The open expanses of desert at the Ladies Tour of Qatar are an ideal testing ground ahead of the spring classics, and in that regard, Lizzie Armitstead (Boels Dolmans) can be pleased with how she navigated the crosswinds on stage 1 to Mesaieed.
The British champion was alert to the danger when the race split up with 55 kilometres to go and she was a prominent member of a leading group that featured many of her likely adversaries at the Tour of Flanders on April 6. Armitstead lies in 4th place overall ahead of stage 2 in Qatar, but admitted that any success at this early point in the season would be something of a bonus.
"We have six weeks of Classics and I want to be on top form all the way through, so that's why I'm here really. I haven't done Qatar in a few years, so it's good to get a head start and get back racing a bit sooner," Armitstead told Cyclingnews in Doha before the stage began.
"It's just good to be here and see where you are ahead of the next few weeks of training really. I'm not an out and out sprinter, so it's going to be very difficult for me to win this race but it's a race environment and race speed, and you can't replicate that in training. If you don't do this race, you're already starting behind some of the girls who are here."
Indeed, Armitstead spent much of her 2013 campaign dealing with another kind of disadvantage, as she suffered a season plagued by recurring illness, and it was October before she was able to pinpoint the problem. Although the year yielded another British championship and a string of placings at the Route de France, the Otley native admitted that it was almost a relief to be diagnosed with a hiatus hernia at the end of the season.
"I knew I had a problem but I didn't have time to fix it really because I was going from race to race," Armitstead said. "I decided after the season to really find out what was wrong and, now it's better: I've had a good winter and it's been a nice change to have a good rest. I really needed it. I've been able to train well and I haven't had any problems this winter, and that's made a big difference."
While the spring Classics are the target for Armitstead in the opening part of the year, she is already looking to objectives on home roads further down the line. The inaugural women's Tour of Britain (May 7-11) will be the centrepiece of Armitstead's season, and she also has designs on riding both the track and the road at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
To that end, Armitstead raced on the track in the Revolutions series in Manchester at the weekend, but ruled out any notion that her return to the boards might extend to the 2016 Olympic Games. "They have the scratch and points race on the Commonwalth Games programme, and I really like bunch racing, so I want to give myself a good chance to make the England team there," she said. "It's a bit of fun and it's nice to show my face again on the track."
The establishment of the Tour of Britain is indicative of the burgeoning state of women's cycling in her home country, even if it should be noted, too, that Armitstead, who won Britain's first medal at the London Olympics, plies her trade on a Dutch team. No matter, Armitstead is glad of the chance to race on home roads, and is confident that the event will prove to be a sporting and financial success.
"I think they are seeing the opportunity and realising that it is time to invest in women's cycling. It is a growing business at the end of the day, and I think it's a really positive step and the whole of the women's peloton is pretty excited," she said. "And I'm really proud that it starts in Britain."
While there are understandable hopes that the women's Tour of Britain can eventually grow into one of the most important races on the calendar, the question remains, of course, as to whether the much-lamented Tour de France Féminin can be revived. ASO's recent announcement of La Course, a women's race on the Champs-Élysées on the final day of the Tour, is certainly a step in the right direction. Armitstead acknowledged that having a race linked to cycling's most recognisable brand can only raise the profile of the women's peloton.
"I think being attached to a men's race definitely helps a women's race, but it doesn't have to be," Armitstead said. "In terms of publicity, though, it just makes everything easier because the media is already there. I think it's a great step that the Tour de France is having that race, but I don't think it's realistic at this point to ask for a three-week Tour. To have one race at the culmination of the Tour while the media is still there, there's going to be massive excitement and I think it's great."