Some of the world’s best cyclists will race on the streets of central London on Saturday in the IG London Nocturne. For perhaps the first time in the seven-year history of the event, the principal attraction will be the elite women’s race.
World junior road race champion, Lucy Garner, will represent the Argos-Shimano UCI World Cup team. Four-time IG Nocturne winner, Hannah Barnes (MG-Maxifuel), will return to defend her title, while world junior time trial champion, Elinor Barker, will represent the high-profile Wiggle Honda squad, one launched in London at the beginning of the year with much fanfare and the backing of blue chip sponsors and the Bradley Wiggins Foundation.
In a golden age for British women’s cycle sport, the spotlight has shone with greatest intensity on the gold medal winning trio of Joanna Rowsell, Laura Trott and Dani King, catapulted to stardom by their emphatic victory in the women’s team pursuit at last year’s Olympic Games, one achieved in the last of a series of world record times.
Tomorrow, the trio will compete together in London for the first time since the career-changing events of last summer, and while for all three riders the Nocturne could be described as a homecoming of sorts, for Rowsell, the short trip from her home in Surrey to Smithfield Market will perhaps lend the event a greater significance.
“I definitely want to go on the attack,” she tells RoadCyclingUK in a wide-ranging interview covering the most significant 12 months of her 24 years. The events of last summer passed in a blur, she admits, lost to an endless round of media commitments. Her current focus on the road with Wiggle Honda has presented a new and exciting challenge, but she is under no illusions about the commitment required by the team’s blue chip backers, or about the role it might play in raising the profile of women’s road racing still further. And Rio 2016 is already in her thoughts.
In a golden age for British women’s cycle sport, the spotlight has shone with greatest intensity on the gold medal winning trio of Joanna Rowsell, Laura Trott and Dani King
Rowsell’s immediate focus, however, is on the Nocturne. A former national circuit race champion, she is relishing the prospect of a crit race, one whose hard and fast tempo, and almost constant opportunities to attack she contrasts with ‘bowling along’ in a bunch. An early season spent racing in pelotons of up to 200 riders has reacquainted her with the cut and thrust of racing on the road, though she is quick to highlight the tactical demands of the team pursuit and the necessity of riding close to the wheel in front.
Despite the limited significance of a non-series, night-time crit race, Rowsell is aware of a greater agenda: the cause of women’s road racing. The profile of the sport has risen exponentially in the last 12 months and she is keen to build on gains considerably more than marginal. “We want to showcase women’s cycling and show how exciting it can be,” she says of the Nocturne.
Many fans have told Rowsell of their greater enjoyment of the women’s Olympic road race than the men’s race the previous day. It’s a measure of the strength and depth of British female talent that the Nocturne’s organisers expect the women’s race to be a greater draw than the men’s, despite the absence of Olympic silver medalist Lizzie Armitstead, whose three-way duel with Marianne Vos of the Netherlands and Poland’s Olga Zabelinskaya gripped the nation and perhaps changed perception of the sport in the minds of millions almost overnight last summer.
Armitstead’s Boels-Dolman team-mate, Emma Trott, sister of Rowsell’s team-mate, will be another British rider from the top tier of women’s racing competing tomorrow. The ambitious British squads of Matrix Fitness Racing Academy and MG Maxifuel Pro Cycling are also likely to be in the mix. There is little doubt, however, that Wiggle Honda, and specifically its golden trio, will be the biggest attraction.
It’s a measure of the strength and depth of British female talent that the Nocturne’s organisers expect the women’s race to be a greater draw than the men’s
Wiggle Honda is Rowsell’s new challenge. The team roster is filled with formidable – and established – road talent, not least that of owner-manager Rochelle Gilmore. The team’s most decorated rider, double world road race champion Giorgia Bronzini, has already racked up six victories this season. Rowsell is enjoying her return to the road and a team dynamic in which she says everyone is keen to learn from each other. Bronzini and her Italian team-mate, Beatrice Bartelloni, are both track riders with more than a passing interest in the success of Rowsell and her team pursuit colleagues.
Rowsell insists there is no pressure placed by the team on her personally, but she is clear that racing for a squad with Wiggle Honda’s profile means that riding simply to survive in the bunch is not an option. “Every time you ride a bike race with a number on your back, you’re representing the sponsors,” she says. After a year in which she focussed entirely on the track and London 2012, Rowsell has resumed her road career at the highest level. She is quick to praise the standard of international women’s road racing and aware that her achievements with British Cycling have raised her profile among her competitors.
She has already raced for Wiggle Honda at some of the most prestigious road races in the UCI women’s road world cup, including La Flèche Wallonne Féminine, a race to which the BBC sent a film crew, such is the profile Great Britain’s women’s team pursuit squad. Dominant on the track, the murs of the Ardennes provided an unfamiliar challenge for the team pursuit trio, but one largely met by Rowsell, who rode with an elite front group containing the eventual winner, world and Olympic road race champion Vos for most of the race. It’s a measure of Rowsell’s determination that she clung on to be the first member of her team home despite losing 4:30 minutes to Vos in the final 15km.
The track is not far from Rowsell’s thoughts, however. For a team seemingly able to win at will and to set world records for fun, the challenge of the team pursuit could be exhausted. In what might be considered a blessing, however, the format has now changed, giving the women’s race parity with the men’s: four kilometres with four riders. For Great Britain, with a developing talent like Barker in the wings, winning a world cup on her debut with Trott and King, it is especially good news. Rowsell speaks confidently of setting the standard at the new distance and then beating it, pointing out that the team has four years until Rio to perfect its approach.
For a team seemingly able to win at will and to set world records for fun, the challenge of a new format for the women’s team pursuit may prove a blessing
The events of London 2012 unfolded too quickly to be savoured, Rowsell admits. She would like to have remained in the athletes’ village and to have watched more of the events, and describes being pulled in different directions, fulfilling a host of media commitments in a schedule that denied her time to reflect on her achievement. Rowsell is not complaining, however. “It was still the best two weeks of my life.” The special bond with Trott and King extended to calming pre-race nerves. Rowsell describes the presence on the start line of team-mates prepared “to give 110 per cent, whatever happens” as its own antidote to anxiety.
Tomorrow will give British fans a chance to glimpse the next chapter in Rowsell’s story: a burgeoning road career made alongside those with whom she has the closest sporting bond. The IG London Nocturne is far from the limit of her ambitions, but will offer a small window on her progress to date, and that of her Wiggle Honda team-mates.
“As long as one of us wins, it’s job done,” says Rowsell.
Racing at the IG London Nocturne starts at 4pm. The Rapha Elite Women’s Criterium starts at 8.50pm.