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Pro women get back to racing: 'It's all a bit weird and normal at the same time'

Mitchelton-Scott’s Annemiek Van Vleuten celebrates victory at the 2020 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

On Thursday the women’s professional peloton descended on the Spanish city of Pamplona for their first UCI races since February. Riders were eager to get back to competition and test their legs ahead of next week’s Strade Bianche WorldTour race. However on day one, the Classica Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa, after much confusion as to whether the race would actually go ahead, saw only 11 teams actually take to the start line. The race organisers, following UCI protocol, prevented those who had not fulfilled a PCR COVID-19 test from racing. After hastily acquiring the correct testing on Thursday afternoon, the rejected teams, including local Continental team Bizkaia Durango, were able to take part in Friday’s Clasica Navarra.

Naturally, all eyes were on World Champion Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) who, before Thursday, had raced only once this year in her rainbow jersey, winning Omloop Het Neiuwsblaad back in February. 

After winning on Thursday, the Dutch rider said: “I was pretty excited for the race, I think everyone was. It felt like a very long period without racing and it was a bit surreal that it would happen and we could race. I was super excited and really keen. I felt a bit nervous like I normally would for a WorldTour race but I was just excited and also really happy to be back with my team racing, to see the girls and to get into the rhythm after a really long period of training.” 

On the pre-race confusion Van Vleuten commented: “Maybe for some teams it’s a really good wake up call that in cycling we take the coronavirus situation really seriously and that we only want to race when it’s safe, so I was happy that the [race] organisation helped some teams to get tested and they supported teams really well to make sure everyone was tested. But maybe it would also be good for the UCI not to only make protocols but assist race organisation in this situation and how to control and make sure we have a system to make sure everyone is tested.”

Van Vleuten's teammate Lucy Kennedy described her perception of returning to racing saying: “it’s all a bit weird and normal at the same time.”

Despite being somewhat disappointed with her performance, “I had a bit of a shocker actually,” Kennedy said. The Australian, who at 32 years old is only on her third professional season, was pleased with the team’s result. “The ideal way to restart the season, what’s that, back to back victories five months apart? You can’t really complain.”

Despite a promising start to the road season and a consistent string of virtual results, Ella Harris of Canyon-SRAM felt uncertain before Thursday’s race, telling Cyclingnews: “It’s very weird actually. I don’t really know what to expect, I think after today, once we get the first one out of the way it should be a lot better, but going into today it’s a little bit weird and I’m not sure what other people are thinking either but I’m sure we’ve all got similar feelings.”

When the 22-year-old Kiwi, who spent the majority of lockdown in her home town of Dunedin in New Zealand, secured seventh place and best young rider on the day her worries evaporated.

“I felt surprisingly good, I don’t seem to go too well in the heat but I didn’t seem to notice it today," Harris said. "It was a pretty tough race right from the get-go and a few teams weren’t starting but still, all the main players were there… I chose the right moment to attack and bridge across…when we hit the final climb the lights went out for me and it was a solo affair to the line and I was counting down the kilometres.”

Harris’ fellow Canyon-SRAM rider, the Italian Elena Cecchini, who secured eighth place at Friday’s race, also shared her thoughts on the long-awaited return to racing. Describing how the lockdown affected her training she said: “I had quite a long off-season last year because I had six weeks off, and this year my goal was the Ardennes because I wanted to show off my form in that period to be selected for the Olympics…. so [my] peak form was supposed to be during lockdown.”

On her build-up to the newly re-started season, Cecchini commented: “I just came back from Livigno where I spent three weeks at altitude and it’s been very good training but I think these two races are going to be a suffer-fest for me because of the difference in temperature and also because I normally need some time to get back into intensity after altitude. But this is what I wanted to do for the main goals next month and then the Classics in October."

Hannah Barnes, also of Canyon-SRAM, spent lockdown at 2,000m of altitude in Andorra. Describing how she felt before Thursday’s race she said: “It feels a bit like it’s not really happening, you just spend the last four months wondering if the season is ever going to restart so for it to be imminent today its a bit surreal but I’m looking forward to being back with the team and catching up.”

Fellow British rider Lizzie Deignan was sanguine about the confusing start to Thursday’s race.  

“It’s never nice to not know if you’re even racing the day of the race, it wasn’t easy but everyone is in the same boat.” She also expressed positivity about the last few months personally: “I found lockdown quite nice, it just meant I was able to spend a lot of time with my family, we were in the UK so I was able to train outside which was a luxury in comparison to lots of people in Europe so I just felt grateful that I was still able to do that.” 

Of her experience during the race, she commented, “we raced as a team really well, we were really aggressive and always together. I was really happy to be able to climb along with the best climbers in the world, I wasn’t expecting that." 

Deignan’s teammate Ellen van Dijk, who secured 13th and 14th place in the races, described a feeling of “a lot of confusion” ahead of Thursday’s start but that once the racing was underway: “It felt nice to be back together with the team in a race and to have that race feeling again, I’m really happy with how the race went because we raced really well as a team and Elisa was super strong and everybody was doing a really good job.”

Trek-Segafredo secured a podium on Friday, with Italian Elisa Longo Borghini taking second place after narrowly missing the podium the day before. On heading into the ‘new normal’ of racing Borghini commented: “Like everybody, I felt uncertain before the race, but we have a good sports director and she sorted everything out for us and in the end, we managed to race because we had the right tests.”

Danish rider Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, fresh from signing for a further two years with her FDJ team despite having been yet to race a single day with them said she was “crazy excited” to start racing again after what became a nine-month break since last year’s world championships. 

The 24-year-old described how “it all got a bit chaotic” on the morning of Classica Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa once it became evident that a question mark was being raised over the viability of the race in light of COVID-19 protocols. After finishing in 11th place she said of the race: “It’s just fun being back, but so hard being back racing.”

The riders of CCC-Liv were a notable absence from both races, in particular Marianne Vos and the winner of last year’s Classica Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio who was unable to defend her title. 

Speaking from Durango where the riders headed by bike after leaving Pamplona on Thursday, the 33-year-old South African national champion commented: “I believe that CCC-Liv made the right decision, it was certainly not an easy decision to make. We have a very dedicated and active team doctor who has been really proactive and vigilant throughout the pandemic. From the beginning, the team has been tracking our health well and it’s been a huge priority.”

The team, along with the rest of the peloton, are still expected to race Sunday’s Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria.