Opinion: Dramatic competitive shift in women's cycling in 2021 enhanced by greater coverage
Women's cycling has delivered some thrilling and exciting races this year, including the time trials and road races of both the elite and junior events at the UCI Road World Championships. Niamh Lewis explores how increased coverage and getting more eyes on the sport is essential for long-term growth and development.
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This year, women’s cycling is the most competitive it’s ever been, and it is the most accessible it has ever been, and those two things run in correlation.
Across 2021, many of the Women’s World Tour and classics have been broadcast live, along with commentary and analysis (on Eurosport & GCN in the UK at least), though not all, and along with the huge amount of talent in the peloton, the viewing experience has improved.
By being able to watch the majority of races unfold live, audiences can see the evolution of the peloton across a season, the progress certain riders have made, the learnings and experience they gain and use in subsequent races. The way they focus on working for their team-mates in some races and challenge for the win in others, and the UCI world championships have been no different this week.
As Mark Cavendish said on Friday, the world championships is one of only two events on the calendar that the riders aren’t being paid by sponsors to be there. They pull on their country colours for the thrill of the ride and a chance to wear the prestigious rainbow stripes, racing for themselves as individuals. And this week, even with the dominance of the Dutch, it was as thrilling as ever.
Both the time trial and the road race were broadcast live, and like so many of the other WWT races on the calendar this year, both were highly competitive.
On Saturday, Marianne Vos, 34, a three-time world champion who has a long record of being unbeaten in sprints, was outsprinted by 23-year-old Elisa Balsamo of Italy and forced to settle for second - not for the first time this year.
To put it into perspective, Vos is third in the list of world championships with the most victories on the women’s side with her first win in 2006. She is behind Jeannie Longo with five across the 1980s and Yvonne Reynders who won four even earlier in the 1950s and 60s.
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Earlier in the year, I wrote about how unusual it is to see the older riders still dominating, Annemiek Van Vleuten is one of the oldest riders in the peloton at 38 and still regularly among the favourites for victory. Although it is still true (and unusual), over the course of the season audiences have been able to see the rising stars raise their game, and the level of racing and professionalism has steadily risen. The increase in coverage ultimately leads to an increase in sponsors investment and therefore an increase in performance.
In Sunday’s road race we saw such a tight peloton that no attacks for a breakaway could stick because riders were strong enough to counter attack immediately and mark each other defensively for damage limitation. Balsamo’s domestique Elisa Longo Borghini said afterwards that the final two laps (10km) around Leuven was like a criterium race with a nice jersey as a prize, when expectations were high of an early breakaway over the Belgian bergs in Flanders.
However, the season is not done yet. Next Saturday will be the first women’s Paris-Roubaix. The ‘Hell of the North’ was rescheduled from spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, and after that there is the Women’s Tour in the UK and the Ronde van Drenthe to conclude the season.
It feels as if there has been a shift in women’s cycling this year, the racing has been dramatic. As some of the older and most experienced riders trade their bikes for team cars at the end of the year, it makes way for the younger riders to make their mark in the sport and enjoy the success in front of large crowds and live audiences they deserve. It’s not perfect, and there’s still a long way to go to get equal coverage. But with this basic level of accessibility across a season, there are positive signs of growth.
On to Paris-Roubaix.
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