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Leah Kirchmann blog: The changing face of La Course

The topic on everyone's mind at the moment is of course the Tour de France, cycling's most iconic race on the calendar. Anyone who followed the race knows that the Team Sunweb men absolutely crushed it this year, leaving the Tour with four stage wins and the polka-dot jersey, green jersey, as well as the most combative prize. It was so inspiring to watch, and made me proud to be part of a team that uses strong core values as a guiding force.

The team truly lives and breathes the “Keep-Challenging” motto, inviting input from all members of the organisation with the goal to continually progress the individual, team and sport of cycling. Evidence of teamwork was strong in every stage, with every rider and staff member contributing to those victories along the way. Having access to the same resources as the men gives me even more confidence in our preparation for races throughout the season.

The women were also part of the Tour this year, however following a different format than in past editions. For the past three years, La Course by Le Tour de France has featured a circuit race on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. I still remember the magic I felt standing on the Champs-Élysées at the first edition of the race in 2014.

The lead-up to the event was huge, starting out with a petition for the ASO to include women in the Tour de France. It turns out a lot of people are interested in women's cycling, as the petition quickly garnered over 100,000 signatures. This was enough to schedule a meeting between the Tour Entier group of women (Marianne Vos, Kathryn Bertine, Chrissie Wellington, and Emma Pooley) and the ASO, where La Course was born.

I was racing for US-based Optum Pro Cycling back in 2014. It was a big deal for the team to receive an invitation to compete, and it took a large investment to get the team over to Europe for the event. I channeled my nervous energy into the race and surprised a lot of people that year sprinting onto the podium in third place. The response and media attention for that podium finish was overwhelming, and made me aware of the Tour de France's worldwide reach. I didn't win the race, but I woke up the next day to a congratulatory tweet from the Prime Minister of Canada and interview requests from every major mainstream media outlet.

Racing on the Champs-Élysées is magical, but I think many people thought it would be a step towards something bigger in the future. It is difficult to demonstrate our full strength and tactical capabilities on such a course. The 2015 edition offered viewers some crash-filled entertainment as three-quarters of the peloton went down on the rain soaked slick roads, but asides from that, the circuit is not technical or challenging enough to allow for dynamic racing.

Our wish came true for a more challenging course this year, with La Course - Col d'Izoard edition. The race also announced a second pursuit stage a couple days later for the top 20 riders finishing within 5 minutes of the leader. The details were unclear, but I kept an open mind to the new format. At only 67 km, with the final 14 km up a climb, it was clear the best climbers would battle for victory up l'Izoard.

Despite the probability of a climber victory, teams raced aggressively from the first kilometer, with a reduced peloton approaching the final ascent. Riders faltered one by one, until the very best were left at the front. Annemiek Van Vleuten (Orica-Scott) demonstrated her incredible form, attacking with five kilometres to go, winning by a convincing margin. I still have people asking me if she is alive after her terrifying Rio crash, so finally the world can see that she is in fact alive, and crushing us all! Turns out, she even posted the third fastest Strava time of men and women in her winning ascent. Of course it's not a direct comparison since we didn't have three weeks of racing in the legs, but it is still impressive!

Drawing strength from the thousands of people cheering us up the mountain, I suffered to a decent 15th place finish, just behind my teammate Sabrina Stultiens who finished 14th. This was enough to qualify us both for the new pursuit race in Marseille.

The format was unique, with the start order and time gaps determined by the finish on the Col d'Izoard. This meant Sabrina and I had to start nearly five minutes behind Van Vleuten on a 22km course. With drafting permitted, a lot of riders realized the only chance in making up time was to work together. Even with rider cooperation, the time gaps were simply too big to bring about any real change to the end results.

Our team took the race seriously, even with the creative format. We previewed the course, did a proper TT warm up, and thought strategically about our tactics for the race. This was going to be broadcast around the world after all and we wanted to make the best of the event, as it was still an opportunity to showcase women's cycling.

It was an incredible feeling starting in the massive Orange Velodrome and being cheered on by the crowds in Marseille, but this format ultimately did not lead to a very exciting race. Maybe the slowest riders should start first? Or smaller time gaps based on finish order? I'm not opposed to new formats and ideas to modernize and improve the sport, but this idea did not work well and in my opinion should not be repeated without some changes.

I really think adding a multi-day women's stage race would enhance the Tour de France as a whole, offering more fan entertainment, reaching a larger audience around the world, and inspiring a new generation of female athletes. There were over one million viewers in France alone watching the women's race on the Col d'Izoard, so the interest is clearly there.

My ideal vision for a women's Tour de France would be a four to five day event, a few stages in the mountains, a time trial stage and a finish with a circuit race on the Champs-Elysees. I hope the ASO can see the value women's cycling has to offer, and will continue to develop and improve La Course. The Tour de France is magical, and my hope is that one day little girls can dream of wearing a maillot jaune on the streets of Paris.

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Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada it was always my dream to race in Europe. Two years ago, my dream came true. In this, and future posts, I will be giving you insight into my experiences racing in the European peloton with Team Sunweb.