The best cyclists in the world will converge on Paris this Sunday — this year, both men and women race on the Champs-Élysées. The Tour de France will debut a new women’s event, La Course, in conjunction with the final stage of the Tour.
Flat, technical, and 89km long, La Course is ideally suited for Shelley Olds (Ale Cipollini) who is currently the top-ranked American rider in the world. Olds is ninth in the UCI standings, and while she has a string of victories and top finishes this season, she’s lacking a high-profile win that would make her a household name.
La Course is tailor-made for the former U.S. criterium champion. Olds is one of the world’s top sprinters, but the marquee race will attract the fastest finishers in the world, including Kirsten Wild (Giant-Shimano), Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans), Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle-Honda), and world champion Marianne Vos (Rabobank-Liv).
Vos, one of the key figures in bringing La Course to fruition, looks especially strong after a dominating performance at the Giro Rosa where she won four stages and the GC.
“I think [Vos] is definitely beatable. I have beaten her before, so I know it’s possible, ” said Olds about taking on the boss of the women’s peloton in a sprint. “It’s great to have people as amazing as Marianne Vos, or Giorgia Bronzini, that are difficult to beat, but you know that there is one small possibility you can beat them if you do everything right. “
Olds grew up in Groton, a small and idyllic Massachusetts town near the New Hampshire border. While always athletic, Olds developed her trademark toughness and determination while trying to keep up with her older brother. Later, as captain of her college soccer team, Olds’ desire to lead became more evident.
“She could take over a game, whether it was a 0-0 game, or if we were down a goal, if she felt like it was her place or opportunity to get things done on the field,” said her former coach at Roanoke College, Phil Benne.
After college, Olds moved to California, found cycling, and started pursuing her dream of going to the Olympics with Nicola Cranmer’s fledgling Proman squad. Olds found success on the track, but encountered her first major setback when the UCI removed the points race from the Olympic program.
Always looking for a way forward, Olds transitioned to a European team, and switched to a full-time road schedule four years ago. Since then, she and has made a life for herself in L’Estartit, Spain, with her fiancé, MTN-Qhubeka director, Manel Lacambra.
Olds looked like she was close to her lifelong ambition when she was named to the long team for the London Olympics. A crash in the first World Cup of the 2012 season broke her hand, sidelining her for five weeks during a critical period of spring racing. It was a devastating blow that threw Olds into weeks of anxiety and unexplained nightmares. In one of her first races back, Olds won the Tour of Chongming Island World Cup, but shifting qualification criteria meant a spot on the Olympic team was not assured.
Olds was ultimately selected for the U.S team, and looked on track to win a medal when she made the winning break in the road race with Vos and Armitstead. Olds suffered a heartbreaking puncture, fell out of the lead group and finished fourth.
But she doesn’t dwell on the loss.
“It can be so sad for me to think, ‘I was in the winning move, I could have won a medal, but I didn’t because I flatted, and now I have nothing,’” said Olds. “I was there [in the winning move], and that is what I will remember.“
A new beginning
Olds rode for Team TIBCO in 2013, and then picked up a contract with the Italian-based Ale Cipollini for 2014. Since starting with Ale Cipollini, Olds has racked up a number of early season victories including the Winston Salem Cycling Classic, the GP Comune di Cornaredo, and two stages of the Vuelta Ciclista Femenina a Costa Rica.
The new team dynamic has been ideal for Olds. “It’s a sprinters’ team, pretty much,” said Olds. “It helps that we have two other riders on the team that are good sprinters themselves. Having them look out for me, it’s like having three people with the same mind working together in the race.”
Olds enjoys the pressure and responsibility of being the go-to rider. “I handle chaos well,” said Olds. “When it starts to be a little stressful, or you have to be fighting for position, I can stay focused. I want to be there, I want to win, and I want to keep fighting even if I’m suffering.“
American rider Lauren Hall (Optum Kelly Benefits) won Gent-Wevelgem in March, and is a dark horse contender to win La Course. Hall is also a sprinter and has a good read on Olds’ capabilities.
“Shelley is so crafty, and she’s been racing against the best in the world for quite some time now, so you can always count on her to be in the top-five for sure,” Hall told VeloNews. “She has longevity in her sprint, meaning she can keep going faster and faster for probably 400m. She can also position herself and tuck in well. I think a good bit of that comes from her track background.”
Committed to European racing
Despite her success the last several years, Olds feels that riding full-time in Europe has put her at a disadvantage with USA Cycling. Olds pointed to a recent training camp several national team members attended to preview the world championships course in Spain — one that she was not included in — as an example of how she is overlooked.
“I feel like I’m doing my part in Europe,” Olds says. “I moved myself over here and made my way. I’m proud to be an American, it’s an honor to represent my country, and I’d like to be able to do that whenever possible, and I feel like it’s just not that easy.”
USA Cycling has been operating a women’s program out of Europe since 2002. VP of Athletics, Jim Miller worked with Olds earlier in her career, and is quick to note her talent and mental toughness. Miller does not feel that USAC has any issues maintaining relationships with athletes overseas.
“We maintain good working relationships with all the trade team athletes and try to fill in the gaps where the trade teams may not support an athlete,” Miller wrote to VeloNews. “That may include sport science, training programs, race program supplementation, training camps to housing, or logistical support. This is typically case-specific, but we do want the trade team athletes to still view us as a resource.”
La Course was not originally on Olds’ schedule, but will likely become a bigger focus of her program should it continue to grow in the coming years. “I’ve been watching the Tour the last two weeks, and I’m looking forward to being a part of the race I’ve been watching,” said Olds. “I know that all of the women in the peloton want to make our event exciting to watch. There are a lot of people that want to win on this big of a stage, so that will make for very fast, very hard racing.”
Editor’s note: Universal Sports will broadcast La Course live on television and online, starting at 7:30 a.m. Eastern on Sunday, July 27.