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La Course is a double challenge for women’s peloton

The most feared moment of the 2017 Tour de France comes during stage 18. Riders finish atop the Col d’Izoard, the famous mountain pass known for its rock pillars and moon-like landscape. The iconic Alpine pass is 14.1 kilometers in length at an average of 7.3 percent. The race has sent the peloton up and over the hulking climb on multiple occasions, but it has never positioned a finish atop the road.

The men are not the only ones who fear the Izoard. The professional women will also climb the giant as part of La Course by Le Tour. On July 20, the women’s peloton will race 67km across the Alps and will finish up the fearsome slope.

It’s a grueling test, one that delights the flag bearer of French women’s cycling, 2014 world road race champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. “There aren’t many races in the mountains in women’s racing,” Ferrand-Prévot says. “It’s good that ASO is innovating in this domain with what is a very difficult event.”

The stage adds a completely new flavor to La Course. The race was launched by ASO in 2014 as a circuit race along the Champs-Élysées. For the last three years, the race has delighted the Parisian crowds in the lead-up to the men’s finale; it has always been a contest for the women with the fastest sprint.

The new course will showcase the skills of the best climbers in the women’s peloton. “Some girls will undoubtedly come into their own on this race,” Ferrand-Prévot says. “How do you know if you’re a climber or not if you never go up any passes?”

The race has been part of the UCI’s Women’s WorldTour calendar since 2016. The world’s top female teams are all invited. Squads such as Boels-Dolmans, Canyon-SRAM, and Team Sunweb will be in attendance.

The race contains a bonus for the women’s peloton. The top 20 female finishers on the Izoard will receive an automatic invite to an innovative new race to be held in Marseille two days later (July 22). The women will compete on the same 22.5km individual time trial course in Marseille that the men will race later that day.

The time trial boasts a new format, which handicaps the riders based on their times on the Izoard. Like biathletes in Nordic skiing events, competitors will start according to the Izoard time gaps from two days before.

Australian climber Shara Gillow of the FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope team believes the new format adds a huge incentive to the riders, especially climbers like her.

“I love long climbs and cope very well at altitude,” Gillow says. “This factor will play a significant role at the summit of the Izoard, especially as only the top 20 finishers will qualify for the pursuit race in Marseille!”

It’s an unusual format which may open the door to future tests of the same kind. That would delight Ferrand-Prévot.

“I’m curious and excited to see how an event that can be compared to the mass starts in biathlon unfolds,” she says. “Once again, we’ll be able to take advantage of the infrastructure that’s put in place for a Tour de France stage.”

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