With the final start list published and final preparations in Northamptonshire being put to bed, Brendan Gallagher previews what will be a historic week of racing for women’s cycling in Britain.

FRIENDS Life Women's Tour Race Director Mick Bennett, on the ever of the inaugural Women's Tour, has stated the organiser’s ambition of making the event the biggest women’s road race in the world inside three year, a statement that has faint echoes of Sir Dave Brailsford telling us that Sky were going to produce a British Tour de France winner inside five years. And look what happened there.

The event rolls out of Oundle at 11am Wednesday morning with Bennett's words ringing in everybody's ears. “Its SweetSpot's ambition that we make this the biggest and best Women’s Tour in the world in three years …we are absolutely focussed on making this the world leading global platform for women’s cycling and we feel absolutely privileged to have the very best women in the world in this our first ever Friends Life Women’s Tour.”

The much talked about race, the first significant international women’s stage race in Britain and the first anybody can remember anywhere offering women the same treatment and back-up as men, has attracted over 200 media, most of whom seemed crowded into a room in a Kettering hotel for the launch press conference but the time now comes the time for the racing. As Guy Elliott from SweetSpot has said it will only truly be a success if those journalists are talking about the racing and the personalities involved at the end of five days.

Despite the relatively early season slot and a near clash with a World Cup event in China most of the world's best riders have voted with their hearts and feet and made the Friends Life Women’s Tour an absolute priority this season by way of solidarity with everything it stands for.

Eleven of the world's top 13 ranked teams are on show and as ever you suspect Marianne Vos, despite making a delayed start to the season after a busy winter, will be the rider to beat with her powerful Rabo Liv team in support while Britain's Lizzie Armistead, currently leading the World Cup rankings, is probably her most likely rival. The last time they met on a British road was in that thrilling 2012 Olympic Final in the rains and thunder storms which finished with a sprint between the duo down The Mall.

Both women have been riding parts of the course locally over the last two days and are far from convinced that the majority of the five stages are going to finish in sprint stages as many commentators have been predicting. Armistead reported that many of the roads are “heavy and tiring” – which in layman’s terms means they are probably not as smoothly tarmacked as some of the road surfaces on the continent while Vos reported she had already felt the wind coming in off the Fens and that was going to be another factor. Not that wind ever bothers any rider, male or female, from Holland.

“If you look at the schedule it's hard to tell what it's going to be,” admitted Vos who has won 12 world titles on the road, track and cyclo-cross.  “It's a new race and that makes it unpredictable for us all. As a team we want to make it a hard race and let’s see if we can go for a day victory and of course have someone in GC. If you look at the stages I think the first few are pretty hard and the wind will be playing a big role. The time bonuses are important but we you will have to be focused for five days to stay in front.

“When I heard about the Friends Life Women's Tour of course I wanted to participate, I had to be here. It's big. It's a new race and in this year, 2014, I feel we're getting a change. Women's cycling is getting more and more attention with the La Course race at the Tour de France and this race. After London 2012 still have good memories of that race, with big crowds and all the people were so enthusiastic about cycling. I definitely wanted to come back here and race.”

Armitstead rides for the powerful Boels Dolmans team and will enjoy a rare opportunity of wearing the British champion’s jersey in a major stage race on home soil. “I didn't really feel the pressure until now. For me pressure is always a good thing. I'm in good shape.  Being a British rider on a Dutch team is an advantage because the Dutch are notorious for riding in the wind. I'm very proud to hear that the aim is to have the most prestigious race in women's cycling in the UK. It's massively grown since I started riding in the UK, even the domestic scene has come on loads. Britain is at the forefront of cycling now.”

In total 96 riders from the 16 teams will start with World ranked number one Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS) another rider with distinct possibilities along with former world champion Giorgia Bronzini although a bout of illness had being going through the Wiggle Honda team which has already seen Olympic Team Pursuit gold medal winner Joanna Rowsell withdraw. Laura Trott and Dani King will be going to the start line however.
Tiffany Cromwell (Specialized-Lululemon), Lauren Hall (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies), Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec Products), Fabiana Luperini (Estado de Mexico Faren) and Doris Schweizer (Astana BePink) are all quality riders to look out for while young Brits Lucy Garner and Hannah Barnes have stage winning potential and would love to seize the opportunity of a high profile win on home soil. There are probably not enough hills for Emma Pooley's liking but here time-trialling strength will almost certainly see her take off on a break one day

“The cycling world sees the importance of women's cycling and how great the racing is,” concludes Vos.

“Besides racing, it's my dream to help push women's cycling further. It's good to be around the table with the big organisations. We're being heard, we're moving. I think 2014 can be an important year.”
Punter’s guide to the route
Stage One: Wednesday 7 May, Oundle to Northampton (93.8km): Undulating enough to give any breakaways hope, certainly not a cast iron sprint finish and those with an eye on GC might want to strike very early in the race. Should look very good from the Helicopter, the route takes the women through the Broughton House Estate which is owned by the Duke of Buccleuch and the Althorp Estate.
Stage Two: Thursday 8 May, Hinckley to Bedford (118.5km): Longest stage of the five day race a spectacular finish on the Embankment alongside the River Ouse in Bedford. Tricky country lanes early on but fast wide roads towards the end should ensure a sprint finish – possibly a day for Great Britain's former double world junior world champion Lucy Garner who will be riding past her front door about lunchtime

Stage Three: Friday 9 May, Felixstowe to Clacton (90.5km): The inaugural Womens Tour may lack major hills but strong winds can have an equally devastating effect on GC rankings and with some blustery weather forecast this could be the day the elements really come into play.  The stage will pass though Ipswich Marina en route to a tricky technical finish. A day to be on red alert

Stage Four: Saturday 10 May, Cheshunt to Welwyn Garden City (97.8km): The so-called Laura Trott Stage as it links bother hometown and where she first started cycling. An undulating stage with a bite at the finish where the Digswell Hill Strava Queen of the Mountains climb comes just over 2km from the finish. Fast finale with another technical finish but should be one for the sprinters.

Stage Five: Sunday 11 May, Harwich to Bury St Edmunds (108.3km): Possibly the most scenic stage of the Tour taking in Hadleigh, Sudbury and Long Melford – and a tough enough route to really ignite proceedings if the GC is still up for grabs, and there is every chance it could be.  Promising breakaway territory with a tough approach into Bury St Edmunds before a relatively straight forward finish.

The jerseys
Friends Life Yellow jersey: This will be worn by the leader of the GC Competition. With a sprinter friendly course bear in mind that time bonuses could be decisive. Deduction of 10, 6 and 4 seconds will be made for the first three riders across the line each day. There will also be deductions of 3, 2 and 1 second for the first three riders at each day's intermediate Yodel Direct Sprints.

Yodel Direct Points jersey: Green and Red jersey. Fairly standard format. The first ten riders across the line will be awarded points ranging from 15 down to 1 while there will be useful points on offer at the Intermediate sprints with 3, 2 and 1 points awarded to the first three.

Strava Queen of the Mountains jersey: The traditional polka dot jersey. Will be worn by the rider who collects the most points from the categorised climbs that lie along the route. All hills are classified the same and 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 point are on offer per “summit.”

Matrix Best Young Rider jersey: Awarded at the end of each stage to the best placed rider born after 1 January 1991.

Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research Best British Rider jersey. Awarded to the high placed British rider in GC at the end of each stage.