Photographs of the peloton taken at The Women’s Tour are invariably framed by large crowds on either side of the road. About 300,000 spectators watch the race each year, and, like almost all events involving large numbers of people, it was first cancelled in 2020 and then postponed in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it finds itself in unfamiliar October rather than its customary June berth.
Such roadside support is just one of the reasons why the Women’s Tour has rapidly emerged as one of the most important races within women’s cycling. It is normally lauded as one of the most progressive and innovative races on the calendar as the organisers, Sweetspot, have taken actions to improve gender equality such as by matching the prize money to its male counterpart race-the Tour of Britain. In February, the organisers announced further steps to increase the profile of women’s cycling by offering live coverage of the race through a five-year deal with Eurosport GCN.
The build-up to this year’s race, however, has been undergirded by disappointment following the announcement that the organisers are, after all, unable to provide live coverage. Hinting at the continuing economic impact of the pandemic, the organisers were unable to meet the increased costs associated with live coverage in the current climate, despite their previous commitment to do so and live coverage of the men’s race. Instead, the race will be covered by a nightly highlights programme broadcast by ITV4 in the UK and Eurosport GCN internationally.
Previous editions have witnessed exciting racing, with the overall podium often separated by seconds rather than minutes. Marianne Vos (then Rabo-Liv) won the inaugural Women’s Tour in 2014, collecting three stage victories as she dominated the race. Vos was unable to participate the following year due to injury and her title was claimed by Lisa Brennauer (then Velocio-SRAM).
2016 saw the first of Lizzie Deignan’s (Trek-Segafredo) two overall victories; her second arrived three years later in 2019. Sandwiched in between were wins for Kasia Niewiadoma (then WM3 Pro Cycling), the only rider under the age of 25 to have won the race, in 2017 and Coryn Rivera (then Team Sunweb) in 2018.
This year, the Women’s Tour has once again attracted a peloton packed with some of the sport’s biggest stars, including both the reigning road and time trial world champions for the first time since 2016.
Who to watch
Elisa Balsamo (Valcar-Travel & Service) The newly crowned world road race champion will be starting her first Women’s Tour in her first outing wearing the rainbow bands. Balsamo has enjoyed a successful season, even before winning the world championships, finishing third in Scheldeprijs and fourth in Gent-Wevelgem. As she showed by the manner in which she won the World Championships, Balsamo has a formidable sprint that should be well suited to the terrain visited by the Women’s Tour this year.
Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo)- The Brit is the only rider to have won this race twice, and she will start this year’s edition as the defending champion, and fresh from her historic victory at Paris-Roubaix Femmes. While last season she won La Course and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and finished first in the Women’s WorldTour individual rankings, 2021 has proved to be a quieter year for Deignan. Nonetheless, she has always excelled on her home roads. Besides her pair of overall victories at the Women’s Tour, Deignan won the 2017 Women’s Tour de Yorkshire and the first stage of 2015 Women’s Tour, suggesting that she will feature heavily in this race.
Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM)- Returning to racing following a crash in August at the Simac Ladies Tour, Wiebes will have plenty of opportunities to return to full fitness given the multitude of sprint opportunities on the course. Before crashing, she had accumulated ten victories this season, and so it will be fascinating to see whether she can recapture this form again. Wiebes has never raced the Women’s Tour though she has experienced plenty of success on British roads, winning the 2019 Prudential RideLondon Classique and opening stage of Tour de Yorkshire in 2019.
Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo)- Following a month in which she has become the European road race champion and world time trial champion, van Dijk displayed her sparkling new European Champion's jersey for the first time at Paris-Roubaix last weekend, and was expected to wear her new world champion's jersey for the first time in the time trial at the Women's Tour. She was in peak condition and a favourite for the race, but a crash at Roubaix has resulted in a concussion and she was forced to stay home to recover.
Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM)- The Polish rider's third in the women’s road race at the World Championships last week and formidable record in the Women’s Tour, meant she was also on our list of riders to watch, but it looks like her intention to take part in the race has been forced to change after a crash during the early stages of the Paris-Roubaix Femmes. She hurt her knee and said on social media that "season 2021 is officially over for me".
Situated in the south-east and midlands of the UK, this year’s route covers a total distance of 535 kilometres with 4,846m of elevation gain. It is divided into five road stages and, for the first time in the race’s history, one individual time-trial.
Stage 1: Bicester- Banbury, 147.6km
This year’s Grand Départ will take place in central Bicester on Monday, October 4. The peloton will then head through central Oxford and an intermediate sprint at Culham (40.6km) before turning north again towards Banbury. On this section of the course, they will tackle the race’s first categorised climb at Iron Down Hill which lies at the entrance to the finishing circuit. Another short climb, the Sibford Ferris, will be scaled twice as the peloton completes two laps of the finishing circuit, while in between is an intermediate sprint at Bloxham (123.5km) . Though these late complications may disrupt the peloton’s rhythm, the opening stage seems likely to end in a bunch sprint.
Stage 2: Walsall-Walsall, 103km
Beginning at the Walsall Arboretum, a large Victorian park, Stage 2 will be a kermesse-esque circuit race just outside the town. The Barr Beacon climb, 1.2 kilometres long with a maximum gradient of 5.7 per cent, will provide the primary obstacle on the 10-kilometre circuit, with Queen of the Mountains points available on laps five, seven and nine. Continued action is guaranteed throughout the day since there will be intermediate sprints at Barr Common on laps four, six and eight. The organisers expect the final ascent of Barr Beacon to perhaps act as a launchpad for a late attack, since the summit is only 6.5 largely downhill kilometres from the finish line.
Stage 3: Atherstone-Atherstone, 16.6km
Stage 3 will be the first individual time trial held after the 2021 World Championships, and so it will offer the first opportunity for van Dijk to race in the rainbow bands this season. It is a course that suits her too, taking place on largely flat roads, though it is quite technical and packed with sharp bends. Starting from Atherstone town centre on Long Street, the riders will venture into the surrounding Warwickshire countryside before re-entering the town and finishing in the Market Square.
Stage 4: Shoeburyness- Southend-on-Sea, 117.5km
Much of the route this year is unchanged from the ill-fated 2020 race; Stage 4 marks the only departure from the original plans. Inspired by racing on the flatlands of Belgium and the Netherlands, it will traverse the Essex coastline. This similarly flat stage is expected to end in a sprint finish on the seafront at Westcliff and features intermediate sprints at Burnham-on-Crouch (50.7km) and Woodham Ferrers (92.3km). Just one climb protrudes out of the flat profile- Hambro Hill which lies 12 kilometres from the finish- but is unlikely to alter the normally doomed fate of a breakaway chased by sprint trains on a flat stage.
Stage 5: Colchester-Clacton-on-Sea, 95.5km
Stage 5 will be the first time that the Women’s Tour visits Colchester and the town will also host next year’s Grand Départ. Clacton-on-Sea, on the other hand, is a familiar finish at the Women’s Tour. In 2014, Marianne Vos won from a bunch sprint while Jolien D’hoore (Wiggle Honda) repeated the same feat the following year. Three climbs are scattered on the route in between these two towns- Tenpenny Hill (18.7km), Manningtree (65.1km), and Tenpenny Hill (82.3km) again as the riders retrace their pedal-strokes from earlier in the day. The intermediate sprints will be contested at Holland-on-Sea (36.1km) and Mistley (61.9km), before the peloton hurtles towards Clacton-on-Sea.
Stage 6: Haverhill- Felixstowe, 155km
The last stage of the Women’s Tour is also the longest of this year’s race. Beginning in Haverhill, the course meanders through the Suffolk countryside towards Felixstowe where the overall winner will be crowned. There will be two final opportunities to collect Queen of the Mountains points at Skate’s Hill (30.2km) and Clopton Hill (113km), as well two final intermediate sprints at Long Melford (38km) and Needham Market (91km). Given the largely flat nature of the course, the bonus seconds available at these intermediate sprints will offer the last opportunities to make inroads in the general classification before the final sprint.
What to Expect
With the absence of the mountains that shape other stage races on the Women’s WorldTour such as the Giro d’Italia Donne, the Women’s Tour offers a much more open race with narrow margins between the overall contenders. Indeed, in 2019, Deignan took victory by a paltry two seconds.
Many of the available time gains arrive in the form of time bonuses at the finish line and intermediate sprints, offering opportunities for sprinters or punchier riders to advance up the general classification. Each of the previous overall winners has won at least one stage, advancing into the race lead due to the accompanying bonus seconds, and so those riders in possession of a powerful sprint should do well on this course.
Fatigue will also play an important role in determining the overall winner. The Women’s Tour’s position in early October means that it arrives following an intensive block of racing that has included the European Championships, World Championships and the first ever women’s Paris-Roubaix. This introduces a stronger element of unpredictability into the race, as the peloton begins to taper off its form towards the end of the season, creating more opportunities for exciting racing.
Since the race is part of the Women’s WorldTour calendar, all nine top-tier teams will participate, along with other continental teams. The following teams will form the peloton at the 2021 Women’s Tour.
- Alé BTC Ljubljana (Italy)
- AWOL O’Shea (Great Britain)
- CAMS-Basso Bikes (Great Britain)
- Canyon SRAM Racing (Germany)
- Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling (Germany)
- Drops-Le Col s/b TEMPUR. (Great Britain)
- FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope (France)
- Liv Racing (Netherlands)
- Movistar Team (Spain)
- Parkhotel Valkenburg (Netherlands)
- SD Worx (Netherlands)
- Team BikeExchange (Australia)
- Team DSM (Germany)
- Team TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank (USA)
- Trek-Segafredo (USA)
- Valcar-Travel & Service (Italy)
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