WORDS: FRANKIE HALL
MEDIA: BREAKAWAY DIGITAL
I first became involved with Drops ahead of the Zwift Tour for All at the beginning of May, whilst lockdown was in full force across the UK and majority of Europe. At the time, I was living with Meaks in Derby, having just returned home from an interesting enforced Spanish lockdown during a Tenerife altitude camp with Joss. I had been chatting to them both a lot, especially about some small relative success I’d had as a ‘beginer’ on Zwift.
Surprisingly, I had never used Zwift pre-lockdown, but it quickly became a platform that allowed me to push myself in training as well as get a competitive kick. With the increasing likelyhood that both UK national racing and the international UCI calendar were to be put on hold indefinitely, Zwift quickly realised the opportunity to get involved with the professional teams.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little intimidated in the first instances of helping the team, due to the caliber of athletes and what I felt was my inadequate experience of racing at a high level. That feeling was soon dissipated by Team Director Bob Varney, who welcomed me warmly into the group.
The Tour for All was a massive learning curve for us all I would say, learning how I could best help the riders, as well as how to communicate with them through the race. Getting to know how everyone raced on the Zwift platform, as I can assure you, the online virtual racing – sprinting full gas into a laptop screen in your living room – isn’t for everyone.
I never imagined at the beginning of March when the pandemic came to a head, that I would get to be involved in cycling history – the first ever virtual Women’s Tour of France. I felt honoured that Bob had asked me to help, I had honestly really enjoyed the Tour for All experience and it was very interesting to see the other side of the sport, having only ever been on the racing side myself. I am sure that there are many people more qualified than I am to be a DS at a ‘virtual World Tour’ event, but we seem to have a really good relationship going. All of the riders have fully committed to the racing, and are all willing to learn more. It makes me want to put in all work preceding each stage so that we go in fully armed with knowing what is to come.
As soon as they released the course schedule for the event, I found all the races I could enter on those courses. It is great being able to pre-ride a route, but being able to race it really helps with the timing and knowledge of what is going to happen within a race, where you are travelling a lot faster, and physically trying to whittle down a bunch or cling onto the wheels in front. It allows you to make the mistakes with attacks and power ups so that the riders don’t have to make them in the race that matters!
The opening weekend was mega, we had no pressure and no expectations going into the race, and came away with a stage win with April whilst Joss backed up her climbing prowess by finishing in the top 10, and Elise proved her improving form by also riding into the points. Stage 2 saw us collect another stage podium, retain the QOM jersey, and confirm our consistency with 2nd in the Yellow Jersey GC, and 2nd in the Green jersey whilst winning the White Jersey for Best Young Rider. Not so bad for a small wild card team racing amongst the biggest World Tour teams.
The second weekend of racing – Stages 3 and 4 showed it wasn’t just beginners luck. A slightly flatter Stage 3 played into the hands of the technical and tactical riders. All four of our riders collected points, with Emilie and Mayo leading us into the first sprint in style. We finished the stage having held onto the QOM Jersey for the return of our climbers for Stage 4, and elevated our standings in the Green, White and GC rankings. Oh, and of course, another stage win for April.
Approaching the final weekend, I personally felt slightly more pressure. I did more prep coming into Stage 5 and 6. The routes hadn’t been available to the Zwift Community, so I made sure to recce each route twice, as well as racing L’Etape on Saturday so I had a race experience up that brutal climb! My legs did not thank me, but we successfully navigated the early sprint and intermediate QOM with Finja putting in a stellar effort to scoop up the points. Joss was battling it out at the head of the race for the entirety. Head to head with the strongest female climbers in the world and riding into a phenomenal 7th place finish.
Tibco SVB played the perfect game and truly outnumbered us, making it so that Joss was doing a lot of chasing and really being pushed to the max. Joss had some incredible early season results with the British Track Nationals and Setmana Ciclista Valencia. These few weeks have shown she is fighting fit after her shoulder surgery and is ready to take on what is left of the season. Anna had an incredible performance, being very new to the platform, her raw talent and skill came to light on the mountain, watching her just ride through people one after another, making time up on the lead group, and finishing agonisingly close to the lead group of 11 riders, and riding herself strongly into the GC points!
The final stage saw us virtually in Paris, and chapeau to Zwift, they really put on a show. The graphics and imagery were incredible, even in the recon ride I was excited to race so I can’t imagine how the riders felt. Unfortunately we suffered with some issues meaning only two of our riders were able to start, and one lost connection mid race! The laps went quickly, and during the race April and I were discussing when and how do use which power-ups. The final lap she timed it to perfection. It takes a lot of confidence and guts to leave it so late, when all the other riders had activated their sprints and gone early, we knew the exact seconds to the line, and it was all we could ask for. Less than 0.1s from a 3rd stage win, it was an epic finish to a historic event.
The past couple of days has seen some start to real life racing in the Netherlands and Norway, where Elise, Emilie and Mayo have taken wins and podiums, so I hope that the rest of the season will follow in this way.
It has been an honour to be involved in such a prestigious event, and getting to work so closely with a wonderful group of talented riders. There’s such a buzz of camaraderie within the team with the young riders being so well looked after by the more experienced girls. The passion and love for the sport with a desire to perform well and see one another do well is truly inspirational and certainly motivates me to train harder so that hopefully I will be able to race alongside them one day.
Bob has really got things so right with this team, the only thing that is needed now is a sponsor to recognise the set up and wealth of talent amongst this group, and for them to be given the status they deserve.
Thank you again, for letting me be involved.