It has been a quiet month for women’s racing, with the postponement of The Women’s Tour leaving a gap in the calendar, but the calm before the storm is about to end with what’s likely to be a thunderous roar. La Course by Le Tour de France, which in 2021 runs alongside the first stage of the Grand Tour on June 26, is known for its thrilling finishes and this year seems as likely as ever to deliver exciting and aggressive racing.
The 107.4-kilometre course from Brest to Landerneau provides plenty of launching pads for attacks and then there is a finish atop the Côte de la Fosse aux Loups for the field stacked with riders determinedly building to peak form. There could, however, be some unpredictable results, with the racing break making it hard to gauge form and many of the key competitors recently having returned from training at altitude in preparation for two other big racing goals, the Giro d’Italia Donne and the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Still, with most of the biggest names in women’s cycling taking to the start line – 2017 and 2018 winner Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) being the rare exception – the competition is bound to be intense. Read on for the key riders to watch as the race in France unfolds.
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Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo)
- Age: 32
- La Course record: 1st in 2020, 77th in 2019, 2nd in 2017, 4th in 2015 and 94th in 2014
It hasn’t been the best start to the season for the defending champion, with a couple of bouts of illness putting a halt to her winning ways of 2020. Though it looks like the British rider is now back on track, coming second in the opening stage of the Tour de Suisse and then aggressively chasing bonus seconds in the next stage to secure overall victory. It was a morale-boosting effort ahead of the final stretch of training for the important block of races ahead and, while so many of her rivals headed to the mountains, Deignan stayed grounded in Monaco. It’s an approach that she believes has set her up with good form for the race from Brest to Landerneau.
“I feel like training is going really well,” Deignan told Cyclingnews earlier this week. “The racing has gone pretty well too. Obviously, we're still a month out from the Olympics, so I'm hoping that there is still a little bit more to come but, yeah, I'm excited about my form heading into La Course."
Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange)
- Age: 28
- La Course record: 21st in 2018, 40th in 2020
The course is one that definitely suits Brown and it has been one hugely impressive season so far for the 28-year-old Australian who’s embraced the opportunity she’s been given to chase results. Brown, who is in her third season as a professional, took a first Women’s WorldTour win at Brugge-De Panne, also took at stage at Vuelta a Burgos and has been in the top 10 in two thirds of the races she has lined up in this year. She has also stepped on the podium at the end of 6 of her 15 race days. There is, however, a level of unpredictability that comes into play at La Course, as just like most of the field, the racing has been light on in recent weeks and like many Brown has also been breathing in the thin air of the mountains in preparation for the next all important block of racing.
“I've been up at altitude for the past three weeks and it'll be my first race returning, so it's a bit hard to know exactly where my form is at,” Brown told Cyclingnews. “But, I go into every race and try and be competitive, so I'll do the same at La Course. I would be pretty awesome to win such a prestigious race on the women's calendar.”
Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma)
- Age: 34
- La Course record: 2nd in 2020, 1st in 2019, OTL in 2017, 3rd in 2016, 1st in 2014
The only other rider to have won La Course twice is Annemiek van Vleuten and Marianne Vos came ever so close to making it a third victory last year. She would be a fitting final victor for the race as Vos was, after all, among the core group who pushed hard for it to begin with and she also won the very first edition. Given her record at the race, you’d have to say the odds are on her being there in the mix for the win, with the only year she’s been on the start line but didn’t step onto the podium being in 2017, which was very much an edition for the pure climbers.
The finishing climb this year of the Côte de la Fosse aux Loups isn't that long, however it could make it tough, playing to the strengths of other riders like Anna van der Breggen. Still if Vos can hang on, the easing of the gradient in the final 500 metres could help. Her form, too, is a bit of an unknown as the only race we have seen the Jumbo-Visma rider in since Liège-Bastogne-Liège in May was the Dutch National Championships, where she came eighth. However, La Course is clearly a race that means a lot to her so you can be sure she’ll do everything she can to make what could be the last edition count.
Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx)
- Age: 31
- La Course record: 10th in 2019, 2nd in 2018, 1st in 2015, 70th in 2014
Another former winner at La Course, but it has been a couple of years since we have seen Anna van der Breggen on the start line. The gold medallist at the Rio Olympics is making the most of her final year as a professional cyclist, delivering a win rate not far shy of 50 per cent and the uphill finish definitely plays to her strengths.
We saw how quickly the World Champion could punch her way up those steep finishing climbs again on the Mur de Huy this year, when she took her seventh successive win at La Flèche Wallonne. The main question mark, as usual, is whether or not she’ll be the one in her power-packed team the will be going for the win, or if it will be a day for a teammate to take a chance instead.
Demi Vollering (SD Worx)
- Age: 24
- La Course record: 3rd in 2020, 11th in 2019
Demi Vollering is the SD Worx rider most likely to deliver victory at La Course, apart from Van der Breggen, with the Dutch rider having taken third last year, standing on the podium with Deignan and Vos. It was a performance that really made people stand up and take notice of the young rider.
Since then she’s kept the ball rolling, only twice straying from the top ten this season and delivering her first Women’s WorldTour win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which is a good indicator of just how capably she’ll be able to tackle the climbs on the route at La Course.
Also, when she delivered the La Course podium last year, she was racing for Parkhotel Valkenburg so she’ll no doubt benefit from having the strength of SD Worx behind her, plus another year of experience along with the wisdom of a rider like Anna van der Breggen on the course to help her on her way to the line.
Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM)
- Age: 26
- La Course record: 4th in 2020, 13th in 2019, 6th in 2018, 9th in 2017 and 76th in 2016
The wins haven’t been forthcoming for Kasia Niewiadoma this year, or last for that matter, but she’s been getting close with three second places so far in 2021. The most impressive of these, and the one that made her place on the riders to watch list for La Course secure, was at La Flèche Wallonne when she was the only rider that even came close to holding van der Breggen’s wheel on the way up the Mur de Huy.
She too managed to stick to the front last year at La Course, finishing just off the podium. She'll also have a strong team backing her, which includes Elise Chabbey who is fresh off her stage 1 win at the Tour de Suisse and Tiffany Cromwell, an experienced road captain who has been picked to fill that role on the Australian team in the Olympics after a strong showing in the spring.
Cecile Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope)
- Age: 25
- La Course record: 31st in 2020, 3rd in 2019, 4th in 2018, 17th in 2017
There’s no hiding the excitement the crowds and atmosphere of La Course deliver for Cecilie Uttrup-Ludwig and the Dane who races for a French team has already stepped onto the podium once. She comes in with the confidence of a strong season so far, with the majority of her results within the top ten.
To top it off she finally netted that much sought after first Women’s WorldTour win at Vuelta a Burgos. What’s more she came over the line ahead of Niewiadoma and Van der Breggen, who’ll be two solid rivals on Saturday, beating them in a sprint atop a short finishing climb.
Lauren Stephens (TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank)
- Age: 34
- La Course record: 18th in 2020, 7th in 2017 and 80th in 2016
Fresh from winning the road race at the US Pro National Championships, Lauren Stephens flew over to Europe with two key teammates, Kristen Faulkner and Clara Honsinger. The team will be hoping to carry the momentum through from Nationals and Stephens will no doubt be keen to give her new stars and stripes jersey a showing at the front of the field.
Apart from that all important win last week, Stephens hasn’t been near the podium on the road this season, though did deliver a solid top 10 at Gent Wevelgem. However, she’s clearly in a good patch of form, having defended her title at the 100-mile Unbound Gravel race before going on to be crowned the National Champion.
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