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Are Longer Races Good for Women’s Cycling?

Riders react to the UCI's decision to increase women's route distance from 140km to 160km

Women’s professional cycling is an ongoing upward climb to achieve equal opportunity across all disciplines of competition. Much progress has been made to reduce pay gaps between genders, grow women’s media coverage and level the playing field for competition. Although, at times it has felt that this equality train jumps one step forward, an takes two steps back.

Last month, La Course event organisers, ASO, announced the prestigious women’s single-day event would move away from the traditional Paris city criterium, and take place in the mountains on an unusually short course. Many of us fans, and athletes expected the women’s event to move in the direction of becoming a multi-day equivalent, but it hasn’t.

The UCI Women’s World Tour, comprises of a variety of events across the world. We’ve already seen new events added to the 2017 calendar which shows a growth in race opportunity. Last week, the UCI board made an announcement which included revisions to women’s cycling. The new rule amendment will show an increase from the current maximum course distance of 140km, to 160km for all women’s World Tour events as of 2017.

Although this distance increase has been welcomed with positivity, we can’t help but wonder if this is enough of a step forward for women’s cycling. On the whole, women’s races are significantly shorter in duration when compared with the men’s events. This is most noticeable when looking at the men’s 21 day Tour de France, compared against the women’s single day La Course, or the women’s Giro Rosa 10 day event and the men’s Giro 21 day event.

We wanted to find out how the teams and racers felt about the 20km distance increase for women’s cycling, and whether it’s really enough.

Image: Drops Cycling
Image: Drops Cycling

“The increase in race distances is certainly welcomed and will add credibility to the women’s race programme.” – Bob Varney, Sports Director for Drops Cycling

The Drops Cycling team, founded in 2014, is primarily made up by amateur female riders, many of whom work in regular employment. Their Sports Director, Bob Varney, shared with us his thoughts on the proposed distance increase:

“I think this is a positive step in the right direction and is a significant effort by the UCI to boost the profile of women’s racing. I believe that the UCI are genuinely committed to improving and evolving Women’s racing but realise that the pace of change is often frustrating for many of us. The increase in race distances is certainly welcome and will add credibility to the women’s race programme. I guess Rome wasn’t built in a day…”

Stefan Wyman, image courtesy Matrix Pro Cycling
Stefan Wyman, image courtesy Matrix Pro Cycling

“I think the rule amendment is a really positive change for the sport.  It’s important in terms of both the possibility to have a longer stage or one day race, plus the greater average stage length in a tour. ” – Stefan Wyman, Matrix Pro Cycling

Stefan Wyman is the Matrix Fitness Race Team Manager. He’s spoken out about the progress of women’s cycling from the get-go, and how too much change too soon can have an negative impact on competition.

With regards to the proposed distance increase, Wyman states: “I think the rule amendment is a really positive change for the sport.  It’s important in terms of both the possibility to have a longer stage or one day race, plus the greater average stage length in a tour.  It has the potential to change the dynamics of the way women’s races are run, to allow great tactics on the road in potentially allow breaks to form, and be caught.  It will certainly give organisers a fraction more freedom and flexibility when planning routes.”

However, the Team Manager also highlights the slight risk of a divide within the peloton as both amateur and professional teams compete together. The additional 20km maximum may add more pressure on less experienced riders and drive a wedge in competition. Although Wyman adds: “I don’t worry too much about this as the focus will still remain on the battle for the win and it will be fascinating to see how teams adapt to the change.”

UCI Women's WorldTour leader, Megan Guarnier (Boels Dolmans) safely in the bunch. Image: @Velofocus
UCI Women’s WorldTour leader, Megan Guarnier (Boels Dolmans) safely in the bunch. Image: @Velofocus

“I consider it a positive change to raise the maximum distance and/or eliminate distance differentials between the men’s peloton and the women’s peloton” – Jessi Braverman

Jessi Braverman manages PR for a number of teams, including Boels-Dolmans and shares with us her views on the recent UCI proposition…

“I think it’s fantastic that the UCI is recognising that women can and should be permitted to longer distances.”…” I don’t necessarily think we should see a huge shift in the length of races in women’s cycling because I think part of what keeps women’s races so exciting is their length.”

Megan Guarnier (Boels Dolmans) regains the pink jersey with three stages to go
Megan Guarnier (Boels Dolmans) regains the pink jersey with three stages to go

Boels-Dolmans rider and UCI Women’s World Tour Champion, Megan Guarnier, spoke to us and shared her feelings on the 20km matter:

“I think at this point in time, a 20km increase is sufficient.  For the forward momentum of our sport, it is most important to take small steps like this.  During my entire career, I have been racing and training for ~140km distance, and it would be a very large jump to try to race 200km.”

The general feeling amongst the teams and athletes is that raising the maximum distance can only be a good thing for women’s cycling. Women’s cycling aficionado, Sarah Connelly feels it’s more than just bridging the gap between men’s and women’s events though…

aviva women's tour 2016
There was bunting aplenty

“The key thing the extra 20km gives race organisers is flexibility” – Sarah Connelly, Women’s Cycling Tweet Queen

It’s easy to lose sight with the inequality that’s in racing, but race events are complicated to organise. There’s many factors to consider, both logistically and politically. Connelly goes on to tell us: “When we’re dealing with women’s racing, the logistics have been really impacted by the short distances. Race routes are hard – they need to start and finish in towns/villages that will have them, with room for the race village before and after.”

The extra 20km distance buffer allows more flexibility for event organisers to add varying degrees of difficulty between. Additional distance allowances should also see the stages passing through new towns and villages which can help keep things fresh for riders, and more entertaining for viewers.

“Personally, I like the shorter distance, because it means the riders aren’t at the limit just to complete the route, and have more energy to attack, which makes a lot of the women’s races more dynamic and exciting – I’m someone who’d like to see the men ride shorter stages too, because shorter stages make exciting racing.”

Is the new course distance maximum enough?

Elisa Longo Borghini battles to stay in touch with 250 metres to go at Aviva Women's Tour 2016 - Stage 3. A 109.6 km road race from Ashbourne to Chesterfield, UK on June 17th 2016.

The general consensus is that the additional 20km allowance in women’s course distances can only be a good thing to help bridge the gender equality gap. Although there’s a long way to go, and there are more important areas that should be focused on to really drive progress.

Stefan Wyman explains that: “Hopefully in 2018, a little later then planned, we will see the full introduction of the WorldTour for women.  These teams, with bigger budgets, will be well placed to cope with the challenges of increased stages, like having more staff available for multiple feed zones.  A 20km increase won’t add too much pressure, but the potential for stage lengths to grow further is clearly there now, and a strong WorldTour will be well place to not only cope with it, but prove they can make long races exciting for fans and the media.”

Participating teams of the Women’s World Tour ride and race together throughout the season. This means that amateur teams and professional teams form the same peloton, and while that can be a form of encouragement for lesser experienced teams, it’s not an ideal balance for competition. The men’s World Tour has a tiered system for participating teams, and yet the women’s World Tour has no registration for World Team rankings.

aviva women's tour 2016

It isn’t just the non-existent tier system to hinder women’s progression, as Megan Guarnier discusses the need for adequate media coverage of women’s tour events, and the ongoing battle for equal pay across men’s and women’s racing.

Megan says: “Right now, women’s cycling needs media coverage the most.  We need coverage of our races so we can grow our fan base, get more people involved, and grab the attention of potential sponsors.”… “Without video coverage, our sport will stay stagnant.  We need an influx of sponsorship to allow teams to grow and create the opportunity for more women to race full time.”

With regards to salary, we know that over 75 percent of teams in the Women’s World Tour would not be paying riders. And there’s still huge disparity between the men’s and women’s prize fund which needs addressing. Megan goes on to say: “I appreciate most parity attempts as long as there is a recognition that parity is a multi-faceted issue. I think the 7% increase in distance is a great step, but I would also like to see this translate into a 7% increase in salary for women.”

The 20km ceiling increase on all Women’s World Tour courses has been well received and regarded as a positive step in the right direction for women’s cycling. However, it does feel like a baby step in the grand scheme of achieving equality.

More important factors such as a full and comprehensive World Tour for women needs to be established. Sufficient measures need to be taken to reduce the monetary disparity between men and women, as well as considerable efforts to boost women’s event coverage.

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