• Annemiek van Vleuten will be the hare to the hounds on the second La Course event. (Getty)Source: Getty
Nineteen riders start. The one that crosses the line first at the end throws their hands up in the air in the end as they cross the line is the winner. Simple. Cathartic.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Source:
Cycling Central
22 Jul 2017 - 8:34 AM  UPDATED 22 Jul 2017 - 8:42 AM

That's what the La Course organisers are giving us with the new pursuit format for the two stages of the 2017 women's race.

Part of the problem with explaining cycling to casual sports fans is the amount of abstraction you have to go to in explaining the fundamentals of the format of the race. 

"Oh she's the leader of the race, that's why she's wearing the yellow jersey. No, she hasn't won every stage, but her total cumulative time is less than the next best rider. She helped her cause by taking bonus seconds, which I guess shouldn't be called bonuses, given they get deducted from your time rather than added... where were we?"

Watch La Course LIVE ON SBS and in the ŠKODA Tour Tracker from 9:00pm AEST.

Here it's simple. Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott) won the first stage of La Course by Le Tour de France by 43 seconds. She will start Saturday's 22.5km race first, 43 seconds ahead of second-placed Lizzie Deignan (Boels Dolmans) with corresponding gaps for the top 19 riders from Stage 1.

She tackles the largely flat course around coastal Marseille, take in the one short but steep climb in the back half of the route, 1.2 kilometres at 9.5 per cent, and whip back for the return trip along the Mediterranean coast. First one back to the finish line in Marseille velodrome wins. 

It's essentially a handicap race, but in reverse, the best rider goes away first as a reward for being the best performer to date, whilst the rest gang up on her and try to hunt her down. Road bikes to be used and cooperation and drafting is allowed between competitors. There will be none of the uncertainty and ridiculousness of the Hammer Chase, which had a team time trial peloton operating within supposed 'no-drafting' regulations.

The obvious pitfall with this reverse handicap is that is whilst it makes sense and seems fair, it doesn't necessarily lend itself to a competitive race. If the best rider in the race starts in front, it's likely that they'll stay in front.

Tomorrow is likely to show this, van Vleuten is going to win by a country mile unless some misadventure befalls her. She is simply too good a time-triallist, arguably the best in the world at the moment, to lose a 43-second advantage to a single rider over this course. To be honest, even if the entire 19-strong peloton started clumped behind her at 43 seconds, I'd happily back van Vleuten to win.

Van Vleuten won the Dutch national championships time trial, the hardest in the world to win, going up against names like Anna van der Breggen, Ellen van Dijk, Lucinda Brand, etc. Then she came out and dominated the recent Giro Rosa time trial, putting minutes into most competitors on the hilly course, despite suffering a mechanical mid-race. Without van der Breggen present at La Course, she was always going to be the outstanding favourite for this format.

Her closest rival is Deignan, who whilst a great rider, doesn't excel in long solo efforts, arguably time-trialling is her worst discipline. Then go a further 40 seconds back and there are a few riders spread out over half a minute. 

There's Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5), Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans), Lauren Stephens (Team TIBCO-SVB), along with Australians Shara Gillow (FDJ) and Amanda Spratt (Orica-Scott). They might be able to get together and form a working group, though that would take a bit of time and energy, whilst Spratt and Guarnier would likely sit on to defend their teammates up the road. So you can see why the odds are stacked in van Vleuten's favour.

Nonetheless, you could easily spin a scenario where it does result in an intriguing competition. Say, instead of van Vleuten in the lead, it was Guarnier, who is more of a specialist climber. She would be in the cross-hairs of the stronger riders on the flat, the hunt for the win would be on and we'd be talking about the tactics that come into play with the riders behind, what happens when the race comes down to the line, who has the best sprint, who needs to go solo, given that first over the line wins the whole thing.

It's a more cathartic experience than the normal time-trial rigmarole, you see the riders go over the line separately then the judges do some maths and declare the winner. Letting a race be decided on the road, rather than with an abstract battle against the clock is always going to make more sense to viewers and will hopefully draw more casual sport fans in.

Van Vleuten conquers the Col d'Izoard in La Course
Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott) put aside disappointment at the Giro Rosa and the agony of the crash at the Rio Olympics to finish first atop the Col d'Izoard for the first stage of La Course by the Tour de France.

It's certainly a fun format, and while I can't see anything but a comfortable win by a minute and change for van Vleuten, imagine what would happen if we extended this to the men's side of things. Put Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Uran off at similar times and get them to hunt down Chris Froome together and you'd have a very interesting race on your hands. 

Battles behind for positions would come down to racecraft, not just the normal pure power and time trial pacing that forms the entire sum of the 'strategy' within the traditional race of truth. 

The entire Tour de France could come down to the final sprint for the line in the Marseille velodrome, don't tell me that wouldn't make for some great television. For sure, if it's a lopsided event and someone has a massive lead then it will be an easy win, but that's the case anyway with time trials.

In short, I'm a fan of shaking it up a bit and giving a new look at what sort of spectacle we can get with a bit of experimentation and it's good to see the women given the opportunity to lead the way. Increased coverage of women's cycling is a big part of the future of the sport, so it's fitting that their racing reflects new formats and ways that we'll be watching in coming years.