Tomorrow evening, Wiggle Honda will line up for the Prudential RideLondon Grand Prix in front of Buckingham Palace as they look to win the race for the third time running. In this exclusive interview, rider and team manager Rochelle Gilmore looks ahead to the race and also explains how it and other major events launched in the past couple of years are helping raise the profile of women’s cycling.
One of those events is the Aviva Women’s Tour, now in its second edition, organised by Tour of Britain owners SweetSpot who also, in partnership with London Marathon, put on RideLondon. The five-day race once again brought big crowds out to the streets this year to prove that the debut edition wasn’t a one-off in terms of appealing to the public.
“We couldn't really ask for bigger events to be honest,” said Gilmore, “the inclusion of the Women's Tour in the UCI Calendar last year was massive; we can thank the race organisers for putting the effort in for a big women's race.
Rochelle Gilmore (picture courtesy Wiggle Honda)
She says the race “opened people's eyes to women's cycling; that was really huge, there were so many people on the sides of the roads, and staff and organisers who also do RideLondon obviously put a dedicated effort in and managed to have thousands of people lining the roads for the race.”
With last year’s inaugural Women’s Tour benefiting from greater focus on cycling as a result of the Tour de France starting in Yorkshire a couple of months later, Gilmore had wondered whether the second edition would be so well supported. As it turned out, she needn’t have worried.
“It was even bigger and that was down to a large organisation promoting women's cycling and getting people out there,” she explained. “People love women's cycling and it is just a case of making the information accessible and I think we are going to see the same here. It has been really impressive.”
Stage 5 start, Aviva Women's Tour 2015 (copyright SweetSpot)
The Aviva Women’s Tour and Prudential RideLondon Grand Prix are two of the three high-profile women’s races that have appeared on the calendar over the past couple of years – the other being La Course by Le Tour de France, the second edition of which took place in Paris last Sunday.
“The La Course race in Paris was really a success with lots and lots of people again, the viewing figures were triple from the first year,” said Gilmore.
“The first year there wasn't a lot of time [to let people know it was happening] but this time a lot of people were made more aware that there was a women's race taking place.”
She attributed that to “just general common knowledge after the first year, the circulation of the news after the first women's race, and teams and athletes on social media spreading the word and making women's racing accessible after the first year.”
Last Sunday’s race took place under pouring rain, causing a series of crashes on the cobbles, and Wiggle Honda’s Jolien D’Hoore had to settle for second, leading home the pack that crossed the line just one second behind Rabobank-Liv’s Anna van der Breggen, who had attacked on the final lap.
Gilmore told us the result left her feeling “very disappointed and frustrated, and I think that feeling was due to the fact that Jolien and the team had prepared and we lost out due to bad luck, which is always difficult if everything is perfect and you give 100 per cent.
“We did have bad luck, we lost three riders to crashes, and if we had those riders in the final lap we might have been able to close the gap. Some people would say crashes are a lack of skill, but our riders are very skilled and they were a little bit disappointed because it’s not every day you get to a race with that condition and form.
“The girls were a bit down about that and we have to wait another year. We prepared the best we could and went with the strongest team but it is going to be difficult to wait a year to have another go at it.”
So how do the races in the French and British capitals compare? “I think that the London and Paris atmospheres are very similar,” she said.
“It's possible in London you could feel even closer to the crowds and spectators. RideLondon is probably underestimated by people who haven't experienced it themselves but it is massive.”
Prudential RideLondon Grand Prix in 2014 (copyright Prudential RideLondon)
Saturday evening’s race, as in the previous two editions, takes place on a 1.3 mile circuit around St James’s Park, with Horse Guards and Buckingham Palace providing a stunning backdrop as the riders race along Birdcage Walk and along The Mall.
“It's very condensed into a little area, a little park, there's thousands of people in that park, and I think the interaction's a bit closer,” said Gilmore.
“At La Course you have got all this security and barricades and people are in stands, but certainly the atmosphere's going to be comparable to the Champs Elysees.”
Wiggle Honda are going for a hat-trick, having won the first two editions of the race through Laura Trott (now with Matrix Pro Cycling) in 2013 and Giorgia Bronzini 12 months ago. We asked Gilmore who she saw as the team’s biggest rivals this weekend.
“The biggest challenge is probably going to be the Velocio SRAM team – they are quite strong in numbers and then you have Laura [Trott] with her team Matrix, but they’re probably not as strong as our team or Velocio-SRAM.
“Ale Cipollini are strong too, and Emma Johannson [of Orica-AIS] is a rider who can’t be underestimated, even when she’s racing as an individual here.
“There’s a lot of competition; we are the favourites because we have won the last couple of years, but if we hadn’t, you wouldn’t say we are sure winners, there's some really strong teams and bike riders in the race.
“We have to get it tactically right and the athletes have to be in really good condition, which they are, if they have recovered from their crashes in Paris. Other teams will have to be clever to beat us but we need to be completely on our game to win.”
Giorgia Bronzini wins 2014 Prudential RideLondon Grand Prix (copyright Prudential RideLondon)
Like La Course, the RideLondon Grand Prix will be shown live on TV, while highlights of the Aviva Women’s Tour were shown on ITV4. We asked what more could be done to help promote women’s racing.
“I think more of the races being covered by TV helps fans to get to know the racers a bit better – a series of races covered on networks so that people can really get engaged with the athletes rather than just seeing one race here and there.”
She cited the UCI Women World Cup, saying: “It would be good to follow a series rather than having one-off races. Next year it would be good if networks like Eurosport or the BBC could pick up that series and then the fans and followers can really get involved in following the season.”
Saturday’s race will however see a broadcasting innovation – three riders, including Bronzini, will have front and rear facing cameras on their bikes, with the footage streamed for the first ever time as part of live TV coverage. Gilmore believes it will revolutionise how people view bike racing.
“I think it will be massive, I think it will have a massive impact – you can really share the experience of racing because at the end of the day everybody dreams of being a professional and to know how it feels to be in the peloton, and this really gives a sense of being there,” she explained.
“Even if I'm never going to get in there I'm going to get a buzz watching it. I think people seeing the footage from a rider’s perspective is really going to engage followers. They are going to be blown away to see the skill involved, how close you are the wheel, and the elbows.
“I think people don't realise that it's not just about being fast, it's about riding skills, riding in a bunch, bike handling.”
Dani KIng leads Team GB at London 2012 (picture Britishcycling.org.uk)
Ahead of the current season, founder members Trott and Joanna Rowsell departed for new teams; Dani King, the third member of Team GB’s London 2012 gold medal winning team pursuit line-up is still with Wiggle Honda and rides tomorrow.
Late last year Gilmore said she wanted to strengthen the team in the sprint and for the Classics, and the results have followed; new signing Elisa Longo Borghini won the Tour of Flanders, while fellow 2015 arrivals D’Hoore, Audrey Cordon and Chloe Hosking have also tasted success.
“I think we have exceeded our own expectations this year, we have really stepped it up,” Gilmore said.
“We have become one of the strongest teams in every race we go in, definitely a team to watch in Spring Classics, and in the Giro d'Italia we were the team to watch so we have really exceeded our expectations.”
With six of the 10 races in the UCI Women Road World Cup done, Wiggle Honda have won three – besides Longo Borghini’s win at Flanders, D’Hoore won the Ronde van Drenthe, and Bronzini won the Tour of Chongming Island.
“We wanted to win a World Cup race this year and we have already won three – we’ve ticked boxes all season,” Gilmore said.
“ We missed a couple but we have definitely won a lot more races than we expected to and we have won with a lot more riders than we expected to.
“Really at the end of the season our main focus is RideLondon on Saturday, the World Cup on Sunday in Germany [the Sparkassen Giro], and then the World Cup in Sweden [in Vargarda] and preparing our riders specifically for the World Championships – we would really like to have that rainbow jersey in our team for next year,” she added.
The Wiggle Honda team will be competing in the Ride London event this weekend. The Wiggle Honda team is sponsored by www.wiggle.co.uk, the world's largest online cycling and tri-sports retailer.
Additional reporting by Simon MacMichael