It was on a leafy lane at the top of The Causeway, a 1.5km-long hill outside the small village of Hitcham in Suffolk, England, that Sharon Laws won the inaugural Strava Queen of the Mountains competition at this week’s Women’s Tour.
Although the 39-year-old pro, who rides for the American UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling team, led the classification from the first day of the five-stage race, her competitors saw to it that she had to give her all for the orange polka-dot jersey and she wasn’t assured of victory until the final classified climb in the race.
The Brit had only flown in from the mountainous Tour of the Gila in New Mexico on the eve of the Women’s Tour, and was waking jetlagged at 4am every morning of the race, so she at first played down her chances of keeping the jersey for more than a day.
“I’ll definitely do my best to defend it,” she said on the first night. “Obviously it’ll be challenging: the roads are really narrow, and there are no big mountains here. Because I haven’t been racing in Europe I’d forgotten how you’re fighting constantly all the time to stay at the front here, whereas in America there’s big roads and you can just ride round the outside.”
Sharon only joined Strava just before the race, but quickly got into the spirit while she was gunning for the QOM segments, which regularly provided the most exciting racing during the stages. Her steely determination was evident when she recounted her ride to the top of the first QOM climb:
It was actually so much about positioning, because if you were too far back there was no moving up. I did have to do a bit of cyclocross on the first one. I rode up the grass for most of it! she said.
The short stages and gently rolling parcours also made Sharon’s job tough, since both GC contenders and breakaway artists were also vying to be first over the climbs, and though Sharon never placed outside the top three she did not win a climb outright until Stage 3. Her principal opponents in the Queen of the Mountains competition were Rossella Ratto of Estado de Mexico-Faren and Jolanda Neff of the Swiss National Squad.
Rossella soloed to pick up maximum points on two climbs in the first two days but was, in a sense, a victim of her own success when her second lone break also earned her the stage win and the yellow jersey given to the race’s overall leader.
Actually I went to get the QOM points and then I continued because I felt good – and I’m training for the Time Trial right now, so I thought, why not continue?” the 20-year-old Italian nonchalantly said.
“I’m hoping that Rossella Ratto’s yellow jersey will mean she won’t be going for the mountain points,” Sharon said, reacting to the news, “but who knows, she might try and take both opportunities.”
With Rossella distracted, only Jolanda had enough points to be a threat, and the Swiss rider was not so easily dislodged. Jolanda is the reigning U23 XC MTB world champion, and she claimed that her focus this season is on retaining her lead in the UCI XC MTB world cup – but her performances on the hills of the Women’s Tour suggested there’ll be a career ahead of her on the road if she ever tires of muddy tracks and knobbly tyres. “It’s very different to mountain biking,” she said. “Whatever you do you have 100 girls around you!”
Over the next stages of the race, she went wheel to wheel with Laws, with the two riders sharing the honours on each day’s two classified climbs.
I’m quite fond of the jersey now, I’d like to keep it,” Sharon said, “But it’s close, there’s not that much between us.
At the start of Stage 4 Jolanda was still chasing Sharon: “There’s still four climbs left and she has three points more than I have now, so it’s still possible out of my own effort. Anything can happen – for example if I have a good climb and she isn’t there it can make a difference. But we’ll have to see how it goes.”
It was Stage 4 that was to present the biggest challenge. Sharon admitted afterwards that she thought she’d lost the jersey after she was caught in a pile-up in the neutralised roll-out before the day’s racing started: “I was having a very bad day after the crash at the beginning. I was really tired and shaken up as well, and at that point I really didn’t think I was going to make it. and I thought, she’s got this now.”
But then, hope appeared on the horizon: “Then I could see the flags, and I thought, no, I really, really want this!” she continued. “I had to come from a very long way, and I don’t know where it came from. I spoke to my mum last night on the phone and I said, I definitely didn’t have those legs at any other point in the race! But when I saw the flags…”
On the final day, Sharon walked off the team bus to find a surprise: her team had covered her bike in polka dots: “I was very nervous then, because I thought if I didn’t win it would be very embarrassing!”
Luckily for her, an early break took almost all of the QOM points available, and by the end of the first Strava classified climb it was all but a formality. But Sharon was quick to credit her opponent: “Jolanda is lovely! It’s been great to be up against her, she’s obviously a very talented young girl,” she said.
Jolanda goes back to Switzerland to hone her preparations for the next round of the XC MTB World Cup. Sharon goes home to Girona in Spain with 40 QOMS on Strava and a striking new jersey to frame and put on the wall.
“This was definitely beyond my expectations,” said Sharon, who had been unsure even that she’d get back on her bike after breaking her back in 2013. “It’s been fantastic to come to a race that’s in Britain and to come away with a jersey. It made up for the big crash last year.”
It’s been a pleasure to meet these women and be on the ground to see the Queen of the Mountain rise up from the peloton. We’ve got a Strava QOM polka-dot jersey signed by all the athletes who rode on Strava this week (including Sharon and Marianne Vos) to give to one lucky queen. Post a photo of you climbing a local mountain or hill to Instagram or Twitter and tell us what the QOM means to you. Include the hashtag #StravaQOM and we’ll select a winner on Monday 19th May.