Is there a nicer place to win one’s first UCI race? ;)

It is a funny coincidence that the header image of my blog features Mont Ventoux. And that the so far biggest success of my career should take place there.

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I love this mountain, the Giant of the Provence as they call it, and I have already had the (painful) pleasure to climb it last year during the GFNY cyclosportive. This year, the Tour de l’Ardèche would be the first women’s UCI race to feature the climb.

Although I had only done the climb once before, the memories were vivid and often during my training sessions I would imagine racing parts of the climb… During endless 45min intervals I would imagine the cruelling kilometers after Chalet Reynard with the summit in sight, during the final seconds of high-intensity intervals I would imagine sprinting up the final hairpin before the finish.

Fast forward to the Tour de l’Ardèche, stage 3. The 94,9km route featured some comparatively short climbs before finishing with the ascent of Mont Ventoux via Bédoin. The peloton was moving at a slow pace, probably everyone was scared of the Giant. This meant that everything stayed together and I didn’t exactly feel comfortable in the tight bunch.

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Sometimes the only thing that distinguishes stupidity from the winning move is the final outcome. I didn’t know what I was doing when I attacked at the summit of one of those short climbs after less than an hour of racing. “Fantastic Anna, there you are now, alone in the middle of nowhere with over 70km to go, wasting your energy before the decisive climb up Mont Ventoux. They will catch you and then you’ll be dead and all the hard training will have been for nothing…” – were my thoughts when I started to climb the next hill at a comfortably hard pace. The only good thing was that my legs were feeling absolutely awesome.

But other good things started to happen! There had been an earlier breakaway of five riders, which I though was far away. The guy on the motorbike kept telling me the time gap and apparently I was closing down on them rapidly. I maintained my “comfortably hard” pace and at the top of the hill I had caught the group of riders. The company comforted me, I would have people to work with in the flat parts before Mont Ventoux.

Indeed most of our little group collaborated well, and although we went a bit slowly for my liking – I was scared of big names like Flavia Oliveira and Edwige Pitel, who were sitting in the peloton waiting for their time – we reached the bottom of Mont Ventoux with a 6min advantage.
After the first easy kilometers I left the shelter of the group and upped the pace, settling into ITT mode. My legs continued to feel awesome, I was smiling and thoroughly enjoying myself. Often spectators would call my name, apparently they remembered me from the GFNY cyclosportive. The enthusiasm of my DS, who was cheering me on from the  team car, was addictive and the support from the Vélo 101 family along the road was amazing. Heaven!

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Comfortably hard pace gets uncomfortable after about 20min. That’s when, on Mont Ventoux, one remembers that there is still 50-60min left to go. Heaven? Not really! My happiness turned into dispair when the gap I had on the peloton started shrinking much quicker than I would have liked… 2:30min?! What the hell?? I tried to increase my pace but I was really at the edge – any faster and I would blow before reaching the summit. There was nothing I could do other than maintain my pace.

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Passing Chalet Reynard was awesome – cruel but awesome. I was suffering but still feeling strong, and to have so many people cheering me on and shouting my name was very special. After a seemingly endless time of uncertainty, not knowing whether I would make it, the time gap increased again. Relief! Apparently after some initial attacks the chasers were dying too.

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At the 3km mark I was regaining hope that I could do it, and on the last km I knew I had the victory in the bag. Hell turned into heaven again. I sprinted to the line trying to gain as much time on my competitors as possible. Almost 4min advantage on runner-up Flavia Oliveira it turned out.

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Minutes after the finish, when I had hugged my lovely supporters and regained my breath, I was still incredulous that I had made it. Winning a UCI race, what?? And even better, the Queen’s stage of the Tour de l’Ardèche! It felt like a dream. Anything I could have hoped for in this stage race, I had already achieved it; everything that was to come now would be an extra. I wasn’t even afraid of defending the pink jersey. I felt overjoyed and honoured to wear it at all.

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