UCI Road World Championships 2021 - Why are women's cycling races limited to 160km? And is it a good thing?
Ahead of the UCI Road World Championships in Flanders, Niamh Lewis dives into a thorny question: why are women’s races typically shorter than the men’s equivalent? And should the races be beefed up in distance or would that actually hinder what makes women’s cycling such a unique offering to fans? You can watch the World Championships live and ad-free on the Eurosport app and Eurosport.co.uk
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Women are capable of riding and racing across the same parcours and distances as men in bike races, however, the UCI does not permit them to do so.
Top-level races in women’s cycling (Olympic Games, UCI World Championships and Women’s World Tour (WWT)) are restricted to a maximum of 160km by the UCI, while the men’s races have an upper limit of 280km as well as being weeks longer over a Grand Tour. At the Belgian classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the men ride - as the title suggests - the 259km round trip, while the women ride the 140km from Bastogne to Liege, although misleadingly the race is still called Liege-Bastogne-Liege Femmes.
The idea of a “Classic” is supposed to continue a culture of long-distance cycling from one end of a central European country to the other. There has long been speculation about why in the modern era of cycling, women’s races are shorter and whether it alters the race result. Women’s cycling is fighting a long battle with equality, and although equal race distances and routes seem achievable by physical capabilities, there are a number of factors to be considered in the debate such as engagement and broadcasting, resources, desire, financial impact, and historical reasons.
In a statement to Eurosport, the UCI said the maximum distance for women’s races increased in 2017 from 140km to 160km: “This decision was made by the UCI Management Committee on the basis of a joint proposition from the representatives of women riders, teams and organisers sitting on the UCI Women’s WorldTour Committee and the UCI Road Commission.
“Women’s races of today are characterised by their dynamic actions from the start to the finish and unpredictable outcomes. The sporting interest provided by nowadays women’s racing meets the expectations of the fans and media.
“Whereas the UCI remains open to any discussion aiming to see the format of its competitions evolve in the interests of balancing sporting interest, security of athletes and pleasure of fans, stakeholders of women’s cycling are today satisfied with the existing distances and no changes are currently considered,” the statement added.
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Starting with desire – do riders want longer races?
Britain’s Lizzie Deignan, who has long been at the forefront of pushing for equality in the sport, told Eurosport it’s a fine balance. “Sometimes it can be frustrating when you’ve got things like La Course which are just 100km long and I think that’s potentially too short. And then I don’t think it’s necessary that we need to have over 200km but I also don’t think it’s necessary that the men need that either,” she said.
“It depends if it changes the outcome of the race, but I don’t think it would in cycling as it currently stands – I think you’d have the same winners if the races were longer anyway.”
Cycling experts have discussed whether the long dull days of Grand Tours are of any use when after over 200km it can come down to a sprint finish. The Test cricket fans among them might argue that being able to perform on tired legs is a fine art and that Classics and Grand Tours are the ultimate test of human endurance, so removing the endurance part would go against the sole purpose of the race. But others would argue most riders would go into the stage with the same attitude of conserving energy for the bulk of the day, force other teams to pull at the front ready to expel the energy when it really matters, therefore the end result would be the same.
The latter seems to the be the case for women’s racing, but with no one-day races longer than 160km it’s difficult to test the theory. However, in addition, women’s racing has a number of other noticeable differences including style of racing, and the dominance of older and more experienced riders compared to the men’s peloton whose winners are younger, so in this case the two can’t be compared evenly side-by-side.
Deignan agrees: “I think with our current peloton it would stay the same, I don’t think it would necessarily change the dynamic of the racing. Our racing – women’s racing – traditionally is quite exciting and dramatic from the start and perhaps it would get less dynamic if the race got longer because people would wait longer in the race [to attack].”
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Blessed are the route makers – resources
For team and rider resources, the larger teams with a men’s elite side, like Trek-Segafredo, Jumbo-Visma, and Movistar have more staff available, but the differences would be marginal. And naturally, if stage races were longer, the starting line-up would vary, depending on which races a rider is targeting.
For organisers though, there’s more logistics and costs to be factored in. The UCI regulations mean that if organisers want to include a women’s race, they must create more than one route which not only costs money and requires more resources, but makes race-day logistics more difficult with almost twice the amount of infrastructure needed to host it, such as roads needed to be closed, staff, insurance, volunteers and so on.
For the largest of the sports event organisers, ASO, resource is perhaps not a problem. However, Tour director Christian Prudhomme said the women’s races they organise make a loss, and in order for Tour de France Femmes to stay on the calendar, it needs to “stand the test of time”. Many have tried, and many have failed.
"In my view, you have to put to one side the idea of parity between men and women,” Prudhomme said. “Why? Because there was a reason why [the women's Tour de France held between 1984-89] only lasted for six years, and that was a lack of economic balance. What we want to do is create a race that will stay the course, that will be set up and stand the test of time. What that means is that the race cannot lose money. Today, all the women's races that we organise lose us money.
"If it makes money, that's great, but it mustn't lose money, or it will end up like the Tour in the 80s, and it will die."
The original Tour de France Féminin by ASO was binned in 1989 due to a lack of interest from the public, and a lack of media coverage - which is perhaps connected to the fact it took place at the same time as the men’s race. Similarly, La Grande Boucle ran from 1992-2009 and fell off the calendar for similar reasons, which means three things: the media must improve in covering the sport (you can watch live on the Eurosport App & GCN+), the UCI’s 2019 ruling that WWT races should come with at least 45 minutes of live coverage is a step in the right direction but more can be done. Sponsors are more likely to invest if there’s added exposure as investment equals performance, and as a result of all of the above, the general public will then have everything they need to engage with it.
As Deignan points out, it’s a chicken and egg scenario, and it is about time: “It’s a good step in the right direction, obviously the Tour is iconic because it’s a Grand Tour in men’s cycling and it would be nice if we could get that equivalent too.
“But it’s encouraging because I never thought there would be a women’s TDF in my career and that surprises me that it’s happened this quickly even though obviously it’s too slow. There still has been quite a bit of change since the first La Course [in 2014] on the Champs Elysees.
She added: “[Stage racing] would be a huge added cost but I suppose it would be an investment because the opportunity and the sponsorship exposure would be worth it so I’m sure that Trek-Segafredo would welcome that opportunity. Do you provide the race and the racing opportunity when there still isn’t the infrastructure behind in certain teams and hope that they produce that and make up the shortfall or do you wait until the sport is potentially more ready? I think it’s sometimes better to go head first.”
Tomas Van Den Spiegel, CEO of Flanders Classics, has long been a supporter of women's racing. He said in May: "We believe in women’s cycling so instead of calling it losing money I rather call it investing. We are almost at the tipping point where broadcasters and sponsors are wanting in on women’s cycling. We all just need to keep up the good work."
Flanders Classics joined forced with KPMG in 2020 to create a three-year plan to improve the level of organisation of women's races and "help move women's cycling forward". In the same release, Spiegel said: "Women’s cycling is already growing at many levels but there is still a lot of potential left."
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Tour de France Femmes 2022
ASO are willing to give a Tour de France Femmes another go from 2022, and a key difference this time is that as the men roll into Paris for the 109th time, the women roll out to begin their eight-stage race instead of trying to be hosted at the same time. Zwift have signed a four-year deal and numerous sponsors are onboard, while France Televisions said they would extend their “afternoon of cycling” by one week to provide broadcast coverage of the race. The one-day race La Course will no longer exist.
Women’s cycling makes a leap forward every season and is progressing at a faster rate than the men’s side. However, ASO owner Marie-Odile Amaury told Cyclist that women's cycling needs to develop its own identity away from trying to mirror the men. "Women should try to create their own cycling world in order to develop cycling with their own rules and systems," she says. "I am convinced that women shouldn't be thinking in terms of men and women. Men and women have different qualities, and we can reach the same place by working with our different qualities."
What those qualities are specifically in terms of cycling is unclear, though she continued by adding the old attempts at a women’s TDF couldn’t use the infrastructure of the men’s race and the problem was the desire to go big immediately: “With La Course by Le Tour de France, we started from a more positive, sustainable base, where we could grow the event little by little. Women’s cycling has made enormous progress in terms of the equipment, coaching and the number of teams. I really enjoy watching women’s racing and I think the riders are amazing.”
It’s fair to say that the WWT races this season were far from dull. Every one of them has been fast, aggressive, attacking. Most recently, the Olympic road race was one for the history books with an underdog maths teacher racing solo for Austria who single-handedly outsmarted the Dutch giants to a gold medal. And with it being in the Olympics, immediately women’s cycling is opened up to a wider audience.
With all that in mind, perhaps Amaury is right. Women’s racing already has something different to the men's… unpredictability. And thanks to the UCI, the riders are so efficient, they only need a maximum of 160km to make it interesting.
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