch was rolling slowly. The team dropped back and we got her back to the bunch easily after a very quick wheel change. Twenty kilometres later we were in the rain and close to the climb. I saw Rochelle Gilmore getting a wheel change from a team mate, and soon after we were onto the gradual climb on narrow, rough roads with the team cars were far behind. Stahurstkaia who was in the leader's jersey for the tour punctured. The pressure was on, and I was struggling to hold the wheels in front. A couple gaps opened up ahead, and I could not close them. A bunch soon came from behind and I jumped in. A minute later Stahurstkaia came through, time trialing at 40km/h into a strong head wind with no one to help her, and three girls from Ljungskog's Aliverti team sitting on her wheel, not dreaming of helping her! Up ahead in the front group six of the 12 girls with Prato (six in 'Prato bike' and six in 'Prato Marathon bike') were ensuring that the front group was going to stay away, and Stahurstkaia would lose the tour. In the convoy Prato and Catalunya blocked the road to ensure Stahurstkaia would have no assistance to get back to the bunch. The team directors were fined 200 Swiss Francs for obstructing team cars at the 61km mark!
The girls don't do any of the etiquette stuff that you see in the men's Tour de France like Lance waiting for Ullrich after a crash, or Pantani waiting to attack up a climb until after Ullrich had chased back from a puncture. We were racing for a top prize of 140 Euro, (and some good UCI points), so it is fight to the death - by any means for the girls.
Judith Arndt also punctured from the front group with about 20km to go. She had to bury her strong Nurnberger teammates to get back to the leaders. Schleicher dropped back to help Stathurstkaia, and also punctured. It was not a lucky day for Chirio. There is little they could have done with the teams working against them.
With about 7km to go Zabirova (Prato) attacked, and Erika Vilunaite (AusraGruodis) went with her. Oenone (Australian team) and Dutch rider Adrie Visser tried to get across but could not quite make it. Zabirova went on to win the stage and the tour. The stage finished with a 500m section of cobbles with one kilometre to go. Anita Valen (Bik Powerplate) charged down this section and had a little gap by the last corner, and held on to finish third in the stage. Melchers finished fourth in the stage and second on GC, not so unlucky today when at least 30 riders punctured. Oenone and Olivia from our team were very happy with seventh and eighth on GC, and the team classification of third (out of 24 teams). It was a great effort against a very strong field.
I cruised in with Stathurstkaia's group, and got two punctures in the last 20km, about 10 minutes apart! I was given a spare wheel from the Spanish Sabeco team and paced back to the bunch each time, so I managed to finish OK. It would have been a cold and lonely ride back alone!
We have a rest day now before the world cup on Sunday morning. The course is supposedly fairly flat but with one hill just over a kilometre long. We were lucky with a bit of fine weather for our ride on the rest day. Hopefully we will be able to sample a bit more Spanish sunshine for the world cup!