Ferrand-Prevot: undeniably the new star of women’s cycling

In the end it was just a few pedal strokes too far for Marianne Vos, and the rainbow jersey was seized by one of cycling’s most exciting emergent forces, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot.

The Frenchwoman, who at just 22 has been the revelation of the 2014 season, didn’t need to be asked twice, and launched herself off the wheel of a fading Vos with 100m to race. It was just enough to hold off a fast finishing Lisa Brennauer and Emma Johansson, with two-time World Champion Giorgia Bronzini a close 4th.

Australia’s leader Tiffany Cromwell rode brilliantly to finish 5th.

You could say Ferrand-Prevot relied on an element of luck to catch the elite group of Vos, Lizzie Armitstead, Emma Johansson and Elisa Longo-Borghini, who had broken clear over the final climb of the day.

But in the last two kilometres, the four leaders – all of whom were amongst the pre-race favourites, with the expectation that brings – were more intent on avoiding leading each other out than they were on staying in front of the chasers. It was one for students of game theory: cooperation would have ensured success for one, but certain defeat for whoever cooperated most.

It was not to be. All four soft-pedalled and the second group, driven by the Germans who had two riders present, pulled themselves and (crucially) Ferrand-Prevot back into the race.

This was Ferrand-Prevot’s luck, but winning a bike race always relies on an element of it. Her opponents’ blackjack games went bust and she played the hand she had. Don’t forget she still had to win the sprint against some of the best in the world.

It’s not as if her win was a surprise, either. Last week at The Roar I named her as the biggest threat to her Rabo-Liv trade teammate Vos, and if I knew that then you could bet your house that every woman in the race knew.

This year she’s won Fleche-Wallonne and Emakumeen Euskal Bira (a four-stage race in the Basque Country, where she also won two stages). She was second overall in the women’s Giro, and has only been outside the top 5 in a road race five times this season. One of those was La Course, where she crashed.

Ferrand-Prevot has been around for a few years, and won the World Junior road race title in 2010, but this year she’s has raised her results in the pro peloton from top ten or fifteen to being a consistent podium placer, and there’s been a sense that there’s lots of improvement still to come.

You see, what makes Ferrand-Prevot really interesting is her versatility. She’s the French National Champion in the road race and the time trial.

And cyclocross.

And cross-country mountain-biking.

She’s a freak. Along with her outstanding road season, she’s been racing mountain bikes all year. Three of those national titles were won in a four week period, in July. It’s not as if she jumps off the road bike in winter and hits the CX course for some off-season fitness (although she does that, too). Nope, she races road and MTB in parallel, and she plans to continue.

As for Marianne Vos, it was easily her worst result in a World Championships. For whatever reason, it seems that her lack of form in the team time trial had not fully resolved, and she didn’t have the legs to dominate as we have seen her do in the past. Perhaps the strength of her team – diminished here by national allegiances and last week’s crash – has been even more important this season than we thought.

Vos was able to follow Lizzie Armitstead’s vicious attack on the final climb, but she looked laboured doing so, head down and shoulders rocking. In the run to the finish she was hesitant, then seemed to panic when she opened up the sprint more than 300m from the line. It was too early, and she was swept up easily. Probably this is good for the sport, to see that she is human after all.

Before I wind this up, I want to comment on the discussion about whether or not it was a boring race. SBS Cycling Central blogger Anthony Tan lit the fuse, calling it “a three-and-a-half hour advertisement on why we shouldn’t watch”, retroactively undermining his network’s decision to broadcast the race live on SBS One. His argument is that virtually nothing happened until the last two laps, that there was not enough impetuosity, which reflects poorly on women’s cycling.

My view is that we’ve definitely seen more exciting televised racing this season, at La Course and during the Women’s Tour (of Britain), but that it’s the wrong way to look at it. Of course it’s unsurprising that there were no impetuous (a euphemism for tactical suicide?) attacks, given the combination of a challenging parcours and smaller national teams with less depth, that provide fewer tactical options compared to some of the powerful trade teams.

But cherry-picking one conservative race and arguing that it’s a reason to stop supporting televised women’s racing, especially without really considering why tactics were so, is a sloppy argument.

If you happened to watch the men’s race, which had a live-stream for virtually the entire race, you will realise why most TV coverage avoids the boring first two-thirds of most races – it was also a complete snorefest until the last 60km (or 25% of the race) when the Italians decided to rip everyone’s legs off (including their own).

Hard courses make riders cautious, which means there will be long periods when the race is left to tick along without much incident. Most times, we never even see the long build-up, because the broadcasters know how unlikely it is to be compelling viewing.

So yes, the women’s road race was ridden conservatively until the final stages, but that happened in every road race of the week – singling out one race for special criticism seems unfair to me. If anything, the organisers should be blamed for designing a course that encouraged dull racing. SBS deserves praise for broadcasting the race live. I hope they don’t lose their nerve because of a few snarky comments.

We now have a new wearer of the rainbow jersey. She has the ability and image to captivate audiences, and build on the momentum that women’s cycling has gathered with the UCI’s support this year. A few cheap shots shouldn’t muddle that.

Chapeau to Pauline Ferrand-Prevot.

Update: Bridie O’Donnell, who understands and communicates women’s racing as well as anyone and better than most, has ripped in with a far more detailed analysis than I have done – go and read it.

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