La Course: A once-in-a-lifetime experience
Joanne Kiesanowski recounts The City of Light and La Course by Le Tour de France
I’ve raced and ridden all over France. In my 16 years as a professional cyclist I’ve raced numerous multi-day stage races over thousands of miles of French roads. I’ve even raced on the outskirts of Paris, but I have never raced or even ridden my bike inside the center of one of the most famous cities in the world. Such iconic roads, such history – so romantic.
La Course by Le Tour de France on July 24 was always going to be special for me. My husband is the only American to ever win the final stage of the Tour de France on the famed Champs Elysees riding for the impressive 7-11 team in 1987. I also had another family tie: My Granddad’s cousin, Harry Watson, was the first New Zealander in 1928 to compete in the Tour de France, finishing in 28th place out of 168 starters. Now it was my duty to make my own mark in what would be most likely my first and only time to compete here in Paris with my imminent retirement at the end of the 2016 season (some might not believe me)!
For our pre-race spin, I lead the girls right into the center of Paris and right into the craziness of the Arc di Triomphe, we jumped right into the circle with all the cars and mopeds zooming by us — What a rush! We could have just ridden along the river to make it easy with directions, but that’s half of the pre-race ride, getting ourselves excited for what’s to come the next day. For two of my teammates, it was their first time in Paris; so I had to make sure they understood the magnificence of this city. We stopped at a delicious bakery for lunch on the way back to the hotel and sat and ate our baguettes in the sun outside — a perfect Parisian day.
The Tour de France has been around since 1905, but has only finished on the Champs Elysees since 1975. This is only the third edition of La Course, a single day Women’s WorldTour event for women, using the same lap as the men. Imagine a huge city like that being shut down for a bike race?! It really is a big spectacle. We would complete 13 laps of 6.8kms up the Champs Elysees, around the Arc de Triomphe, back down the Champs, across the Place de la Concorde, around the Jardin des Tuileries, through a tunnel and back onto the Champs Elysees where the finish line is approximately 350m from the last chicane. With around 80 percent of the course being cobbled, TV really doesn’t do it justice. This course sucks your energy right from the go! You can see the peaks in power every lap shown below from by Verve power meter, and count the 13 laps! Our plan was to have three of us save it for a sprint finish and three to cover and get into breakaways during the pointy end of the race. Right from the first lap there were crashes with girls taking risks to move up positions. Four out of the six of us were caught up in crashes with Brianna Walle and Kendall Ryan taking the worst spills and not able to finish the race. I knew the last lap would be the most dicey and that I just had to keep it upright and not take crazy risks. I’m known for my ability to slither through the field, so I really drew on my years of experience and stayed calm while trying to hold my position in the first few riders and staying as safe as possible (easier said than done). Seeing my teammates getting away off the front in some very threatening breakaways gave me so much motivation to keep moving up the field, heck, if they were giving their all earlier in the race then I better be able to finish it off. Other teammates helped us sprinters move up valuable places by blasting down the side of the field in difficult sections. Other teammates gave words of encouragement when we were questioning our dead legs during the surges, the chase back on after a crash, or that steady incline bouncing on the cobbles up to the Arc de Triomphe every lap.
I made a big push in the final mile to go into and out of the tunnel in good position. I watched Ellen van Dijk do a massive flyer and come around everyone on the outside and get a good gap with only 1.5kms to go! That really drove the pace up more and was great, actually. The faster the better as it prevents too much swarming. I needed to keep my position and look for ways to surf up even more. I got behind a French team’s leadout — locals, they should know all the tricks (their riders ended up 5th and 6th) and managed to sneak up the left side following them, hoping for an opening somewhere! I got a bit boxed in when we hit the final 300m straight, but stayed calm, had to go again at 150m or so and gave it everything I had to the line! Of course, I wanted to win and be able to match my husband’s effort, now he still has bragging rights, sigh… But in reality I was happy and proud of our top-10 finish and our presence in the race, after all this was a Women’s WorldTour event and one of the most prestigious races we will compete in in our careers. It was definitely a race to remember and to look back fondly on. After the race my teammates and I rode slowly back down the Champs Elysees taking it all in, discussing the crazy race together and stopping to see friends, photographers and journalists on our way back to the cars. We were excited to stay in the city and watch the men arrive soon from our privileged view inside the course. We sat in the late afternoon sun up in the VIP stands with an incredible view of the whole Champs Elysees watching the men edge closer and closer each lap to a spectacular sprint finale. And as the food flowed freely and baguettes, beignets and macaroons were bountiful, my teammate turned to me and said, “Are you sure this is your last time racing here? I don’t believe that you are going to retire!” C’est la vie – la vie est belle.