The Race That Measures All very nearly saw a new stage winner in the women’s race in Wellington today. But in the end, Sina Frei and Laura Stigger (NinetyOne-songo-Specialized) won a sprint finish to claim their seventh straight win (one Prologue and six stages).
Mariske Strauss crossed the line first, but Frei and Stigger came in together, with Candice Lill just off the pace. It meant the Faces CST team had to be happy with second on the day, after an excellent ride.
With wet and muddy conditions and a consistently up and down race profile, the 81km Stage 6 was another challenge for elite and amateur riders alike. Frei and Stigger have an insurmountable overall lead, so the drama was always most likely to come from another team deciding to attack the stage. That attack came from Faces CST, who started pushing the pace from the halfway mark.
By 48km into the stage, Faces CST and NinetyOne-songo-Specialized had pulled away from Salusmed (Ariane Luthi and Robyn de Groot). With steep climbs and technical descents the feature of the second part of the stage, Strauss, Lill, Frei, and Stigger remained close throughout.
On the final descent, Frei and Stigger pulled away slightly, and then on the final 10km - which was fast and flat through the vineyards - they looked to have the stage wrapped up. Stigger, though, took Frei down a wrong turn, allowing Straus and Lill to move into the lead.
From the Live Broadcast, it appeared that Lill and Strauss waited for the overall leaders to rejoin them. But Strauss confirmed after the stage, with her typical good humour, that it was merely an optical illusion. "We didn't wait,” she said. “It just looked like it! Haha."
Strauss led the three riders into the final stretch, dodging massive puddles on the way to the finish. On the grass finish chute, Strauss was still in the lead and looked the strongest of the four. As she attacked, Lill was unable to go with her, allowing the NinetyOne-songo-Specialized team to block her out and cross the line together for the stage win.
“That was quite an interesting and adventurous stage,” said Stigger. “I lost two contact lenses, and I took a wrong turn!”
She added that Lill and Strauss pushed all the way. “Candice and Mariske really made us suffer today. They were very strong. It was super close in the end. It was a good race.”
Sina Frei said the pace was flat out at the finish. “Mariske was incredibly strong today. Towards the end, she was really putting out a good pace and we worked hard to stay with her. After four hours of hard riding, it’s not easy to sprint, but we managed to get it right and we are thrilled with another stage win.”
After a good day on the trails, Strauss and Lill have now moved into second place in the overall standings of the women’s race, with an 11-minute lead over Luthi and De Groot. “We ride each day depending on how we feel,” said Strauss. “And today was just a really good day where we felt strong throughout. I’m very proud of our effort and can’t wait for the Grand Finale.”