The 89km event will see women race 13 times around the famous Paris circuit of just over seven kilometres, which will be raced on by the men’s Tour de France peloton just hours later.
Memorable in the past for big crashes on the slippery cobbles, and for shining a well-deserved spotlight on women’s racing, La Course by Le Tour de France is building a reputation for being the more exciting race of the two events to hit the Champs-Élysées tonight.
Tensions will be even higher this evening. With the Olympic women’s road race scheduled for Sunday August 7, tonight’s race is a chance for those who missed selection leave everything out there on the race track.
For riders who are preparing for Rio, it will provide a final pre-Olympics hit-out. And as a number of big name riders have opted out of La Course in order to focus on Rio instead, there will be more opportunities for other riders to animate the race.
While the course couldn’t be more different to that of the Rio road race, a win on the Champs is be a big coup for confidence and for sponsors but given the large number of crashes on the cobbles last year, tonight's race is one where Olympic hopefuls will be particularly happy to finish while staying clear of any potential carnage.
The Australian contingent
Of the Australian contenders, sprinter, Chloe Hosking (Wiggle-High5) comes into the race as one of the favourites for victory, following her overall in the Tour of Chongming Island in May, and her maiden Giro Rosa stage win earlier in the month.
“I think it’s a bit of a different sprint, but I’m a bit nervous to be honest,” Hosking said. “I feel like there’s a bit of pressure, so we’ll see how we go with that. But I’m feeling really super strong on the bike right now, which is good because I had a bit of a lull in the spring, and I was disappointed in myself there, so I’m glad that I’ve put in the hard work and it’s starting to pay off with my Giro win.
“I hope I can pull off another really good result for the team on Sunday, but it’s not going to be easy. Marianne Vos is racing! She’s just come off three stages at Thüringen. I think Barbara Guarischi’s there, and Canyon-SRAM has an amazing lead out train…”
Last year’s chaotic race, over the slick, rain-soaked cobblestones of the Champs-Elysées, was won in a final lap breakaway by Rabo-Liv’s Anna van der Breggen, while Hosking led out then Belgian Champion Jolien D’hoore to second place behind her. With D’hoore focussed on the Olympic Omnium this year, Hosking has stepped up and will be taking on sprinter duties herself this year.
“It’s going to be a hard race and, also, with Anna van der Breggen winning it solo last year, it’s not an easy race to control on the really wide roads and the cobblestones,” Hosking said.
“I don’t know what the team tactic is going to be (yet), but hopefully we can go in, and the team backs me again.”
As for other Aussies to watch, Tiffany Cromwell will be racing for the Canyon-SRAM team and also took a stage of the Giro Rosa last month. Orica-AIS Olympic hopefuls Gracie Elvin, Amanda Spratt, Rachel Neylan and Katrin Garfoot are skipping La Course, with their focus set firmly on Rio instead. Five other Australians will be joined by United States’ Taylor Wiles for Orica-AIS: Loren Rowney, Sarah Roy, Jenelle Crooks, Jessica Allen and Alexandra Manly.
Who to watch from further abroad
2014 winner, Marianne Vos (Rabobank-Liv), is back at the top after time out with injury, and is the hot favourite for La Course. Her team-mate Anna van der Breggen, who won here last year, is absent this time around also due to the Olympics.
The 2016 race season has been dominated by Boels Dolmans Cycling Team, who will also be out in force. They have won nine from 11 stops of the UCI Women's World Tour, with reigning world champion Lizzie Armitstead taking four wins, Megan Guarnier, the World Tour leader, securing the Tour of California, the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic and the Giro Rosa, and Chantal Blaak winning Gent Wevelgem and Ronde van Drenthe. While Blaak will race La Course, Guarnier and Armitstead will skip it for Rio, opening the field for other riders to take the reigns.
So who are the other riders to watch? TV Commentators Anthony McCrossan and Rochelle Gilmore picked out a few names.
“We will see Lotta Lepisto (Cervelo Bigla), Leah Kirchmann (Liv Plantur), Lucy Garner (Wiggle High5), Coryn Rivera (United Healthcare) and either Barbara Guarischi or Tiffany Cromwell figure in the finishing sprint,” said McCrossan.
“Marianne Vos (will) be hard to beat in the finish. Chloe Hosking, Kirchmann, Ellen Van Dijk (Boels Dolmans)… they're all strong and fast,” said Gilmore.
“I expect a more aggressive race than in the past given that the teams are now more familiar with how important and significant the TV exposure is for their sponsors.
“There are fewer teams with big name sprinters this year so if a break is well represented by the bigger teams, we might see a sprint or attacking finish from a smaller group.”
While a number of riders have Rio in their sites rather than the Arc de Triomphe, McCrossan believes that won't have any impact on what is sure to be a hard-fought and thrilling race.
“For sure the Olympics this year will have an impact on the start list, we can’t get away from that. But there are a lot of riders not going to the Olympics who want to win so we will still see a hard-fought race,” he said.
What to expect
“Last year the weather played a big part in how the race was played out, but that's why cycling is so intriguing and exciting to watch,” said McCrossan.
“If we have bad weather a breakaway could go all the way to the line. But if the weather is good then the sprinters will have a field day.
“Teams will go out with their own plan and try to win. But this is the Champs-Élysées, it's the same day as the finish of the Tour de France. It's a huge day and everyone will be motivated to win."
A new chapter for women in cycling
“Now we are into the third year so now it's about finding its long term importance and narrative in the new Women's WorldTour. This is a race for the classic bike rider or sprinter so I hope we will see a hard-fought race that brings us a worthy winner.
“It's important to have a race linked with the Tour de France. For the long term development of women's cycling any event that gets big crowds and TV audiences is prestigious," said McCrossan.
For Gilmore, a former Australian professional cyclist turned team manager, La Course offers women's teams a unique opportunity for exposure on the biggest stage of all, provided they race aggressively.
“The prestige of the event builds each year. The event is something people can relate to, a race on the Champs-Élysées,” said Glimore. “Already, after only two years, the event attracts the most TV coverage of all women's cycling races which makes, it in many ways, the most important event for a women's cycling team to attend and hope to be successful.
“As a team manager we recognise this event as one of the highest exposure events on the calendar. However it's not just enough to be on the start line. For a team to really benefit from the worldwide broadcast, they need to be active in the race and/or land a podium position.”
Watch it LIVE on SBS from 10.00 (AEST)
Now in its third edition, the race continues to grow in stature and prestige. Starting at 10.00pm (AEST), the women race before the men roll into Paris for the final stage of the Tour de France.
The entire race is live on 16 channels worldwide, including SBS for Australian viewers. McCrossan believes this increasingly global coverage is a very positive step for women's cycling. “The first edition of the race was historic and game-changing for women's cycling,” he said.