Leah Kirchmann: Longer races don't necessarily make for better racing

A few weeks ago, Team Sunweb and I took part in what I consider to be one of the highlights of the season, the OVO Energy Women's Tour in the UK. With this being the fourth edition of the race, they did not disappoint, making it even bigger and better than before. The British crowds were as enthusiastic as ever, with the race routes absolutely packed with fans. I find cycling in the UK is insanely popular, cyclists are even in the tabloids! The race organisers did a great job engaging the next generation and having young kids help present the teams on the podium at sign-in each day.

This is an event that is not afraid to challenge the women. In case you missed hearing about it at the start of the season, the UCI changed the women's maximum race distance from 140 km to 160 km, and the average stage race length from 120 km to 140 km. I thought this was a positive move on the part of the UCI as it demonstrates their belief in women's endurance abilities. The original distance rule was arbitrary to begin with, comparable to when women weren't allowed to run further than 800 metres because it was thought that anything longer was dangerous to women's health (science and sport have come a long way!).

I am absolutely in support of removing arbitrary limitations, however, I do not think longer races necessarily make for better racing. Longer races can sometimes neutralise early action, as we see sometimes in men's racing. Short races can be more unpredictable and harder to control, with teams racing more aggressively right off the start. The Women's Tour maximized the new distance rules for the first four stages, then finished with a 1.5 hour circuit race in central London. After four hard days, the short, fast, and technical race in London was just as hard, if not harder, than the long distance days!

The racing was dynamic and exciting on every stage. Kasia Niewiadoma (WM3) pulled off an impressive overall win after taking a solo victory on the first stage with a sizable margin. Even after losing her team captain Marianne Vos to a broken clavicle after a crash on Stage 3, Kasia rode strong to defend her position. It was certainly a well-deserved victory after so many podium finishes this season.

For our team, Ellen Van Dijk showed she is a sprinter too, coming away with two 3rd place finishes after some really tough days. A highlight for me was spending all day in the breakaway on Stage 4. The hilliest and most challenging stage on paper, everyone expected this to be the day for big GC changes. I was up the road in a small early break to assist Ellen later on when it was expected the attacks would come from the favourites. It was a bit of a surprise when that group never arrived, and the breakaway group I was a part of made it to the finish line with a mere 15 seconds to spare.

A tactical mistake cost me the opportunity to properly contest the stage win, but I am satisfied with my first WT podium of the season. It would have been even sweeter if I could have achieved a GC podium for the team as well, but sometimes the legs just aren't there after a week of really tough racing. In the end it was 5th and a 4th place overall in the general classification for Ellen and myself respectively.

I left the OVO Energy race with a feeling of some unfinished business, one day I would love to win a stage, and my other goal is to nail the left-handed feed. Despite my best efforts, after four editions of the Women's Tour, I have still not mastered this skill. Why is it so hard?! Maybe next year will be the year…

The next big World Tour stage race on the calendar is the Giro Rosa, the only women's Grand Tour and the longest race on the calendar at 10 days long. I have fond memories of the race last year, as I surprised myself with a victory in the prologue and had the privilege of wearing the pink leader's jersey for the first stage. I won't be racing in Italy this year, but I will certainly be cheering very loudly for Team Sunweb all the way from Canada! 

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