Women racing in the Tour of Cambridgeshire UCI Gran Fondo last weekend faced clashes and near misses with hundreds of sportive riders, and confusion over race rules and starting places after race order changes in the preceding days. Finish time errors still haven’t been rectified following the event, leaving riders with qualification doubts for the UCI World Championships.

Days before the event, on 3 June, which included several races and a sportive of 8,000 participants, organisers moved the start time for racing women in the 19-34 category, and men aged over 60, to behind 21mph+ sportive riders, citing safety concerns and fairness. However, this didn’t appear to solve either issue and meant racing women were forced to overtake hundreds of confused sportive riders, one of whom reportedly tried to push a racer off her bike.

Outrage as women are made to start after sportive riders at ToC

In addition, a technical glitch, which the race director says was due to a faulty local transponder, mean finishing times are still incorrect by up to 23 minutes. At least one male participant reported receiving a qualifying medal, only to be told later this was in error, and he had not qualified, while some women from a shorter race were reportedly listed as qualifying in the longer event for the Worlds.

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Helen Bridgman, who raced the Gran Fondo in the 19-34 women’s category, told TWC: “I was in the first racing group coming in. From about seven miles in we started catching sportive riders, starting with a tandem.

“There’s maybe 25-30 of us going past at about 23 mph, racing. We were shouting ‘stay left’. They didn’t understand we were trying to keep people safe."

“Our moto rider, who was supposed to keep us safe, kept disappearing behind us, wasn’t clearing the way for us. He then chose unsafe places for passing."

“Some people were saying ‘that’s amazing, go the women’, but there were also people shouting back at us, swearing at us, trying to jump in with us."

Riders doing so faced disqualification, she said.

“The moto rider wasn’t doing anything about it, it was us fending for ourselves."

“There was a rider who pushed a woman, though she stayed on. He could have caused a crash.

“There were moments I turned around to the woman next to me and said ‘I don’t feel safe’."

Helen said there was no signage for the women’s and over 60s men’s starting pens, and says “the over 60s had no idea that they were going to be put behind the sportive pen," though the race director said, “everyone knew".

The Tour of Cambridgeshire is the only UK-based qualifying event for the 2018 UCI Gran Fondo World Championships in Varese, Italy.

In a blog post setting out final event information, organisers said previous year’s setup, with the women ahead of the sportive group, meant dropped racers could gain an advantage from drafting faster sportive riders, averaging 27mph.

However, this year riders could still qualify for the Worlds from the sportive – and women wanting to qualify were advised by the race organiser to do so on the day.

Charlie Wrigley estimates one-third of women in her age group did, and racers in other categories report the same. “This just makes a mockery of the fact the rest of us were riding to qualify in a proper UCI race with stricter rules," she said.

Charlie, who rode the race, albeit without her chip, found the setup confusing. She said: “At the start of the race organiser … warned us we faced disqualification if we stopped to fuel anywhere other than a feed station or rode with anyone that wasn’t from our race pens. We were unsure if we could refill our drinks bottles by the side of the road or even have our energy bars whilst riding." She said some riders became dehydrated on the day.

There were also timing issues. Caroline Trender travelled from France, hoping to compete in her age bracket (50-54), in the UCI Gran Fondo. She switched to the sportive on the day, knowing it would improve her chances of qualifying if she could draft faster riders – and it did.

She averaged 34.5kmph, significantly higher than her estimated 31kmph.

However, she says her given finish times are still 23 minutes slower than her actual time of 3:41, which she recorded on Strava, and confirmed by evidence from race photographers and her start and finish times. She sent four emails to the timing company, Results Base, but has only received an automated email. Results Base hasn’t responded to TWC beyond an automated email, either.

“It clearly says I started at 12.27," says Caroline, “so it’s obvious I started in the sportive pen because the race didn’t start until about one o’clock."

Caroline identified three women in her age bracket recorded as qualifying in the Gran Fondo, who she believes completed the shorter Medio Fondo, due to their start times and that they only passed one checkpoint. This issue appears to have been rectified now.

The race director, Rowland Summerlin, told TWC: “They were told quite clearly what was going to happen. Everybody was aware." He says this includes the sportive riders.

“It all kicked off with the women", he said, adding “even on reflection … I’m happy with what I did.

“The year before there were 400 men going at 26 miles an hour bearing down on the women’s group. The women were getting abuse and getting frightened."

According to last year’s race data, however, just 35 men aged 18-60 in the sportive averaged 26mph or more.

Organisers say next year riders in the sportive and the Gran Fondo race will be split by gender and age category, and there will be a consultation with women and over 60’s male participants before a final decision is made.

Summerlin also defended the qualification rules, saying: “Anybody can work that out; there’s not another race in the world that splits race and sports riders. The only reason we split it is the huge numbers we get, and to try to make it safer and to reward racers with the jerseys. Every year it worked apart from this year."