The UCI Women’s World Tour kicked off with Strade Bianche over the weekend, and its introduction this year has been heralded as the start of the reinvention of women’s cycling. The new format replaces the Women’s World Cup, and takes the competition from ten single days or racing to 35, over sixteen events.
It was initially believed that the World Tour for women was to be introduced in 2017 – it was only late in 2015 when logos were released and the calendar was unveiled that it became apparent we would see the launch come this year. For many a rider, team and spectator, the introduction couldn’t come soon enough – but some are concerned that it’s been too quickly introduced, to the determent of the overall goal.
"I just think it feels to me a tiny bit rushed to market"
Matrix Fitness Race Team Manager Stefan Wyman spoke to us recently to share his concerns over the format. He explained: “I think that the Women’s World Tour concept is absolutely fantastic, it’s totally what the sport needs and I’m sure the UCI have got all the experience and knowledge and know-how to make it a really great success. I just think it feels to me a tiny bit rushed to market – it feels like it needs further consultation and to be a little bit braver in its goals."
His concern is that though race days have been added, the events are running largely under the same regulations used for the now defunct Women’s World Cup, which match up about to that of men’s Continental racing. All this means that amateurs can ride – not every member of the peloton has to be professional, and that creates large gaps in ability.
Wyman explained his concerns, saying: “Unfortunately if you have a sport running under non-professional regulations, it’s not going to be professional. It needs a fresh set of eyes to come in and make those rules progressive."
What does that actually mean to Wyman? Having registered his team – Matrix Fitness – as a UCI pro team last year, he’s stepped them back a level for 2016. He believes that what’s needed for teams of all levels to progress is a two tier system, with the best women’s teams in the World in tier one, racing the World Tour, and the amateur and club teams racing in tier two.
He explained: “What matters at the moment is that we have a really strong top tier – so the World Tour is launched with 10 to 15 teams – with clear regulations. A World Tour race should be for World Tour, tier one teams. Lots of organisers want more and more teams, bigger and bigger pelotons. To me there’s absolutely no sense in that. At the finish of these races [with 200 riders starting] there’s 70 or 80 riders [because so many are not at the same level and get dropped] – what the crowds, sponsors, and media want and what the race organisers should want, is the best riders."
"Nearly every 1.2 race [where pro and amateur riders can race] I went to last year, riders were dropped in the neutral zone."
He’s not just thinking about the spectators – though – allowing amateur riders access to races where pro riders are taking part isn’t good for their development, either. He explains: “Nearly every 1.2 race [where pro and amateur riders can race] I went to last year, riders were dropped in the neutral zone. That’s pretty embarrassing for the sport when there’s crowds lined up, it looks very bad for sponsors, and VIP guests in team cars – but it’s absolutely soul destroying for those riders. You have to ask why those teams are allowed to ride, and why those riders are selected by their managers to go to that event. And it happens too often for it to be a rider falling ill or a strange coincidence. Those riders are going to leave the sport – they’ll get bored of it, but they’re potentially fantastic riders – they’re just not taking the right steps along the pathway to professional racing."
"Having amateur teams competing in races meant for pros isn’t just bad for their development, it also creates a dent in National level racing."
It seems clear to Wyman that those riders have an obvious place – and that’s at the National level races, where organisers are often struggling for entries. He gives the example of the Dave Peck Memorial Race run by Twickenham CC. It’s open to E/1/2/3 female riders - and he says: “they recently wrote out to say they’ve only got 50 entries and need more or they can’t run it. It's held on the same day as [1.2 Belgium race Grand Prix de] Dottignies - and there's 5 British teams registered for that. Two of them are pro teams, maybe three, but there's two non-professioanl teams going out for that race. Really they should be trying to dominate UK racing, because they're not professional teams. Having amateur teams competing in races meant for pros isn’t just bad for their development, it also creates a dent in National level racing."
Of course, you could argue that the top of that Dave Peck field then being dominated by unpaid, but semi-pro riders from established teams just about able to hold on to pro races might discourage your mate from the local cycling club entering as a cat 3. However, with more and more races available for cat 3 and 4 riders around, and supportive groups such as London Women’s Racing and other variations around the country operating, there does seem to be enough provision for all of us.
It was a tough decision for Wyman to downgrade his team from UCI pro this year to race outside of the top level races. However, he does so to allow the best teams to operate against the best competition, and to provide a progressive path for riders such as Molly Weaver who stepped from Matrix Fitness to Liv Plantur last year – he says: “If my team had registered as UCI pro this year we’d be ranked between 25 and 40 – it wouldn’t affect the sport if my team didn’t carry on, or if some of the other Italian, French or British teams didn’t carry on.
"The reality is that every team below that top 15 [UCI Pro registered teams] are all amateur at the moment. The staff aren't professional. The riders aren’t full time. There aren’t coaches, sports psychologists, physiotherapists, doctors. So if they’re not able to race World Tour Races, so what? It sounds really harsh, but the reality is some of the club teams in Europe are way better teams in terms of structure and ability than some of those who flexed their muscles and spent money on UCI registration. We need rankings to reflect the quality of the team. For a young rider moving up through the rankings, they need to know where they are and where they’re going."
"I believe if you get the sport right, equality will follow"
Wyman is of course hopeful that the new World Tour will prove to be an exciting spectacle and a progressive move for the sport – his key wish is that it will soon be made more professional – with two tiers or women’s teams created, and only tier one able to race at WWT level. All any of us want is to reach equality sooner – but Wyman believe the sport has to pull its weight too – saying: “Most people talk about equality a lot, I do as well, but I believe if you get the sport right, equality will follow. Yes, we can push for equality and the sport will follow – there’s two ways you can do it, but I think if we can work on both sides together we’ll reach a better place a lot quicker."
Regardless if it's perfectly ready, the Women's World Tour is underway - and it's important we show support and make sure we're glued to the social media channels of the events, and upping the views on any post race highlights. Check out the full calendar of events - what to watch and when - here.