With just three points dividing the two main contenders at the start of today's penultimate round of the Women's World Cup in Plouay, France, the competition promises to be the closest for many years. Emma Johansson (Red Sun Cycling) is the current wearer of the jersey since wresting it from the shoulders of chief rival Marianne Vos (DSB Bank - Nederland Bloeit) after taking second in the Montreal, Canada round in May.
The pair have been exchanging the jersey between themselves since Vos beat Johansson in the first round in Cittiglio, Italy in March, only to see the Swede take it from her after winning round three in Drenthe, in April. Victory in La Fleche Wallonne and second at the Tour de Berne saw the Dutch champion take it back, only to see Johansson's strong performances in Sweden and Canada put her in the lead once more.
"Yeah, it's very close; very, very close!" said Johansson.
With the flatter sprinter's course at Nürnberg probably suiting the talents of Vos, the fast rolling roads around Plouay probably suit Johansson just as much as the Dutch champion. "It's a very nice course," said Johansson. "I like racing here but I know that Marianne likes racing here too...it's just going to be nice racing today. I really look forward to it.
"It's going to be like...two races to go and it's going to be a big fight. In one way I really want to win the jersey - like Marianne - but in the end I would race to win and I'm going to do so today - and in Nürnberg also. It's another race and we'll see what happens; if I win then I take the jersey, if I don't then someone else does."
Just two weeks after the final World Cup are the World Championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland. Both Vos and Johansson were protagonists in the closing stages last year and Johansson is confident that her good form this season should continue until then.
"I'm feeling good and always for the Worlds. I'm normally in good shape. I had a rest after the Nationals and I've done some races and it feels good."
Johansson's attack with two kilometres to go in Varese, Italy almost saw her take the rainbow jersey last year, but the Swede was swamped by the rest of the breakaway inside the final few hundred metres and finished outside the medals. Nevertheless, she has no regrets about her decision to go. "It's never good to be fourth," she said, "but still I tried and I lost. But you never know, next time it goes to the end. I prefer trying and losing than never trying at all."
Vos, like Johansson is trying to take each race at a time, but also sees the long term prize of overall victory on the horizon. "No it hasn't been [a big target]," said Vos, "and it isn't - but three points from the lead of course I will try to get the jersey, but first I have to get as many points in this race as I can. I don't think about the jersey in the race, but of course it's close and it's a big prize - the World Cup - so..."
This year's World Cup couldn't be more different than last year's competition, which was all but decided in the favour of a dominant Judith Arndt (Columbia-HTC). Vos sees the competition going to the wire as a real positive. "It's better [like this]," she said, "it's good for the race and good for women's cycling. It's nice to get that much rivalry."
Like Johansson, Vos also has one eye on Mendrisio and hopes to go one better than her silver medal of last year. Despite racing a much fuller road programme this season, she, too, feels confident that she can hold her form long enough. "I feel good this year - really good," she said. "I felt good in April and I feel good now, and I hope it will last until September."
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