World champion Lizzie Armitstead won her sixth race of the season in Chesterfield on Friday. The 27-year-old finished off a perfectly executed plan by Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team to win a four-up sprint on stage three of the Aviva Women’s Tour and move into the yellow race leader’s jersey.
“It went exactly as we discussed,” said Armitstead. “The idea was to put someone into the early breakaway and that I would jump across on the climb. We did exactly that.”
“I didn’t feel great today, but I didn’t expect to feel great,” Armitstead added. “You’re never going to feel great on this terrain. I’m fit but I’m not in my top form. I don’t want to feel great and sparky and aggressive in this race. I just want to feel strong. That’s where my phase of training is at the moment. We’re about eight-and-a-half weeks out from Rio, and I think I’m in the place that I need to be.”
The third stage of the Aviva Women’s Tour is the shortest of the third edition of the British race, but the 109km route was punishing enough to earn the “queen stage” moniker. Armitstead knew the rolling roads, especially the kilometre-long Bank Road QOM, played to her strengths.
“If I could have designed a stage, this would have been it,” said Armitstead. “I love this kind of terrain. It’s similar to where I grew up in Yorkshire, and it suits me. I’m grateful they’re bringing the race further up north, closer to home, and that it’s not just sprints every day. I think it showcases what women’s cycling is about and what kind of racing we can do.”
HOW IT UNFOLDED
Incredible crowds lined the barriers, waving flags, holding signs, and yelling for their favourite teams and riders, as the women’s peloton rolled out from Ashbourne under cloudy skies. From the moment the official start was given, the pace was high and the attacks plentiful. None of the moves had staying power until Chantal Blaak launched a powerful attack on an uncategorised climb with around 60-kilometres still to race.
“The speed was high all day,” said Blaak. “I think there were a lot of people that wanted to sit in the break because we all knew what was coming. That makes everyone following each other and the speed high, so no one really went away.”
“I attacked on a little climb when we had almost reached the top,” Blaak added. “The bunch was slowing down, and I was on the side. I thought it was the perfect moment. One of use needed to get away. It could have been anyone. We’re all strong enough to play the role.”
Blaak’s jump inspired a swift reaction. By the time the peloton had reached the feed zone, a group of 11 riders had taken shape. All the big teams had representation -- CANYON//SRAM with Hannah Barnes, Wiggle High5 with Jolien d’Hoore, Rabo-Liv with Lucinda Brand and Roxanne Knetemann, Cervélo Bigla with Clara Koppenburg and ORICA-AIS with Amanda Spratt.
“If I was with one of the riders in the classification, I wouldn’t have ridden at all, but I looked around and I knew it was a good break and that I could go,” Blaak explained. “Everyone was doing her work, and that’s why the gap increased so quickly.”
Blaak and her breakmates started the second QOM up Bank Road with nearly a two minute gap over the peloton. The hill runs through the centre of Matlack, Derbyshire and measures 1.1 kilometres in length with an average gradient of 11 percent and a maximum gradient of 20 percent.
“It’s a brutal climb,” said Armitstead, who expected to make her move as the road rose. “I expected Ashleigh Moolman (Cervélo Bigla) to launch an attack there. I didn’t expect her to go from the bottom, but she did. I had the perfect lead out from Ellen [van Dijk] and Christine [Majerus] into the bottom of the climb, so I was really well positioned.
Armitstead followed Moolman’s move but at her own pace. She knew that if she tried to match the South African’s speed, she’d risk burning too many matches too early. Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) was the only other rider capable of matching Moolman’s acceleration.
“I knew from people’s advice that it was a long, steep climb,” Armitstead explained. “I held them at a manageable distance and crawled back up to them.”
The trio set out to bridge the gap to the breakaway. Blaak, who received word that Armitstead was making her way across, skipped turns on the front and awaited her teammate.
“We had talked about before,” said Blaak. “It was exactly the plan, but you never know how it’s going to happen. My plan was not to be in the break for the stage win. It was a really difficult one today. My job was to get over the climbs up front to help Lizzie.”
“It was a bit of a slog to get up to the breakaway,” Armitstead added. “When I arrived there, I had Chantal. She did some work on the front and took us as far as she could.”
With 20 kilometres left to race, the 14-rider leading group had 47-seconds over what was left of the peloton. Rabo-Liv led a furious chase in an effort to close down the move for overnight race leader Marianne Vos.
Having recovered from her effort to bridge across, Armitstead made another massive effort to thin down the leading group.
“I put in a hard attack and took the strongest girls in the race away with me,” said Armitstead. “That was the whole idea.”
Moolman, Longo Borghini and Spratt matched Armitstead’s acceleration. Having picked up on bonus second on the opening stage, Armitstead was the race’s virtual leader by a mere second.
The quatert had enough firepower to have staying power. With her family watching from the sideline, Armitstead unleashed her formidable kick to win the four-up sprint to the line. Her victory salute, a finger pointed toward the sky, was in honour of MP Jo Cox, a Yorkshire MP who was viciously and senselessly murdered on Thursday.
Armitstead’s stage win gave her ten bonus seconds and turned her virtual race lead into reality. She’ll start the penultimate stage in yellow with a five second advantage over Moolman and a seven second advantage over Longo Borghini.
“I think one of my strengths is that I don’t get caught up in the expectations of the people around me,” said Armitstead. “The previous two stages have been sprint stages, and people have said: ‘Why aren’t you sprinting?’ Well, I’ve been very clear that I’m working on my climbing. Today was a hilly stage, and I think the legs are in a good place for my goals. I’m happy about that.”
“It would be nice to keep the jersey, but that’s the director’s decision,” added Armitstead. “I haven’t looked at the road book, so I don’t really know what to expect. Tomorrow is certainly hard again and the final stage is probably a sprint.”