The biggest women?s race on the calendar gets underway in south-west France on Friday with 14 British riders competing in the Tour de l?Aude.
Nicole Cooke, Emma Pooley and Lizzie Armitstead head a strong line-up of Brits spread across seven teams in the ten-stage race.
Cooke?s Vision 1 team are looking for stage wins at the very least. The reigning World and Olympic Champion took the opening road stage and finished fourth overall last year as she prepared for Beijing.
Vision 1 team manager Stefan Wyman also has Australian Vicki Whitelaw in the squad. ?Vicki also won a stage last year, so we are hoping for something similar,? he said.
?Nicole is taking it very seriously. It is a big, prestigious race, and I think for the team, and for Nicole, we are looking for the season to really kick in here, and through to our races in Spain in early June. This next block of a month?s racing is really important to shape our season.?
The experienced Sharon Laws ? sixth overall in last year?s l?Aude ? was to have led the young GB squad, but has withdrawn due to a shoulder injury. Jess Allen is also out injured, so team manager Simon Cope has pulled in Nikki Harris and track sprinter Anna Blyth to get some experience of big stage racing.
?She [Blyth] will potentially do four to five days then climb off, and maybe stay down there and ride the stages, but at her own tempo,? said Cope.
The GB women?s under-23 academy is now based in Belgium, as are most of the 14 British women in the race, to replicate the successful men?s set-up in Tuscany. Wyman tips two Brits riding for a Belgian team to do well this week.
?Emma Silversides is down here with Lotto and that will be her first time in the race,? he said. ?She is a really good climber, so she will be hoping to well in this, I?m sure. And Lizzie Armitstead is also in the Lotto team. She is a great all-round rider and I think she is a good candidate for a top-20 finish, which at her age would be pretty good.?
The tour covers the terrain to the north of the Pyrenees and is decidedly lumpy, making for a testing ten days for the 114 women entered.
?Overall, I think the course is a little shorter than last year,? said Wyman, ?but in terms of the course profile it is a little bit harder, with particular emphasis on the last couple of stages. Last year, on the last stage in Limoux, I think there was one categorised climb. This year, on the last stage of 90km, there are five categorised climbs, including a Cat one. I think in terms of the final GC, there could be twists and turns right until the end.?
Racing gets underway with a 3.9km prologue in Gruissan on Friday.
Cooke leads the Vision 1 team
ESGL93 GSD Gestion
FULL START LIST
Track star Armitstead aiming high
Friday May 15: Prologue 3.9km GRUISSAN ? GRUISSAN
Saturday May 16: 116km RIEUX Minervois ? RIEUX Minervois
Sunday May 17: Team time trial 27 km PORT La NOUVELLE ? PORT La NOUVELLE
Monday May 18: 116km LEZIGNAN Corbières ? LEZIGNAN Corbières
Tuesday May 19: 109km CASTELNAUDARY ? CASTELNAUDARY
Wednesday May 20: 104km AMELIE Les Bains- AMELIE Les Bains
Thursday May 21: 92km OSSEJA ? OSSEJA
Friday May 22: 102km SAINT- HILAIRE/ MONTREAL d’Aude
Saturday May 23: 101km AXAT/ ESPEZEL
Sunday May 24: 87km LIMOUX ? LIMOUX