Thursday 23 August 2012

Vos puts on a show! GP de Plouay 2012

The GP will consist of five laps of the red route
(click to enlarge)
25.08 Official site
France, 135km, UCI CDM (final round, Women's World Cup)

Plouay is a four-day festival of cycling. It begins on Thursday 23rd of August with a farmers' market and a BMX event; Friday 24th offers the open-to-the-public Cyclo Morbihan in which 3,358 people took part last year, a race for journalists and the senior's race. Saturday 25th has the Women's World Cup round and Sunday 26th has the legendary GP Ouest-France for Elite Men.

↓↓↓Starters, race report, results↓↓↓

The UCI announced in March this year that it had confirmed the GP de Plouay's status as a Women's World Cup venue until 2016, and it's not hard to see why - it's always been a fantastically well-organised event with enough going on to keep the huge crowds that show up to watch happy. With a selection of music, food, drink and all sorts of other entertainments going on in addition to the racing, it attracts a wide range of people, even many with no real interest in the sport who are simply looking for a good day out. It all comes together to form a superb showcase for cycling, and this year was no different - Plouay isn't the easiest place to get to in France and the weather forecast was decidedly unfavourable, but still hundreds of thousands of fans turned out to watch some of the top female riders in the world.

In these times when numerous women's races are having to scale down as sponsors pull out or, as has happened with too many events already, vanish forever, Plouay has been growing. Last year, it consisted of six laps of a 19.1km circuit to make a total of 114.6km; this year riders will complete five laps of 27km to make 135km. It helps that the race takes place in Brittany, the heartland of French cycling, but it's also indication that the organisers know the formula for getting things right. Nevetheless, not all the riders liked the look of the new pacours - Lizzie Armitstead (AA had said she preferred the older one, but the changes seemed popular overall with riders and fans.

Start list - click to enlarge. It says "finale," but as always in women's cycling the results list after the race may contain a very different set of names.

The Race
The GP de Plouay and GP Ouest-France are Plouay's main claim to fame, so the road upon which it begins has been named the Boulevard des Championnats du Monde. It lies just outside the town and a little way to the north of the velodrome with a hard-surfaced area set aside specifically for the team vehicles and race infrastructure; the initial 500m is straight, slopes slightly downhill and tends to encourage the sort of spectacularly fast start that those spectators who were fortunate enough to find space on the raised grassy area along the northern edge of the road got to see today. A number of serious contenders took immediate control, getting into prime positions at the front of the pack even before the gentle right and left bends that carried them past what may the world's ugliest Carrefour (quite an achievement, it has to be said), then, 0.75km from the start, into the first corner and onto the D2. The corner is 90 degrees but reasonably wide and fast; with several shops and industrial units nearby it looked to be the sort of junction that frequently suffers from fuel spillages but fortunately it seemed to be a lot less hazardous than expected.

Riders followed the D2 for 0.52km with the road beginning to climb the Cote du Lezot, gradient around 7% in several places . There was a roundabout near the end, then some 60m later the second corner leading left onto the Rue du Moulin, which traveled uphill for 220m to a tight right corner onto the D178 (there's a nice view over Plouay looking south from the little white cottage on the junction, which the riders never got a chance to see as they were going the opposite way).  The D178 headed straight into a wide left-hand bend with forest to the right, then to the 140m summit of the Cote du Lezot just after a footbridge over the road and shortly before a gentle right-hander - there is another raised section to the left of the road, an ideal place from which to watch the race. 0.75km after the footbridge, they arrived at a junction and turned left towards the village of Kerscoulic 1km away (note the several rather non-French-sounding placenames in the area - Brittany is to France as Wales is to England and has its own distinct Celtic culture, traditions and language). The road climbed for a short way just after the junction, then descended before a very small climb to the village.

Profile - click to enlarge
 At the far end of the village, the road bent gently left and then right before it passed Questenen Plaine along a 0.61km straight section which descended for most of its length, then kicked up at the very end before the junction with the D110 (shown on the route map as the D10). Just after the third bend, the riders arrived at a roundabout (Le Pont Neuf) and followed the road to the right to continue along the D110. The roundabout marked the lowest point between the Cotes du Lezot and the Chapelle Ste. Anne des Bois, meaning that as soon as they'd passed it they began to climb again - and they continued to climb for the next 6.9km as they followed the course of the Le Scorff river  through the Foret Domaniale de Pont-Calleck (if you ever have a holiday in Brittany, make time to visit the Moulin de Coat-Cren around 1.5km along the D110 from the roundabout - Virginie, Les Déesses' locally-born guide to all things Breton, says it's one of the most beautiful sights in the region).

The Chapelle Ste. Anne, just west of Pont Callec, looks exactly like a scaled-down model of a grand Baroque cathedral with only three windows along each side. Anne is the patron saint of - among many other things - lost objects; riders who suffered on the climb to reach her chapel and had been losing hope may find it again half a kilometre further on where the parcours flattened out for 4km as it passed Poulgroix, then descended for the next four. 5.1km from the Chapelle, the race arrived at a junction with the D204, within sight of the Le Pont Neuf roundabout negotiated earlier.

Château de Manehouarn, Plouay; as seen on a million
jigsaws, postcards and boxes of chocolates
The D204 section was fairly flat and straight, offering an opportunity for those who may have conceded time on the climbs to try to win it back before the final Cote de Ty Marrec. At the end, the riders came to a junction and turned left onto the D769 - one of the main routes through the region and into Plouay, it has little of the rural charm found along some of the earlier roads. Fortunately, after around 0.15km (which takes them past the 5km to go point), the riders turned right onto the smaller Pont le Bris road leading for 1.6km past a lake and through forest before rejoining the main road. There was a sharp left-hand turn in the forest after 1.2km, marking the beginning of the Cote de Ty Marrec climb, and the reason the organisers had directed the race away from the D769 was to take in Minojehn du Calvaire, just after the left-hander - it climbed 45m in around 0.4km and was the steepest section of the entire parcours, surpassing 10% (in fact, it looks to be nearer 15% at the steepest part). It must have been an unbearable prospect for those riders who don't the hills, lurking near the end of every lap.

After rejoining the D769, riders faced another 0.3km of much gentler climbing followed by a flat 0.45km to the 3km to go point then 1.5km downhill, at the end of which they needed to scrub off speed to be able to negotiate a sharp left turn leading via a right turn 0.17km later back onto the D110. The 1km to go point lay 0.15km ahead, just around a sweeping left bend; then it was downhill all the way back to the start/finish line.

The first hour passed without notable incident other than a puncture for Marianne Vos, but with the assistance of her strong Rabobank team she was returned to the front of the race in no time at all. Speeds remained relatively sedate during the first couple of laps as the riders tested the roads to see what sort of speeds they'd be able to safely sustain around the corners later on and tried out new lines; but after 1h05' a split had formed - 55 riders were starting to open up a gap between themselves and the remainder, and the pace was already picking up. It wasn't much longer before some riders bridged and others fell back, the numbers changing to 45 and 30; the leaders were then whittled down to ten in the penultimate lap. During the final lap, the lead group was reduced further, down to a trio made up of Tiffany Cromwell (Orica-GreenEDGE), Elisa Longo-Borghini (Hitec-Mistral) and Vos, all of them sufficiently strong that the competition looked certain to have been slashed to three contenders. Their 35" advantage had almost doubled four minutes later, then doubled again over the next ten minutes, remaining at 2' as they climbed Ty-Marrec for the final time towards the 4km to go point.

Marianne Vos: 2012 Olympic
champion and winner of the
World Cup. World Champs
next? Very possibly - it seems
there's no race she can't win
Vos doesn't always win (though it sometimes feels like it) and she's lost out in a few sprints this season. She also didn't need to win today, because the race offered 75 points to the winner whereas she started with an 84 point lead on second-place Judith Arndt's 176 in the World Cup so she may as well have already had that trophy on her mantlepiece, but Plouay was one of the increasingly small number of races she had never won. So, she rode to the utmost of her ability and put in superhuman effort to cross the line so fast her tyres were probably beginning to melt, her determination and sheer power driving 35" wedge between herself and Cromwell. When a rider puts in a show like that (and with that look of pure happiness that she still has each and every time she wins) who could ever tire of watching her take another victory? The takeover of Nederland-Bloeit by Rabobank earlier this year was predicted to put Vos into a position from which she would dominate competition, but there have been a few times when it looked as though the 25-year-old was simply too good for the team to be able to keep up and help when she needed it - directeur sportif Jeroen Blijlevens says that he picked a new squad for Plouay, and it looks as though he's found the combination that his champion needs. Perhaps 2013 will, therefore, be the year that she tops Eddy Merckx's record season total of 56 victories?

Cromwell took 50 points for second place and Longo-Borghini earned 35 for third, finishing 4" later. First of the remainder and 2'40" behind Vos for 30 points was European Under-23 ITT Champion Anna Vanderbreggen, who is having a superb season with Sengers after a couple of quiet years; Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-Lululemon) recorded the same time and took 27 points for fifth place.

Top Ten
1. Marianne Vos (Rabobank) 3h39'45"
2. Tiffany Cromwell (Orica-GreenEDGE) +35
3. Elisa Longo-Borghini (Hitec-Mistral) +39
4. Anna Vanderbreggen (Sengers) +2:40
5. Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-Lululemon) +2:40
6. Luisa Tamanini (Faren-Honda) +2:43
7. Fabiana Luperini (Faren-Honda) +4:09
8. Trixi Worrack (Specialized-Lululemon) +4:09
9. Marta Tafliaferro (Mcipollini-Giambenini) +4:09
10. Judith Arndt (Orica-GreenEDGE) +4:09
Full results

Eurosport 2 will be showing footage from Plouay at 19:30 on Saturday the 25th in the United Kingdom; but the half-hour show will be shared with reports on the amateur race and other events and, as a result, the time devoted to the women's race is likely to be very short.

Photos: Vos (MarieTiburce)

Other Sites 
The legendary Gwéna, queen of women's cycling reporting, has an interesting post on the differences between this edition and 2011.
Monty at Podium Cafe has a guide which will be especially worth keeping an eye upon for the comments added during the race.
With a bit of luck, Meredith Miller will be writing one of her always-excellent reports after the race, bringing us news from within the peloton.
Tiffany Cromwell of Orica-GreenEDGE has a pre-race report.

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