The spotlight will soon turn to the Tour de France Femmes and just like when a women's edition of the French Grand Tour last ran between 1984 and 1989, there is a strong Australian contingent with ambition for both stage victories and the overall.
Back then it was an Australian national team lining up, with riders including Olympic gold medallist Kathy Watts, current AusCycling Director of Pathways Donna Rae-Szalinski and Elizabeth Hepple, who finished onthe overall podium in 1988. This time, the riders from the nation will be spread across a variety of professional teams, with the biggest contingent, not surprisingly, expected to come from BikeExchange-Jayco.
That Australian-based professional team is also the home to one of the biggest overall hopes, in Amanda Spratt. She has long been considered one of the nation's top stage racers and looks the most likely immediate potential successor to Hepple now that a women's Tour de France has returned, but after health problems it is a pursuit that will have to wait for a later edition.
Though, it's not just about the overall and the nation has certainly has other options for results in the tour from July 24 to 31. These include BikeExchange-Jayco's Alexandra Manly and Ruby Roseman-Gannon in the sprints to the enormous break potential of Grace Brown (FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope) and Rachel Neylan (Cofidis).
Cyclingnews has taken a closer look at the eight Australian riders expected to be lining up in Paris.
Amanda Spratt (BikeExchange-Jayco)
As a rider who has twice been third overall at the Giro d'Italia Donne Amanda Spratt is an obvious hope for a top GC result, but it hasn’t been the easiest couple of seasons or so for the rider. Spratt had to grapple with a period of unexplained underperformance before it was ultimately discovered that she had Iliac artery endofibrosis. Though, now she has had surgery to address the issue and some time to recover and rebuild the racing form.
The signs were good through the early stages of this year’s Italian Grand Tour that Spratt was once again becoming a rider that can have ambitions to compete with the world’s best on the toughest terrain, though then she had to make an early COVID-19 induced departure. It wasn’t the ideal rebuild scenario but, if the coronavirus hadn't set her back too much, the Tour de France Femmes could have been the perfect opportunity for her kick-start that lost momentum once again. It seems, though, that it took a significant toll with Spratt saying in a team statement: "Unfortunately it knocked me out good so I had 11 days where I couldn’t train. I’ve just started again now. This of course has had a big impact on what my original goals were at Tour de France, so I will just take it day by day and hope to ride into it and be the best support possible for my team."
Hopefully next year it will be an altogether different scenario.
Grace Brown (FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope)
The Tour de France Femmes is a race that could hardly be more important to any team in the peloton, given all the prestige and media that comes along with the chase for yellow, but being in a squad from the home-nation adds a whole new degree of brightness to the spotlight. Grace Brown has serious potential in the breaks with the ability to use punchy climbs to launch and then her time trial prowess to continue distancing her rivals, however her French team, FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope, have broader goals.
The team led by Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, with an impressive back-up plan in Marta Cavalli, have every reason to set the sights on the GC podium, and perhaps even yellow, with a dual assault to try and overcome favourite Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar). That means Brown may have a considerable amount of work to do for her teammates, which could limit her chances to go for stage wins. Still, the French team always knows how to inject some excitement and daring into a race so even if yellow is in play, Brown could still be an aggressor.
Rachel Neylan (Cofidis)
Rachel Neylan is one of those riders who has looks made to go on the attack in this tour. The 40-year-old who took silver at the World Championships road race in 2012, is leading a team at Cofidis that again will be carrying all the excitement of home-nation attention. This French team, though, will be focussed far more strongly on stage victories, particularly with Clara Koppenburg not lining up to try for GC after a crash at the Giro d'Italia Donne. Neylan, of course, will be a prime candidate to chase a top result when it comes to the breaks, while she'll be doing her bit to try and launch teammates on the sprint stages.
Having got through the bronchitis and COVID-19 that interrupted the earlier part of the season, Neylan looks to have been working into some powerful form with a strong performance in the break at the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenges Femmes before handing over to teammate Koppenburg who came second. She is prepared too, with a solid block of training behind her and reconnaissance done. Stage 3 to Epernay and stage 4, which includes gravel, look to be two days where it could pay to keep a particularly close watch on the red and white clad Australian.
Ruby Roseman-Gannon (BikeExchange-Jayco)
It was a stellar start to Ruby Roseman-Gannon's first season as a professional when she won the Bay Crits, netted the national criterium title and took overall victory at the Santos Festival of Cycling in Australia. There the neo-pro proved she was quick in a dash to the finish, and could hold on through the punchy climbs, so she is potentially a rider at play in some of the stages that burn off pure sprinters and end in a reduced bunch.
What will be really interesting to see at this Tour de France Femmes is how Roseman-Gannon fares on the longer ascents, after all she's listed on the team website as a climber not a sprinter. She'd likely be in a support role for GC prospects, Amanda Spratt and Kristen Faulkner, when the gradients kick up but could be a valuable asset if she can hang in there as long as possible on some crucial climbing stages. This could be a Tour where spectators and rivals alike find out a lot more about what this recent addition to the pro-peloton could be capable of in the years to come.
Alexandra Manly (BikeExchange-Jayco)
Alexandra Manly is another one of those riders where you feel like we may have just seen the tip of the iceberg. Even though she's been missing from the pro peloton for a couple of seasons, focussed on the track, the 26 year old has already had five seasons with the Australian team and, while she's perfected the role of valuable teammate, has also shown she can also step up and shoulder the responsibility of leadership with her four stages and GC win at the Lotto Thüringen Ladies Tour.
Like Roseman-Gannon, Manly is not a rider to be pigeonholed. A true all-rounder when it comes to both terrain and roles. She can be the selfless teammate, take charge, sprint and even hang in there on some decent climbs, recently coming fifth in the Black Mountain summit finish at the Women's Tour to secure fourth overall.
Nicole Frain (Parkhotel Valkenburg)
The jersey of the Australian champion wasn't expected to be seen much in Europe this year when the title went to the domestically-based Nicole Frain, who at the time was riding for versatile Australian-based women's squad Roxsolt Liv-SRAM. However, when a mid-season opportunity to join Parkhotel Valkenburg came after a short European racing trip with her Roxsolt team, all of a sudden the national champion was ushered onto the world's biggest stage, er debut race for Parkhotel Valkenburg being none other than the Tour de France Femmes.
Frain is an aggressive and determined rider, who seems ever more motivated to grab her opportunities with both hands, so don't be surprised to see her in an ambitious break. Plus she'll be an easy rider to spot if she does jump off the front, as it's hard to miss a rider wearing those green and gold stripes.
Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM)
Road captain for Canyon-SRAM, the experienced Tiffany Cromwell's success at the Tour de France Femmes will likely be measured in the results of her teammates rather than her own. The rider from Adelaide will be supporting Kasia Niewiadoma and Pauliena Rooijakkers in their GC aspirations. She has 13 Giro d'Italia Donne starts to her name so knows her way around a long stage race, plus is seasoned and adept when it comes to managing the media attention and spotlight. That means she'll have plenty to offer her teammates both on and off the bike.
As far as just how far the team can go Cromwell said: "“I think we’re going in with an open plan, because we’re also realistic. We have some strong cards for GC, but are we an out-an-out favourite? Probably on paper, no. Could we podium? Maybe, on a very very good Tour, that could be our goal. And of course in an incredible, ‘everything goes our way’ race, yes, we could win, but it’s about being realistic.”
Anya Louw (AG Insurance-NXTG)
Anya Louw is another mid-season signing from among those who stood on the top step of the podium at the 2022 Australian National Road Championships. Louw took both the U23 time trial and criterium titles, finally breaking through to the top step of the podium at National Championships – a task made all the more difficult for being a contemporary of Sarah Gigante.
Louw had been racing with ARA Pro Racing Sunshine Coast but made the switch mid-season to AG Insurance-NXTG, which received a wildcard entry to the Tour de France Femmes. It's not exactly a low pressure introduction for the 21 year-old to her new team, the youngest in the race, but what a way for the rider from Devonport to start.
Cyclingnews will have live coverage of all eight stages of the Tour de France Femmes along with race reports, galleries, results, and exclusive features and news.
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