Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why Women Race

Some people are driven by fancy things, some by fame and others by fortune.  What is the driving force behind the women in cycling at the highest level?


There is hardly anything fancy about life on the road as a female cyclist.  Most of the time while racing we stay in hostels where you are considered fortunate to have a full complement which includes a pillow, sheets and a towel (usually at least one of these is missing in action).  Internet connection, usually only strong enough to use Whatsapp or BBM, is the ultimate bonus.  The dining hall is a whole other story.  Apart from having to drink your coffee from a bowl, which would give my Mom a heart attack if she ever had to witness me doing that, we get yelled at daily by the food staff for taking a yogurt and a fruit or a piece of cheese and a salad.  This usually turns into a funny game of who can get away with taking more than what we are allowed without getting caught.

 After the race we do not retreat to a five star bus but we are lucky if there is a shower within a 5km radius designated for us to use.  Warm water is a luxury I am yet to experience after a race. 

What is it about this group of women that I race with week in and week out that turn all this into something to laugh about rather than to constantly complain about it?


In other team sports like soccer or hockey it is not only the person/(s) scoring the goal/(s) that get a medal or a podium position.  The entire team gets to celebrate together on the podium with medals around their necks or by holding some championship trophy.  As far as I know cycling is the only sport in the Olympic Games that is considered a “team” sport with multiple people working together to accomplish something but where only one teammate gets a medal. 

In cycling only the teammate crossing the line first gets celebrated on the podium and only one teammate gets to wear the leader’s jersey.  Most of the time an average domestique on a cycling team go about working for the team leader or sprinter on the day without much recognition from the outside.  This is a normal day in the office for the majority of the women in the professional bunch. 

Stark contrast between the podium celebrations for two team sports (field hockey and cycling)
Apart from the recognition and fame mainly being reserved for the top riders on a team, the lack of coverage for the sport of women’s cycling does not do us any favours either.  I have been a bit amazed by the surprised reactions of people after witnessing the level of racing seen on TV during the Olympic Road Race for women.  There are a lot of reasons why women’s racing is interesting and sometimes more entertaining than that of the men (perhaps a topic for another blog post).  This level of racing is not just reserved for the televised events like the Olympics and World Championships.  I just never realized before that we were probably the only ones who know just how exciting our racing really is. 

What is it about this group of women that keep them driven and motivated to contribute to the success of the team through the vast periods of no individual glory and little recognition?


I did a bit of research last night on the minimum prize money requirements for races as well as the minimum rider salary requirements for both men and women at the top level of the sport.  These are being set forth by the UCI which is the international cycling governing body.

For one day racing I looked at La Fleche Wallonne, a World Tour race for men and World Cup race for women held on the same day in Belgium.  I used the 9 day Giro Donne (most prestigious women’s stage race) and compared it to the Giro d’Italia for men and also looked at HC level tours for men.  Here is a summary of the differences in prize money between the women and the men:

Full document found here:

Here is a summary of the minimum rider salary requirements:

From this it should be pretty obvious that most women are definitely not in the sport for the money.  I can only imagine that it must be a lot easier to sacrifice yourself in a race if you are well compensated for your efforts and when you know that there will be some kind of a reward in it for you personally.  The level we race at is shockingly high for a sport where there is no real financial incentive (prize money, bonus, etc) to perform.

If it is not to pay the bills to a million dollar mansion like some of our male counterparts what is it that keeps women racing at the highest level?


With the lack of common motivators for success such as fancy things, fame and fortune what is it that keeps women on bikes racing at the highest level?  What keeps women motivated to give a 100% effort for a teammate or the greater goal of the team?  Why do women pursue a dream of achieving something great?

I have not been racing at the highest level for very long so I am no expert but during the few months racing in Europe I have come to some conclusions.  Some teams outperform expectations while others just do not work well together.  What gets results is a tightly knit team with camaraderie that is a direct result only of the utmost respect for one another.  I am surrounded daily by a special group of women that ride purely out of love and passion for the sport.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Race Report: Route de France Feminine UCI 2.1 Tour

Race Report:  Route de France Feminine UCI 2.1 Tour

After nine days of being in the same basic routine of racing, eating, sleeping and travelling the days get somewhat blurred together but some really great memories remain that stand out from the rest. 

Spending so much time on the road together it is nice to get to know some of the other riders in the bunch.  Almost every woman in professional cycling has an interesting story worth telling of how they ended up at this point in their lives.  To keep things fun and entertaining along the way we made up well suited nicknames for many riders in the bunch.  In an effort not to get ridden off the road at our next race these will stay within our team for now J

During the 9 days of racing from the North to the East of France we covered a total of 930km.  The first 6 stages were mostly flat and somewhat windy and then we headed east for the final 3 hilly stages.  Here is a quick recap of all the stages.

Stage 1:  Saint Pol Sur Mer, 5.1km Prologue

The race started in the harbour city of Dunkerque in the north of France.  This city with a lot of war history, which includes World War II battles, again saw a battle for supremacy on its streets during the 5.1km prologue.  This time around it was not just a fight between Spain, Netherlands, England and France but rather a battle between 10 UCI Teams from all over the globe as well as the French and US National Teams.  It was the Belarusian, Alena Amialiusik, from the Be Pink team that walked away with the yellow jersey just 2 seconds ahead of the American, Evelyn Stevens of Team Specialized-Lululemon.

1.       Alena Amialiusik, Be Pink (Belarusia)

2.       Evelyn Stevens, Team Specialized-Lululemon (USA)

3.       Kristin McGrath, US National Team (USA)
Dunkerque harbour and the view from our hotel room

Stage 2:  Dunkerque to Noeux Les Mines, 102.4km

This stage marked the biggest highlight of the tour for me with teammate Cherise Taylor doing an astounding job by winning the stage in a bunch sprint.  What a feeling!  Cherise has proven once again that she is in a class of her own amongst the South African women when it comes to battling it out in a sprint for the line in Europe.  Teammate Ann Sophie Duyck was in a solo break for 65km from the start of the race and was awarded the prize for the most aggressive rider on the day for her brave effort.  Two teammates on the podium was not a bad start to the tour for the team.  Alena Amialiusik remained in yellow after the stage.

1.       Cherise Taylor, Lotto Belisol (South Africa)

2.       Chloe Hosking, Team Specialized-Lululemon (Australia)

3.       Olena Andruk, Vaiano Tepso (Ukrain)
Podium after stage 1 with Cherise Taylor and Ann Sophie Duyck

Stage 3:  Noeux Les Mines to Tergnier, 130.7km

I have learnt in cycling to expect the unexpected.  Today was no different.  On a flat, windy and rainy stage (not my favourite racing conditions by any means) I end up in a break after countless attacks in the gutter sections.  Seeing a break go with two riders from strong teams I jumped across (ok it was more like dragged myself over to them).  After taking a minute to catch my breath we worked well together to establish a lead over the chasing bunch.  We were away for about 10 minutes when 4 more riders bridged the gap.  At any given time there were only about 4 of us contributing to the break but knowing that we could gain valuable seconds in the general classification standings I put in a 100% effort.  Gaining as much time as possible was more important to me than saving energy for the sprint.  Knowing that I probably was not going to be able to climb with the best riders in the race these would prove to be important seconds when we got to the mountain stages.  We finished 1:39 ahead of the chasing bunch with the Dutch rider, Lucinda Brand, from the AA Drink team crossing the line 1st.  Amanda Miller from the US National Team took over the yellow jersey.  After finishing 6th in the break I moved up into 7th on the general classification.

1.        Lucinda Brand, AA Drink (Netherlands)

2.       Inga Cilvinaita, Diadora-Pasta Zara (Lithuania)

3.       Silvia Valsecchi, Be Pink (Italy)

Stage 4:  Soissons to Pontault-Combault, 110.6km

It was an interesting start location in one of the most ancient towns of France with pretty ruins and cathedrals.  The racing was not so interesting though after a break of two riders went up the road and ended up staying away till the finish.  Having the US National Team controlling the race gave us a bit of time to recover from the efforts of yesterday.  Chloe Hosking won the bunch sprint for 3rd place and Cherise was the top finisher of our team coming in 9th.  Amanda Miller retained the yellow jersey and I stayed in 7th on the general classification.

1.        Simona Frapporti, Be Pink (Italy)

2.       Valentina Bastianelli, Vaiano Tepso (Italy)

3.       Chloe Hosking, Team Specialized-Lululemon (Australia)
Before the start of stage 4 with Cherise Taylor and Ann Sophie Duyck

Stage 5:  Pontault-Combault to Chalette Sur Loing, 125.3km

After a controlled race yesterday it looked like the teams were ready to race with attacks going left, right and centre which made for a really fast and hard stage.  Cherise spent the whole day up front covering moves so that I could rest my legs for the remaining stages.  The stage came down to a bunch sprint with no attacks being able to stay clear of the chasing bunch for very long.  Chloe Hosking claimed the stage win after an impressive lead out by her Specialized-Lululemon team.  The general classification remained mostly unchanged from the previous day.

1.       Chloe Hosking, Team Specialized-Lululemon (Australia)

2.       Olena Andruk, Vaiano Tepso (Ukrain)

3.       Fiona Dutriaux, Vienne Futuroscope (France)

Stage 6:  Dijon Bourgogne to Arc et Senans, 99.8km

For those of you who were wondering about the city of Dijon…Dijon Mustard did actually originate here in 1856. 

From the start all the teams seemed happy to let the US National Team control the stage for Amanda Miller in yellow.  The thought of approaching mountains might have been in the back of the minds of most riders today which helped to calm down the bunch.  With only having one teammate left in the race I was happy about a bit of an easier day.  Towards the end of the stage the pace picked up as the teams were trying to set up their riders for the sprint.  It was another victory for Team Specialized-Lululemon with Loren Rowney crossing the line 1st.  No real change in the overall standings.

1.       Loren Rowney, Team Specialized-Lululemon (Australia)

2.       Olena Andruk, Vaiano Tepso (Ukrain)

3.       Giada Borgato, Diadora-Pasta Zara (Italy)

Stage 7:  Morteau to La Planche des Belles Filles, 126.4km

The race started in the beautiful town of Morteau which is within close proximity of Switzerland.  La Planche des Belles Filles, final climb of the day, was also the finish for stage 7 of the Tour de France this year which was won by Chris Froome.  He made it look easy and the pictures really does not do it justice.  You climb 5.9km (3.7mi) to the finish at 1,035m (3,396ft), gaining 503m (1,650ft) at an average gradient of 8.5% with a part that is between 22-28% near the finish.  This is the type of climbing that I expected in the Giro Donne this year.

The Be Pink team attacked through the feed zone and had two riders up the road.  With a gap of over 2 minutes at one point teams were forced to bring it back before we got to the last climb of the day.  The real racing happened just before the slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles with Team Specialized-Lululemon driving it hard into the climb to set it up for Evelyn Stevens.  They did that with great effect as it split up the field as soon as we hit the base of the climb.  I missed the initial move up the climb with 4 riders and tried to just ride a good tempo up the climb.  Evenlyn Stevens claimed the stage after an impressive ride up the climb and took over the yellow jersey.  I finished the stage in 6th and moved up into 2nd in the general classification 6 seconds behind the race leader.  This was so unexpected that our team left before the podium presentation.  I missed getting my first ever podium flowers but was happy with how the day turned out in the end.

1.       Evelyn Stevens, Team Specialized-Lululemon (USA)

2.       Kristin McGrath, US National Team (USA)

3.       Carlee Taylor, Vienne Futuroscope (Australia)
Start in Morteau  and the finish at the top of La Planche des Belles Filles

Stage 8:  Lure to Saint Die des Vosges, 115.3km

With a break going early in the stage it was up to us and Team Specialized-Lululemon to control the race.  Robyn did a stellar job pacing in the front with Team Specialized-Lululemon for most of the day to keep the break within striking distance protecting my overall position.  Two riders managed to just stay clear of the chasing bunch in the end.  There were no big changes in the general classification and I ended up on the podium for the first time in Europe.

1.       Andrea Dvorak, US National Team (USA)

2.       Edwige Pitel, French National Team (France)

3.       Lucinda Brand, AA Drink (Netherlands)
Podium after stage 8

Stage 9:  Corcieux to Munster

Today I will remember as one of the prettiest race routes that I have done.  With high mountains, forests, lakes far below in the valley and paragliders spiralling in the air above it really was as good as it gets in terms of race scenery.  For a few split seconds I forgot about what lies ahead and enjoyed what was around me. 

After a series of attacks on the first climb the bunch split and a break went up the road.  It was again up to us and Team Specialized-Lululemon to control the race much like yesterday.  Robyn and Katie Colclough did an amazing job in the front for the first half of the race.  On the second climb of the day at around 70km the attacks started and when we went over the top there were only about 15 of us left with the break still up the road.  We caught the break just before the final climb of the day at 90km.  The climb started with an unexpected super steep section and 4 riders, all general classification contenders, got away from the rest of us.  After missing the break I paced up the climb trying to minimise the damage as I knew the race deciding move went up the road.  Evelyn Stevens, in a class of her own, ended up winning her second stage and the overall classification in fine style.  In the end my effort was not enough to hold on to a podium position and I finished 4th overall in the general classification.  It was a slightly disappointing day but I rode my heart out.  I came to the race not expecting to do this well and am taking a lot of positives away from this tour.

1.       Evelyn Stevens, Team Specialized-Lululemon (USA)

2.       Carlee Taylor, Vienne Futuroscope (Australia)

3.       Kristin McGrath, US National Team (USA)
View from the hotel the last day

Final General Classification:

1.       Evelyn Stevens, Team Specialized-Lululemon (USA)

2.       Kristin McGrath, US National Team (USA)

3.       Carlee Taylor, Vienne Futuroscope (Australia)

4.       Lise Olivier, Lotto Belisol (South Africa)

5.       Lucinda Brand, AA Drink (Netherlands)
View on the way back to Belgium after the final stage

We are back in Belgium for a few days till we leave for Tophee d’Or, UCI 2.2 Tour in France, this weekend. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Next Up Route de France

In preparation for my next big race, Route de France Internationale Feminine, I did a few local races in Belgium this past week.
Last year I was in Belgium with Team MTN Qhubeka and we raced a lot of these races.  It is nice to see my improvements technically, tactically and physically since then.  Looking at my SRM files after this race I had some new all-time best power efforts attacking and/or trying to stay away in a break which is always a good confidence booster.  In the end it was two of my teammates that ended up in the race winning break finishing 1st and 3rd.  Another great day in the office!  I am looking forward going into this next big race well prepared and in great form.
Apart from being great for racing, learning and training these races are also great for creating photo album memories J  Several great photographers show up at every race taking pictures along the route.  Here are a few of these pictures taken by Krist Vanmelle at the last race in Haaltert, Belgium:

Hard solo break effort for the day

Getting away from the bunch in a small break

Controlling the bunch for two teammates in a break up the road

Today we are travelling to the north of France for the 9 day Route de France Internationale Feminine ( that starts on Saturday.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Spotting Sport Stars and Movie Stars

I did not know that it was possible for the sun to be out for a full 24 hour day but we have been blessed with some sunshine this past week and I am loving it!  With the nice weather we had some adventures out on the bike the past few days spotting sport stars and movie stars along the way.

Today Cherise and I stopped for a coffee in Geraadsbergen after a couple of intervals up the Muur (famous crazy steep cobble climb).  Just as we sat down we saw Robbie McEwen sitting a table away from us.  He had a similar idea of stopping for a coffee/lunch break to enjoy the sunshine.  Having seen him in action at the Post Tour Criterium in Ninove just a few days ago I actually recognized someone famous for once.  After debating the entire time while sitting there whether or not to ask him for a picture he made it easy for us by walking over for a quick chat.  He recognized the Team MTN Qhubeka kit as being from South Africa and kindly asked about our stay here in Beglium.  What a nice guy!

Our second encounter with the famous was also while out riding.  Lying in the grass right next to the road I spotted Bambi or what must have been some very close relatives of the famous animation character.  These along with the South African Nyala are the prettiest antelope/deer I have ever seen.

More adventures to follow soon…

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ninove Post Tour Criterium

World Champion Mark Cavendish vs Green Jersey Winner Peter Sagan

Mark Cavendish in action
The posts Tour de France criteriums cause for some great excitement in towns across Belgium.  It usually is a race on a short circuit through the centrum (city centre) where people line the streets to cheer for their heroes.  We were able to watch one of these criteriums this past weekend in Ninove.  Not fully knowing what to expect we showed up for the race and much to our surprise some really big names including Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Robbie McEwan were taking part.  There was one rider from almost every team that participated in the Tour de France.  From what I can understand this is a bit of a show and the finishing places are usually predetermined but it is not every day that you get to see top riders like this race right past you lap after lap. 

As with many other typical Belgian events these events are also enjoyed by the crowds drinking Jupiler drafts (well known Belgian beer) and eating frites (Belgian style fries) bought from caravans or trucks next to the road.

In the end it was Mark Cavendish that finished ahead of Robbie McEwan and Peter Sagan.

Podium with Mark Cavendish in 1st, Robbie McEwen in 2nd and Peter Sagan in 3rd
It was fun doing some watching instead of racing for a change.

Peter Sagan in action

Thursday, July 26, 2012

French Flair

Last weekend we raced in the province of Limousin, France.  During the tour we stayed in a little town named Aubusson on the Creuse River.  The town is known for its rich tapestry history and is home to the Museum of Tapestry which hosts a collection of tapestry some dating as far back as 400 years.  We were definitely not in town to explore carpets but did enjoy some of what the historic town had to offer. 

The town of Aubusson and the Pont de Terrade - 17th century stone bride over the river Creuse

Every day Cherise and I walked over the 17th century stone bridge,  the Pont de Terrade , to a little coffee shop in town.  Although we cannot go without cappuccino for a day the coffee shop also had internet which, believe it or not, is as scarce as hen’s teeth while racing in France and Italy.  I have found that the lack of internet can actually be really refreshing at times.  I finally had time to finish my book The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony (  In the middle of France I had a little piece of South Africa with me and this true life story about a conservationist that was asked to accept a herd of ‘rogue’ elephants on his game reserve I just could not put down.

Daily coffee shop stop
Seeing the Paris skyline with the Eiffel Tower all lit up in the distance makes up for the 8 hour drive back to Belgium and for only getting back at 3am. 

Feet up, relax and enjoy the drive

A random tower and part of the river Creuse which runs through town – Postcard Pretty!!!

Province of Limousin, France

Race Report: Tour Feminin en Limousin

This is just the race report and a blog about my experience in France will follow shortly.

For the first time in a Europe I lined up for a race that I have done before.  Having competed in the Tour Feminin en Limousin (UCI 2.2 Tour in the province of Limousin, France) last year gave me an idea of what to expect this time around.  With Marianne Vos and her Dutch National Team on the start list we knew that it was going to be a tough four days of racing.

The race consisted of three road race stages and one individual time trial on the second day.  All three road stages were on rolling terrain through the countryside with some low gradient climbs and twisty forest roads. 

Our team for the race was Kaat Hannes, Kim Schoonbaert, Cherise Taylor, Joline Goossen and I.

A break with Marianne Vos and two other riders went early in the first stage of 128km.  We attacked and followed several moves on the first climb and got away with a small break on several occasions but nothing was staying away.  The bunch split on this climb and a group of about 35 riders went to the line.  When we realised that nothing was going to stay away Cherise and I covered all the moves to try and set up our teammate Kaat for the finish.  She was still in contention for the best young rider jersey.  I have never race this hard for 4th place before and this would end up being the second hardest day of racing I have ever done according to the data from my SRM.  The top finisher of our team was Kaat in 13thplace.  Cherise finished 14th and I was 22nd.

The second stage was the individual time trial on a very technical and twisty 18km route.  Since we are not used to the handling of the time trial bikes I decided to just ride it with my road bike.  I finished 28th, Kaat 44th and Cherise 47th.

Stage three was another 128km stage similar to stage one.  We attacked on the climb but because of the low gradient a break could not get away.  A break with seven riders went a few kilometres later in the stage but neither of us was able to respond.  The bunch split into several groups after that.  Cherise and I finished in the second group of about 20 riders in 9th and 19th place.  It was another top 10 finish for Cherise.

We all lined up with tired legs for the last 120km stage.  Even the neutral zone in the beginning of the race hurt like hell.  After a rocky start to the stage the legs warmed up a bit and after several attacks I finally got away from the bunch.  The idea was not to get in a solo break but I got a good tempo going and decided to just give it a shot.  After about 20km a Norwegian rider, who was high up in the general classification, crossed over to me and then the bunch was in full pursuit to bring back the move.  The deciding break for the day went shortly after that with three riders and I could not immediately respond.  We were a group of about 50 riders after that.  Kaat had good legs today so we were going to try and set it up for her at the finish.  Cherise did a good job of helping Kaat to a 5th place on the line.  She ended up finishing in the top 10 again with a 9th place. 

In the general classification I finished 18th, Cherise 20th, Kaat 30th and Kim 63rd.  To take the experience gained from the Giro Donne to this race was great.  Last year I was 31st in the general classification.  Being able to see that I am still improving and learning with every race definitely builds confidence for the upcoming races.

Our next big race will be the nine day La Route de France starting on the 4th of August.  

In a solo break during the final stage