France, 6-stage (+Prologue) Road Race, 507.5km
|2011/2012 winner Emma Pooley on the
The Tour Cycliste Feminin International de l'Ardeche, though, is backed by a number of impressive organisations including the Conseil Generale of the Ardeche region, Credit Mutuel, La Tribune and others; as a result, it's exceptionally well organised, offers prizes that are actually worth winning and takes place on a superbly-planned parcours - and this year, it received applications to race from no fewer than 29 teams. That's so many that, for what may be the first time in the history of women's cycling, organisers actually had to turn some of them down. So it just goes to show that Pat missed the point, and that if you build it they will come. Let's hope his soon-to-be successor Brian Cookson has a little more sense.
Of course, it helps if your race takes place among beautiful, dramatic scenery; after all, fans are more likely to want to make the effort to go and see an event that takes place in a location where they can combine following the racing with having a holiday, and it's promoting their products and services to large numbers fans that gets a company interested in sponsoring a race in the first place. The Tour de l'Ardeche has got that one sewn up, because the Ardeche - and the rest of the Rhone-Alpes region - is widely acknowledged as one of the most spectacular areas of natural beauty anywhere in Europe and offers something for everyone - dramatic chateaux, mountains, forests, medieval villages and, perhaps most famously, the deep gorges.
2003 Edita Pučinskaitė
2004 Élisabeth Chevanne-Brunel
2005 Edita Pučinskaitė
2006 Edita Pučinskaitė
2007 Maria Isabel Moreno Allue
2008 Amber Neben
2009 Kristin Armstrong
2010 Vicki Whitelaw
2011 Emma Pooley
2012 Emma Pooley
All stage maps are the official race maps as published at OpenRunner. Links to the originals are here.
Prologue (02.09.2013; Vallon Pont d’Arc - Vallon Pont d’Arc, 2.4km)
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A classic example of its type, the Prologue takes place on a 2.5km circuit that has nothing in the way of hills and a fine selection of long straight sections and tight corners to put the riders' strength and skill to the test. Although most of the route is flat, there is a descent with a maximum gradient of -7% between 1.2km and 1.4km - perhaps just enough to worry the climbers, who lack the weight to be able to maintain effective control over their bikes when traveling fast downhill, and hand a small advantage to the rest.
Vallon Pont d'Arc, which takes its name from the Pont d'Arc, an entirely natural bridge spanning the Ardeche river, has been inhabited by humans for 31,000 years according to radiocarbon dating of the Palaeolithic cave paintings found nearby. Every summer, it sees its population increase ten-fold due to an influx of tourists from around the world, drawn here because of the town's status as the gateway to the Ardeche gorge; if you plan to visit the race, be prepared therefore to pay stiff prices for accommodation.
Stage 1 (03.09.2013; Rochegude - Beauchastel, 120.9km)
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Stage 1 takes the race straight into the mountains - following a short descent right after the start followed by a flattish 10km, the terrain begins to head up and doesn't stop until it reaches 614m above sea level on the Col de Vesc, 58.2km from the start.
Though that's a considerable climb in anyone's book, it's one on which an all-rounder with leanings toward pure climber status could beat any climbers who are holding out and saving strength for the mountains to come in later stages; it is, therefore, unlikely to permit anyone to gain an unassailable advantage at such an early stage, and even if a climber does go for it and reaches the summit with a good gap between herself and the pack, there are two very steep sections (58.1km to 61.5km and 81km to 86.7km) where their diminutive size will give them problems maintaining control over their bikes that the heavier riders do not experience. However, with bonification seconds on offer at the intermediate sprint 8.7km after the summit, the first riders to reach the top have an incentive to descend at speed.
From 108.7km to the finish, the parcours is rolling and then flattens out, meaning that if the peloton reconvened on the way down from the mountain the stage could end with a bunch sprint. There are three intermediate sprints along the parcours, located at Grignan (29.8km), Bourdeaux (66.9km) and Allex (101.7km). GPM points are awarded once, at the summit of the Col (58.2km).
Rochegude and Beauchastel are considerably less touristy than Vallon Pont d'Arc and will be more attractive to some potential visitors for that reason. Beauchastel, where a medieval village still exists squeezed into the gaps between and underneath more modern buildings, is especially worth a visit.
Stage 2 (04.09.2013, Vals Les Bains - Vals Les Bains, 3.5km TT)
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Another time trial and, like the Prologue, short at just 3.5km. The similarities stop there, however, because while the Prologue was flat this stage has a climb that, though it gains only 57m, does so in 0.8km; the majority of the climb is around 10% gradient, while one section between 0.3km and 0.4km from the start is even steeper. Some climbers perform well in time trials, too, and although there's a section that hits around -8% from 1.1km to 1.3km, this is likely to be a stage for riders of that type. With the last 1.1km being much flatter, they'll need to work hard to keep the TT specialists from victory though.
Vals Les Bains is famous for its spa, in operation since the 17th Century and with the full quota of health benefits traditionally attached to naturally hot mineral water (some of them genuine). If you visit the town, be sure to sample the excellent products of the Bourganel brewery. Not too far away (40km, worthwhile if you're in the area) stands the little village Sainte-Eulalie, home to around 230 people. In the village is an old farmhouse, where a pipe poking out of a wall inside the building pours water constantly into a stone trough. The water overflows and trickles away out of the house and down the hill, where it is joined by other trickles until it becomes a stream and, eventually, a river - the Loire, the longest in France and the 17th longest in Europe.
Stage 3 (04.09.2013; Vals Les Bains - Le Teil, 77.4km)
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Stage 3 takes place in the afternoon following the Stage 2 time trial - and if a rider able to time trial as well as climb did manage to get the upper hand in the morning, they might just possibly be able to turn it into the sort of advantage that would put them in a good position to start aiming at the overall General Classification. The reason is the mountains - there are five climbs along this parcours and two of them are biggies, rising to more than 800m above sea level, and with GPM points at three summits it's certainly a good day to start fighting a King of the Mountains campaign.
The terrain begins to gain height right from the start line with 171m gained in the first 3.9km; the first 1.9km of that at gradients greater than 7% before the remainder becomes less steep. There's a short descent from 4km to 6km, then the road heads skyward again and climbs 251m over the next 6.7km, at a gentler average gradient (with only a very short section of 7%) on the way. A flatter section lies between 12.9km and 16.5km, then it's uphill again for the next 5.8km (much of it 7%) to the stage's highest point the Col de Sarasset, 22.3km from the start and 848m above sea level. The climbers are obviously going to be near the front at this point, but there's a long descent on the way to even things up - the road is downhill all the way for 14.6km from the summit, mostly at less than -5% but in a few parts nearer -7% and for a short section at -10%. The climb is likely to be too far from the finish to prove decisive, especially as the 14.7km descent (with sections at nearly -10%) will once again undo the climbers' hard work on the way up.
From 37km, the second big climb begins. This one, the Col du Benas, is 11.7km in length and nears 7% for a 3km section from 43km; the summit is around 806m and marks 48km from the start. This time the climbers might have opportunity to take control of the race, because the ascent is sufficiently long and difficult to give them an advantage going up but the descent, which doesn't get much steeper than 5% at any point, is relatively easy and will let them remain at the front. From 59.9km there's one final climb of 3km to the top of the Col du Bois de Val, gaining 170m; it's steep enough (7% over the first half) for the climbers to increase their advantage further, something they might opt to try to do because the last 14.5km of the stage is downhill all the way, including a very steep section with gradients as high as -10% from 65.8km to to 68km.
There are two ways to win a stage like this one. The first is to select the right breakaway group, then ride with it into the last few kilometres before putting your bike-handling skills to the test as you try to be the fastest on the last descent. The second option doesn't always work, but delivers the most impressive victories when it does - the glorious solo break, achieved when a climber leaves the pack behind on an ascent and stays away to the end of the stage. There are two intermediate sprints, located at Les Mines (37.2km) and Les Aligiers (49.7km). GPM points will be awarded at each of the three summits, Col de Sarasset (20.7km), Col du Benas (48km) and the Col du Bois de Val (62.6km).
Le Teil, like Vallon Pont d'Arc, promotes itself as the gateway to the Ardeche; accommodation in the area will not be cheap at this time of year as a result
Stage 4 (05.09.2013; Le Pouzin - Cruas, 110.6km)
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The first 11km of Stage 4 are flat which, if the team leaders permit them to do so, gives the domestiques a brief window of opportunity to attempt to form a breakaway group and arrive at the first intermediate sprint, which lies at the foot of the first climb, ahead of the pack. That means they get bonification seconds, slightly improving their General Classification seconds, and they and their jerseys - get noticed and photographed, and the all-important team sponsors are happy, hopefully enough to commit to another year backing the team in 2014. Whether or not they get permission depends on how the top end of the GC is looking: if several overall victory contenders have similar times, they might want the sprint for themselves; but if one such rider has a small lead she might send two or three of her domestiques to try to disrupt her rivals' attempts to take a few seconds from her.
From 11km, the road starts to climb and it'll gain nearly 600m over the next 29.5km with the first GPM at the Col du Meran (19.8km). With no big descents (though there are a couple of short, steep ones) for the next 22.4km, the ball is in the climbers' court once more. At 52.8km, the Col de Comberon gains 183m in 4.2km, the majority of it at around 7% - more opportunity for the climbers, with the GPM points at 57km. With the next 17km losing 600m and the last climb, Col du Tribes (which gains 380m in 14.7km), not hard enough to guarantee them control, they'll need to grab any advantage they can in preparation for another long descent to the finish.
Stage 4 has plenty of added extras with the full quota of three intermediate sprints, three GPM climbs and, for good measure, a prime. The sprints are at St Laurent de Pape (10.1km), Les Ollieres (70.5km) and Le Pouzin (96.9km); the GPMs are at Col du Meran (19.8km), Col de Comberon (57km) and Col du Tribes (82.4km). The prime is at 49.3km.
Le Pouzin is a town with many interesting ancient buildings, including a 2nd Century Roman bridge still in use today. Cruas also has some splendid old buildings, including a castle, which contrast sharply with its nuclear power station.
Stage 5 (06.09.2013; Saint Sauveur de Montagut - Villeneuve de Berg, 117.7km)
View the interactive map here.
With a twitchy parcours that turns this way and that, switching back on itself as it follows the numerous hairpins carrying it through the mountains, there's precious little on offer today for anyone other than the climbers - the start line is 240m above sea level and the road heads upwards immediately, reaching 696m in just 8.9km to arrive at the first intermediate sprint at Le Chier. That's an average gradient of nearly 8%, but the 1.1km section beginning 0.9km from the start gains 161m - which makes it 14.6%. The descent over the next 9km is too gentle to cause problems, then from 18km to 25.1km the route climbs another 342m to the 875m summit of the Col de la Fayolle - average gradient 4.8%, but with a 2km section at 6.3% halfway along.
The descent has a couple of short sections nearing -7% but for the majority of the time stays below -5%; it's also punctuated by a small climb of about 100m between 33km and 35.5km which, although only 4%, will help the climbers to prevent fast descenders taking too much time away from them. From 42.9km the parcours climbs again; this time gaining 200m in 3.2km to reach 639m on the Col de Juvinas; the average gradient is 6.2%, the maximum a more challenging 9%. A short descent no steeper than -7% follows, then the riders climb to 703m, using a route that isn't especially steep before another descent drops 372m in 12.5km - again, the gentle gradient and small climb along the way prevent the climbers from suffering too much damage.
From 64.9km the stage reaches its final climb, the Col de la Croix de Millet , rising 438m by 77.1km. That gives an average gradient of 3.6%, but averages don't always give an accurate indication of how difficult a climb actually is and in this case there's a 1.8km section at 6% followed by 0.9km section at 10.2%, starting from 73km. Finally, once past the summit at 77km, the other riders have a chance to catch up with the climbers - the descent loses 700m in 14.3km with sections at around -10%. A couple of little hills between 91km and 107km aren't enough to let the climbers win back significant time, then the parcours climbs at no more than 5% to the finish line.
Like Stage 4, Stage 5 is packed with three intermediate sprints, three GPMs and a prime. The sprints are located at Le Chier (9.4km), Belvedere Jaujac (68km) and St Germain (110.8km). The GPMs are the Col de la Fayolle (24.5km), Col de Juvinas (52.6km) and the Col de la Croix de Millet (77.1km). The prime is at 100km.
Stage 6 (07.09.2013; St Just d’Ardèche - St Marcel d’Ardèche, 74.9km)
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Stage 6, the last of this year's race, has some climbs but they're not especially difficult when compared to those that were faced in earlier stages - though a few steep sections could still lead to changes in the General Classification.
The first 6km start off with a small descent before heading through rolling terrain (with the first intermediate sprint just 4.3km from the start, expect high speeds right from the off) before a short 5% gradient climb of around 50m leads to 7km. The next 3km are flat, then the 3km after that climbs more steeply to gain 144m by the summit of the Cote de la Madeleine - the average gradient here is 4.8%, but a section starting at 11.8km and lasting for 1.2km reaches 7% in places. Once over the top, the riders begin a reasonably unchallenging 15.1km section with only a couple of very small hillocks to prevent it being downhill all the way.
At 32.9km the day's biggest climb, Col de la St Baume begins. Over the next 12.8km, the riders will gain 328m, which gives an average gradient over the entire climb of a mere 2.5%; however, 163 of those metres are gained in one 1.9km section starting at 35.1km, with the GPM points awarded at 37.5km; the average gradient over this smaller section is 8.5% - though the first half of it is even steeper. The remaining 8.9km to the summit (45.7km from the start) is mercifully far less steep and at no point tops 5%. Another small climb following a short descent just after the summit is no steeper, then the parcours heads gently downhill for 18.2km with only one 0.8km section from 62.1km nearing -7% to trouble the climbers. From 70.8km the riders climb again, gently at first and then at 5% on the final 0.8km to the finish.
The intermediate sprints are located at St Martin d'Ard (4.3km), St Montant (33.6km) and Cave de St Remeze (48.7km). The GPMs are the Cote de la Madeleine (13.1km) and the Col de la St Baume (37.5km).
St Just d’Ardèche is an attractive town with several buildings of interest, but its cultural highlight is the museum devoted to Dada.
Teams and Starters
Team rosters to be confirmed; team list is provisional. Check Women Cycling Fever for regular updates.
Breast Cancer Care
Chirio Forno d’Asolo
Faren-Let’s Go Finland
GSD Gestion-Kallisto Specialized
Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies
Top Girls-Fassa Bortolo
How to follow the race
The Tour organisers realise better than most that an informative website is essential to any race in this day and age; the official site is therefore well-maintained and regularly updated. Results can be found here.
Ardeche is perhaps a little too far from Britain for the majority of fans to make the trip by bike, but the region is well-connected by road to the rest of France - making the trip via ferry/Eurotunnel and car (or SNCF, though considering France's long love affair with the bike, traveling with one on French trains is not always straightforward) would be a simple process. As a tourist centre, Ardeche also has good air links - a brief search online found flights to Grenoble (leaving 90km to be ridden to get to the race) from as little as £50.