Evelyn Stevens won La Fleche Wallone Wednesday, completing a five year journey, from Wall Street investment banker and Darmouth alum who had hardly ever ridden a bike to one of the best female road racers on earth, which has made her the perfect Walter Mitty for athletic women. What is more remarkable, especially insofar as Stevens’ promise is concerned, is that she won by out-thinking and then out-riding a women who is in the process of becoming the best female bike racer ever, the real next Eddy Merckx, Marianne Vos.
Vos is today, at 24, younger than Stevens was when she began riding seriously. In 2008 Vos won a gold medal on the track in Beijing, rounding out a run of force which also saw her win senior world titles in three disciplines (road, track, ‘cross). She was more accomplished than most top male pros will ever be by the time she was barely 22. Last year Vos blew the lid off the last apparent limit on her talents, the big climbs inherent in alpine stage racing, winning half the stages at the Giro Donne, the only approximation of a grand tour left on the women’s calendar, as well as the overall by 3+ minutes. That she did so via a foreboding duel with Emma Pooley, a tiny climbing and TT specialist who in prior years Vos could not touch in the mountains. The questioned loomed at the end of 2011: lacking any apparent weaknesses, would anyone be able to beat Vos in the years to come?
It seems that Stevens might be the most succinct answer to that question, if she can continue with what we saw this week. There are serious obstacles, not the least of which is a flaw common to racers who come late to the game, poor bike handling. Vos put well over a minute into Pooley on one descent at the Giro Donne last year, and after almost shutting down what became Vos’s race-winning attack at this March’s Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Stevens hit a pedal and crashed (start at 42:20) out of contention on an uphill hairpin.
The larger point is that in a world of road cycling where men’s racing is increasingly (with notable exceptions) conservative, women’s racing is not. For reasons I won’t get into this morning, it’s scrappy, intense, and often unpredictable. Good entertainment that would only be better if the television coverage were less anemic. Which is a topic for another day. Check out the Podium Cafe for more.