Britain’s slowly increasing list of international road races will have another addition in a week’s time, when the inaugural Friends Life Women’s Tour takes place in central and eastern England.
Fourteen months after plans for a five-day women’s event were announced by event organiser SweetSpot, one of the strongest fields for any women’s road race outside of the World Championships will assemble in Oundle, Northamptonshire, ahead of a journey that is as exciting for the riders as it is for fans.
Obtaining 2.1 status from the UCI, the best available for a women’s stage race, immediately puts the event’s first running on a par with the likes of the Giro d’Italia Femminile, La Route de France and the Ladies Tour of Qatar.
But with a prize fund of nearly £25,000, good quality hotels (not always the norm at women’s events) and an array of sponsors backing the venture, it isn’t overly ambitious to say that the race could become not only a mainstay, but one of the most important events on the women’s calendar.
Riding to the limit
So what of the course itself? At first glance, it looks sprinter-friendly. Given the time bonuses on offer at each day’s finish, it’s more than possible that a number of them will be in contention for the overall victory going into the fifth stage’s finish in Bury St Edmunds.
Yet that’s not to say that the route is easy: there is rolling countryside terrain throughout, numerous hills inserted at key times, and the chance of crosswinds during the two stages that take place in Essex could easily catch people out.
The total race distance clocks in at 498.9 kilometres, right on the 500-kilometre limit imposed by the UCI (women’s stage races can currently only average 100 kilometres per day), so there should be plenty packed into each stage.
Much attention will be placed on the stars of women’s cycling: Marianne Vos, Lizzie Armitstead and Laura Trott, the last of whom is likely to be the star of stage four, which starts in her hometown of Cheshunt, in Hertfordshire. It’s possible that they may be overshadowed by other riders during the five days of competition, but then again, the race itself and women’s cycling is likely to be the biggest winner here.
Women’s Tour 2014: Stages
Stage one, Wednesday May 7, Oundle to Northampton, 93.8km
Andy Hawes, route director: “It’s a very undulating stage — it’s not that severe, but it’s certainly not flat. The last 30 kilometres in particular are rolling, and there is a kick in the last kilometre, so I’d say it will not be a sprint finish by any means. One of my favourite things about this stage is that it goes through two big estates. The first is Boughton House after 17.2 kilometres [which is owned by the Duke of Buccleuch, who also owns Drumlanrig Castle, where stage one of last year’s Tour of Britain finished], and then onto Althorp [where Princess Diana is buried], after 60 kilometres.”
Stage two, Thursday May 8, Hinckley to Bedford, 118.5km
Andy Hawes: “The longest stage of the race begins with several kilometres that shouldn’t trouble any of the riders. After the first Yodel Direct Sprint at Lutterworth, the route heads towards some great country lanes. However, as the race approaches the finish in Bedford, the riders will take in some wide, non-technical and fast roads into the finish. This will make it hard for a breakaway to stay away — if I was going to bet on any of the stages ending in a sprint finish, I would say it’s going to be this one. The finish on the Embankment, alongside the River Great Ouse, is beautiful.”
Stage three, Friday May 9, Felixstowe to Clacton, 90.5km
Andy Hawes: “Look out for the riders from the Low Countries in the mix during this stage — it really has a northern European feel to it. The route consistently turns from west to east and east to west, it’s virtually pan flat (the highest elevation point is something like 45m above sea level), and there could easily be crosswinds as a result of the proximity to the North Sea. We pass through Neptune Marina in Ipswich [25.7km], which is where to 2012 Tour of Britain started, and the first Strava QoM climb of the day in Freston has the backdrop of the Orwell Bridge. Both should look spectacular on television and in photographs.”
Stage four, Saturday May 10, Cheshunt to Welwyn Garden City, 97.8km
Andy Hawes: “Another undulating stage, and the positioning of the day’s final QoM climb, Digswell Hill, two and a half kilometres from the finish should add a sting in the tail. I don’t think it will be tough enough to split the peloton, though. The finish is slightly downhill, and the final kilometre is quite technical; there’s a bit of a horseshoe-shaped bend, before a near 90-degree bend takes the riders onto the finishing straight. They will need to have a look at their road book beforehand to make sure they get the finish right — it’s one you could misjudge quite easily.”
Stage five, Sunday May 11, Harwich to Bury St Edmunds, 108.3km
Andy Hawes: “I really think this will showcase women’s racing at its best. After passing through some beautiful places such as Hadleigh, Sudbury and Long Melford, the race heads into the countryside at Lavenham [65.9km]. This could be a good place for a breakaway to form. However, they will need a big lead if they are going to survive until the finish, as the final 20 kilometres are tough. It’s certainly not flat approaching Bury St Edmunds, and the straight approach into the finish along the A134 will suit an onrushing peloton. There are a couple of left/right flicks in the final kilometre, but nothing too challenging.”
Women’s Tour 2014: TV guide
British digital telelvision channel ITV4 will be showing an hour of highlights on the evening of every stage from 9-10pm.
Women’s Tour 2014: The jerseys
Friends Life Yellow jersey
The equivalent of the Tour de France’s iconic leader’s jersey, this maillot jaune is awarded to the rider with the fastest cumulative time at the end of every stage. Time bonuses could easily play a part in deciding who is awarded it in Bury St Edmunds; 10, 6 and 4 seconds are awarded to the first three across the line at the end of each stage, while 3, 2 and 1 are on offer at each day’s intermediate sprints.
Yodel Direct Points jersey
Decided by adding points obtained at each stage finish (awarded to the first 10 riders across the line, ranging from 15 for the winner, to 1 for 10th place) as well as the intermediate sprints (where 3, 2 and 1 points are on offer). The green and red jersey is similar to that worn by the sprints leader in the men’s Tour of Britain.
Strava Queen of the Mountains jersey
Worn by the rider who collects the most points from the categorised climbs that lie along the route. All hills are classified the same and 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 point are on offer at each summit. Consistency will be key to winning this polka-dot jersey.
Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research Best British Rider jersey
This jersey is a carbon copy of the competition that was part of the modern men’s Tour of Britain until 2006, and goes to the highest-placed Briton on GC at the end of each stage.
List of starters for the inaugural Women's Tour, May 7 to 11
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