Balint Hamvas: Women’s Racing has got stronger, faster, more professional

Balint Hamvas is a photographer. In the online world where everyone has an alias, he goes by the name of CyclePhotos. We're interested in him because he spent last summer with his lens focused on the world of professional women’s road racing.

Before this summer, Hamvas had built up a reputation as ‘Cyclocross Man’. A renowned specialist CX photographer, he has been snapping the scene for years.

Hamvas has been inside the race at every major women's road and cyclocross event in the last year, but unlike racers, fans and family - he's always outside enough to snap a clear perspective. We interviewed him about what he saw.

And it's ok, he doesn't always look like this...

In a past life, Balint Hamvas and I were desk buddies. He always used to have a stash of dried fruit and nuts, and I was always hungry – so we formed a strong bond.

Fast forward a few years to the present day, and here we are:  he a photographer and I a journalist, conducting an interview in Carluccio’s (we still both like food).

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Because Hamvas has had the opportunity to be fully immersed in both road and cyclocross, I want to know which one he thinks is closer to equality with men’s racing. His answer is cyclocross – but it’s not as close as I expected.

“If we’re directly comparing women’s ‘cross and women’s road, ‘cross probably has greater parity. However, it’s still an uphill battle,” he tells me.

“Look at the ‘Superprestige series.’ Up until 2 years ago, they had to put a women’s race on [to adhere to UCI regulations] but they could have it whenever they wanted. So they started the women’s race at 10 in the morning. Bear in mind people have to travel… so nobody is there. Nobody is going to be interested. That’s changed now, the race has to be before the men’s – but only because the UCI ordered it. The prize money is just ridiculous.”

Hamvas has a six page spread dedicated to the discrepancy in prize money in his beautifully printed table top book ‘Cyclocross 2014/2015’.

In simple, easy to digest pictures (his forte, obviously), Hamvas shows the top 10 women’s annual prize money vs the top 10 men’s. Kevin Pauwles managed €101, 271, whilst Sanne Cant, women’s World Cup winner, got €29,900.

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Despite short events, taking place in the same muddy field as the men’s, the women’s races don’t receive the TV broadcast that they should either. Hamvas explains: “The infrastructure is there, they just don’t use it. The women’s race is around 40 minutes, but you’ll only see a 10 minute highlight before seeing the entire men’s race.  It kind of feels a bit like a missed opportunity.”

It kind of feels a bit like a missed opportunity

This year, the UCI announced a major rule change that will see under 23 women racing in a separate event to senior women at World Cup races. This is a great move, but won’t be the case at races outside the World Cup – Hamvas explains: “The World Cup races attract a really strong field. Outside of that, the depth is quite thin. There are really good racers there, but because of the prize money and other inconveniences, women tend to have like 5, 6, 10 really good riders, going against local 19 and 20 year old girls.

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“You’ll have [last year’s World Cup winner] Sanne Cant – she can lap the end of the race within 2 circuits. Obviously at the age of 19, 20 – unless you are Pauline Ferand-Prevot – you’re not going to be competitive – it’s just a fact of nature. You have to be very persistent to stay in the sport, and for years you just get beaten by significant margins. You start immediately at the deepest end, essentially.”

The men, comparatively have various age group races before stepping up to senior ranks. Of course, the changes the UCI have made are a step forward, and more will come.

There’s one thing Hamvas really struggles to get his head round – and that’s the way elite women often race for just 40 minutes, even at World Cup level.

He says: “One of things that annoys me in ‘cross – why can’t they race for an hour? The shorter distances are kind of understandable on the road – if currently women race 140 km, let’s not increase to 200 km overnight, but the differences between 40 minutes and an hour are not huge. If everyone rode for an hour, it would be a level playing field.

“I get that partly it’s down to the depth of the field – if half the field is lapped, and you add 20 mins, it will stretch out more – but it’ll never get better if the UCI don’t make things more equal.”

The frustration is personal – he adds: “For starters, it makes life as a photographer really difficult – it’s so stressful – you do the start, if you’re lucky you get to the finish – in the middle you have maybe two laps.”

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Whilst Hamvas has been shooting cyclocross for years, the 2015 season was his first experience of the women’s road scene. Until then, he’d not paid that much attention – after all, a person only has so many hours a day to spend watching cycling…

“Before I started shooting women’s road, I didn’t understand how strong and fast they were”, he explains.

“When you see average speeds in the road books of the races, and you see 38, 40, 42 kilometres per hour… they’re not far off from the men’s races. A lot of the women train with pro men – and they can keep up with most of their rides, apart from the hardest intervals.”

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Hamvas says even the riders in the peloton are impressed by the speed of racing these days: “This is my first season photographing the women’s road racing – so I don’t know much different – but everyone has been saying that women’s road racing has evolved a lot this year. They say things are faster, and riders have got more professional – everything has got better, stronger, faster, more professional.

Everything has got better, stronger, faster, more professional.

“We were talking about Vos [who has been injured this year] and if or when she comes back next year… shes going to see a different sport almost, things have got so much faster and better. Of course, she still might come back and just smash it and win everything.”

This surprises me. We all know that the sport is growing and progressing – but it’s amazing to know that even those inside the peloton can feel a difference that is marked enough for an injured rider to return to a ‘different sport’.

As always, of course – there is a long way to go. Hamvas says: “There have been four top teams this year – Wiggle Honda, Velocio SRAM [who will be no more after this season], Rabo Liv and Boels Dolmans – but there are 20 more teams.

“Yes, riders from other teams have won races, but those four have dominated. You just have to look at the team cars – brand spanking new Volvos, next to battered looking things. There are some teams still doing things how they did it 20 or 30 years ago. They’ve got a long way to go to compete.”

Given the current situation, Hamvas isn’t pro the minimum wage – he says: “I don’t think time for a minimum wage is here – when so many teams struggle to attract funding. I don’t know how many of the women make ends meet… but I know even the big teams are quite stretched.”

As per cyclocross, the women on the road have shorter races. The new World Tour format, which will see stage races count towards the UCI road series, as opposed to the one day format of the World Cup – is a step forward. However, even the ten day Giro Rosa doesn’t stand up against the men’s three week Grand Tours – the Tour de France, Giro, and the Vuelta.

There have been mutterings that perhaps women aren’t capable of riding full, three week world tours.

I want to know Hamvas’ thoughts, so he tells me: “The problem is they’re not used to it. It would take quite a few years if you want to stretch out to having three week grand tours for women. For men that’s just a given , for women they’ve never done it, they have shorter races, you can’t just double the length of races overnight.

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“Women must be able to handle three weeks, just as men can. They always say women are really good at endurance. But they need a gradual increase.”

It’s a valid point. Some of the riders competing at the Women’s Tour are specialists on the track – so expecting them to ride over 100 miles every day for three weeks is a big ask.

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I want to know why it is that you see so much cross over in the women’s peloton. Hamvas says: “I suppose everything is less specialised, the depth of the field is not so deep – you can probably get away with more. Even Wiggins, when he moved from the track, took a few years to convert onto road. Then Stybar who won the Worlds in Cyclocross, his road career is not so prominent. There are a few cross overs in the men’s side but it’s rare. Everything is smaller and less specialised in women’s cycling, so you have more wiggle room. I guess that will decrease as things get bigger.”

One of the major differences between women’s road and the men’s scene, Hamvas observes – is the way the women in the peloton respond to media attention.

He says: “Often when I share stuff on the interwebs… and riders pick it up, they’re really thankful. I think they appreciate attention more because they get so much less of it. Most of the time they’re just an afterthought, if at all, so being the centre of attention is rare and special to them.”

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The lack of media attention in women’s cycling also means Hamvas feels he can really give something back – as he explains: “There’s not much out there in terms of coverage. I think I can bring in a new quality – some actually interesting photos of women’s road racing. I think there is lots of scope cos there isn’t much out there.”

There’s a long way to go before the sport is evolved as the men’s scene is – but Hamvas is looking to the future with excitement in his eyes.

“The fact that I and a few others can make  a living out of this – is probably a good healthy sign things are on the up.

“And there are more races, and that means more inspiration. When you see little girls at races, mesmerized by the whole thing… obviously  we aren’t going to see kids for another 10 years, but maybe they’ll say ‘ I want to do this’.”

All pictures taken by Balint Hamvas. For more, check out Hamvas’ CyclePhotos site here and keep up to date with his antics. 

He has produced annual CycloCross books since the 2009/2010 season – and you can buy this year’s version here. 

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