by Marie-Soleil Blais

It was an early start to the season for me as I joined my new Astana Women’s Team for the Tour Down Under in Australia. Signing with a European team is going to be quite the jump for my first pro season, but I’m ready for the challenge. It was the next step and besides, nothing can really prepare you for Europe anyway.

The Astana Women’s Team debuted in 2015 and are going into their fifth season in 2019. Astana is among the few pro teams that have both a men and a women’s team. Registered in Kazakhstan, the team operates from Italy, near Montebelluna in the northeast region, where we will stay during the year for training and between races.

Before flying to Australia, I had spoken with our director,but I didn’t know anyone else on the team. We would meet in Australia and use this first project as a sort of training camp to get to know each other and the equipment.

I arrived after two twelve hour only two days before the race start. I thought I was managing the jetlag pretty well, until I woke up the first night and locked myself out of my bedroom. I grabbed my race accreditation to go to the bathroom, instead of my bedroom key, leaving the key inside. It was around 2 a.m. (who knows because my phone was still in my room and I was 16 hours jetlag) and I was stuck sitting in the hallway. I was so tired that I eventually fell asleep, in the hallway. What a way to start my first pro season!

The organization of the Santos Women’s Tour was really impressive. Not a WorldTour race yet, but pretty much just like it. They had us stay in a university residence and prepared all the food for us, breakfast to dinner. Each morning, all the team vans, cars and race motos would depart all together forming a big convoy, led and surrounded by police officers on motos with their flashing lights on, blocking all the roads for us. Just driving to the start of the races in the convoy was a pretty special experience.

Every day, at the start of the race, there were so many fans. They were not just coming to watch a race, they came to see the teams and riders before the race. Thanks to the popularity of the Astana men’s team, our jersey attracted a lot of attention. It was a bit strange but also kind of cool to live the full pro experience, even though I’m not sure I felt like I deserved any of their attention. I haven’t even pedalled yet I thought.

During the race, every village we would pass through, there would be a little crowd on the side of the road ringing their bells as loud as possible to cheer the peloton. It felt like a big parade (on fast forward) and I was in it. These moments were captured in my memory.

Among the bigger teams taking the start were the newly formed Trek-Segafredo, Ale Cipolini, CCC-Liv, the Australian team Mitchelon-Scott, and the more familiar American teams Rally UHC and Tibco SVB. In total, 15 teams raced this year’s edition of the Santos Women’s Tour. Just over-hearing the languages spoken in the cafeteria, you could tell this was a pretty international field.

We started the four-stage race strong with a podium on Stage 1 from Cuban Arlenis Sierra, our top rider but the heat had the better of us on the finishing climb on Stage 2. Australian Amanda Spratt from Mitchelon-Scott had a great ride securing a comfortable lead on the general classification that day. My team and I had another good day on the criterium for the final stage but not quite enough for a podium with Sierra in sixth. It finished in a fast bunch sprint won by the local rider Chloe Hosking from Ale Cipolini, while Spratt completed her hat trick, winning an impressive third title of the Santos Women’s Tour in a row.

In the following articles, I’ll tell you more about inside my team Astana and the rest of our trip in Autralia. Stay tuned.

Photo: Peter Ristevski

Marie-Soleil Blais is a 30-year-old first-year professional rider with the Astana Women’s Team from Centre-du-Québec. She is a seven-time Quebec champion on the road, individual time trial and track. She is a multiple-time winner at theChampionne des Mardis Cyclistes de Lachine and the Criterium National de Montréal.

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