2014 saw two huge changes for women’s cycling with the introduction of the Women’s Tour and La Course by the Tour de France. Both of these events were tremendous additions to the women’s calendar and added anticipation, excitement, media opportunities and fan engagement by the bucket load. But these two events came about in a very different ways.
Firstly we have the AVIVA Women’s Tour, a stand-alone women’s event, run by a Sweetspot. It was their idea, their vision from start to finish, and it’s their plan to take this race to the top of the UCI calendar for women. In my opinion it embodies everything that a women’s Grand Tour should; only it’s a few days shorter than perhaps would strictly justify that title. This race sets the standards worldwide now in women’s stage racing. It grew from a tiny acorn, a stand-alone criterium in Stoke, as part of the Tour Series. This tiny acorn planted the seed that Women’s racing could be commercially viable, open up new audiences and attract new revenue to this commercial organisation.
Secondly, we have La Course, run by ASO, an event that I watched on a live feed that went out to 144 countries in 2014, and was lucky enough to be part of in 2015. It was events like this that made me want to take this team to UCI level this year, and it’s certainly going to be hugely missed in 2016 as we return to development status. It breaks new territory for women’s cycling and has already lead to the start of La Course by Vuelta. La Course came about thanks to the campaigning of leading figures in the sport, as well as a public petition. This event isn’t so much a single acorn, it’s more like a vast field covered in acorns, but we have to careful what we wish this particular field to grow into.
Often comments about women’s cycling focus on the potential for a longer women’s Tour de France but if it were to be longer, it’s likely to be a stand-alone event. I understood the calls for this longer format when the event was first announced, but feel there is a need to use perspective and hindsight when judging this race now. Talk of grand tour for women often seems to pass over the fact that we have a Giro. It also often forgets the fact that rules forbid the formation of new stage races over 8 days in length (Less for class 1 & 2 stage race). To be honest, I’d like to see an update of the regulations relating to women’s cycling, because even if we wanted a new Grand Tour, the rules forbid it.
The maximum duration of each event shall be that of 2004. The duration of new events of classes 1 and 2 is limited to 6 days, unless an exemption is made by the management committee. The duration of class HC events is limited to 8 days, unless an exemption is granted by the Management Committee.
Perhaps our push for a Grand Tour needs to be more focused around the expansion of races like the AVIVA tour. This event has given us two years of amazing racing, creating everything we need from a grand tour. They’ve done this from scratch, all be it following a proven model from their men’s event.
I think it’s important to spend more time considering what we already have. The AVIVA Women’s Tour was by far the best women’s race I’ve been to. It didn’t have a men’s event, it was on television, the top riders liked it (OK, they wanted more hills; organiser has promised hills) and prize money wasn’t restricted to the UCI minimums that were set in yesteryear. If we could open up an opportunity for this race to be 10 days long (or more), and for stages to be longer (Again restricted by the current UCI rules), we have the makings of a grand tour. But even this potential expansion needs to be done based on clear economic grounds and not forsake any potential media opportunities.
I never go a season without thinking about the loss of the Tour de L’aude. That race was a true stage race monument for women’s cycling. There’s been nothing that comes near to replacing it yet, but I look at the potential of events like the AVIVA Tour, Thuringen, and even the Giro. These are three events that could stand at the top of the sport, given the right assistance, backing and media. We don’t need grand tours to be restricted to the Giro, Tour de France and Vuelta; lets create our own.
La Course is a one off frenzy for a women’s team. It’s huge and its impact on every team is massive. From motivation, to prize money, to TV coverage to sponsorship return; it would be a disaster in my opinion if the format of this event changed in the short term. I was on the tokenism bandwagon (I still think that’s what it was at the time) when it got launched, but having experienced it, it actually gives us something unique that we have to hold onto. A very brief look at the alternatives makes me realise quickly what we’d miss if it left the calendar:
- At la Course, we have guaranteed TV coverage, to a huge number of countries. A stand-alone women’s tour might not get this (Even under the new Women’s World Tour proposals).
- We have hundreds of thousands of fan, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out we won’t hit these numbers on the road side in a stand alone women’s Tour in France not run in conjunction with the men’s event. Certainly in the short term.
- We have a huge boost in following, engagement and interest in the team from sponsors, potential sponsors and most importantly fans. This race is our stage.
If, as is endlessly pushed for, the format of la Course changed it’s highly likely it would not coincide with the men’s Tour de France, the biggest cycling show on earth. We would loose the benefits of the current format and have a new event that might fail to capture the imagination like the current event. In my opinion, with women’s cycling in a very finely balanced spot right now it might be a risk too far.
I do share the concerns of many, that the Women’s World Tour will feature 3 city centre races. That’s a lot, but perhaps as the calendar develops, these 3 events will become key events, as part of 50 or 60 day WWT, and their format and short distance will be seen a refreshing change from the longer classics and new grand tour events. Only time will tell. We also have to remember the gulf between the top teams and the also runs is widening. There is a vast difference between the might and power of the top 5, and their domination will only be magnified if we transfer to a WWT with longer and tougher events in the short term. There is perhaps an argument that we should evolve what we have, whist making the changes that will strengthen the sport on mass, including closing the gap between the top and bottom of the UCI teams. Mass evolution rather than targeted revolution might help the long-term growth of the sport.
I would like to see the UCI push guarantees on the development of women cycling by making new events run an equivalent women’s race. Not necessarily on the same date, but if there is to be a new UCI race for men (Perhaps anything from .1 upwards) then there should be an equivalent UCI women’s event with the same number of days, same prize fund, and it should be added to the calendar in the same year. This would need to work the other way remember, so new women’s events also included a men’s event. It’s hard to change a historical calendar, but it’s easy to draw a line in the ground and set things going forward onto a new level playing field.
Hopefully the sport continues to move forward and evolve at the pace it has over the last 24 months. With some simple changes to regulations, we can monumentally shift expectations and accelerate the growth potential of an already exciting sport. We will be watching with interest during 2016, as we look at our place as a development team, and the potential to attract further sponsorship to put us into the World Tour in the future.