Monday 24 April 2023

Freewheeling: Is women's professional cycle racing in a good place?

Demi Vollering wins Liege-Bastogne-Liege @GettySport

Phew, it's been breathtaking watching how the races have unfolded during this year's Spring Classics races - those tough one-day races in northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands over windswept, sometimes cobbled, sometimes undulating terrain, often in the rain. No one must be more out of breath than SD Worx rider Demi Vollering, who completed the Ardennes Classics triple in scintillating style by winning the Amstel Gold, Flèche-Wallone, and Liège-Bastogne-Liege - a feat last achieved by her mentor and team Sports Director, Anna van der Breggen in 2017.

As women's professional cycling continues to grow and more is being done to achieve parity with men's cycle racing, it is worth doing a stop and check, and asking if women's professional cycle racing really is in a good place?

Vive Le Tour de France Femmes

It has been great to see that sports event organiser Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) continue to add to its sports portfolio by staging the Paris-Roubaix Femmes and a Tour de France Femmes. Last year's renaissance competition caught the eye of millions as the women raced around the streets of Paris on that hot Sunday afternoon during Stage 1 in the last week of July, right before the men raced the traditional finale. For many, it was an emotional day to see a women's peloton starting the stage race using the infrastructure of the iconic cycle race - something for which the likes of former professional cyclist Kathryn Bertine, and others including multiple World Champion Marianne Vos have campaigned for decades.

ASO were very happy with the viewing figures in France, with 20 million viewers on France 2 and France 3 free-to-air television channels across the whole race. There were on average 2.25 million viewers per day, making an audience share of 26.4%, and notably 5.1 million during the showdown between Vollering and Annemiek Van Vleuten on the final stage, on La Super Planche des Belles Filles. Across Europe 14 million viewers in seven countries tuned into fee-paying Eurosport. Naturally ratings were solid in the Netherlands with audience share of its national TV station, NOS being 45% as fans tuned in to watch their compatriot heroes race their way onto the podium and don the winning jerseys - Van Vleuten in yellow, Vollering in polka dots, Vos in green, and Shirin Van Anrooij in white. 

British hopes would normally have been placed on the top road racer, Lizzie Deignan, who won the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes, but she was away on maternity leave. That will have impacted on viewing figures on this side of the English Channel.

Stage 1 of 2022 revived Tour de France Femmes

Meanwhile in France, crowds came out in force along the road sides for key stages in Paris, on the gravel roads into Bar-sur-Aube during Stage Four, and at the finale on the slopes of the Vosgian mountain passes. But even Tour Director, Marion Rousse said that there were questions to be asked around the lack of roadside spectators on other stages.

In some cycle races, local schools get the children to come out of their classrooms to watch the race, and make some noise. That generally makes for good viewing to see crowds of young, excited faces and their high pitched cheers ring out loudly as the television cameras pan through the town centres. But with the Tour de France Femmes being in late July, many schools are already closed for the holidays. 

Growth is in the eyeballs of the beholder

Very importantly, the number of eyeballs on a race is a key factor in the growth of any sport. It's important to have the viewing figures, and it also looks good for viewers when they watch images of competitors battling it out in front of enthusiastic crowds. 

While sports fans avidly watch their athletic heroes performing well, they also like the stories and the characters behind the sport - the professional who was just a weekend warrior barely a year previously; the outspoken activist; the rivalries - between teams or even within a team; the bad boy/girl; the athlete making a come-back following a serious injury or illness.

The highly successful Netflix Formula 1 docusoap Drive to Survive has consistently attracted the same comment - "I don't follow F1; I don't know anything about motorsport; but I am fascinated by the characters and the stories."

Personally, I think we need a bit of that in cycling, and particularly in women's professional cycling. Cycling fans marvel on social media over who they believe to be the GOAT (greatest of all time) - be it Marianne Vos or Annemiek Van Vleuten in the modern era, Beryl Burton from the vintage times, or Jeannie Longo if they want to go for a controversial choice. Whoever your don't want athletes who when they are interviewed are just a bit too.....I dare say, "ordinary"! Many of these athletes just talk about their racing, their calendar, their strategy, and they will have been media-prepped to not stray off that line. That's all well and good for the purist fan. But a sport cannot live on purists alone. There needs to be an extra dimension that can attract a wider audience and give a wow factor - or at least a story that chimes with observers.

Marianne Vos, for many the GOAT

Recently, a camera crew on the famous Koppenberg climb on the route of the Tour of Flanders, asked a group of women riders to move out of the way so that they could film one of the top men's teams doing their training ride over the cobbles. 

The camera crew failed to recognise that among the women they budged out was a certain Lotte Kopecky - defending champion of the race, a native of Flanders (voted Flandrian of the Year) as well as being winner of other classics like Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche, plus a multiple World and European Track cycling champion. 

I previously wrote an article in Rouleur magazine about a big sporting rivalry in the 1980s - not Borg and McEnroe, but Longo and Canins. Two of the best women riders of that era, who dominated the erstwhile Tour de France Feminin. Jeannie Longo was a former Alpine skier from the French Alps, while Maria Canins was a former cross country skier from the Italian Dolomites. A young firebrand demoiselle against la mamma volante (on account of her juggling her racing with being a mother). This rivalry filled column inches of the sports pages and garnered curious as well as dedicated fans to support team Longo or team Canins. Both women have reminisced whimsically about those days when they had their faces plastered on the front of popular sports newspapers like Gazzetto dello Sport or L'Equipe. Longo also appeared on sports shows on French television. 

Everybody loves a story - where is it? We need it! 

Among the sea of women's teams today, a couple of frontrunners have emerged in the race for World Tour supremacy, with both teams having a clutch of World and National Champions in their fold. I'm talking about Trek-Segafredo and SD Worx. Wouldn't things be spiced up if we had a Manchester City v Arsenal type rivalry going on?

While there are quite a few riders who have shown true grit on the road, there don't seem to be any real characters that do acts that go beyond sport. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig's trademark effusive post-race interviews attract interest and have brought her a significant following, and a comparatively less well-known Canadian, Alison Jackson - the surprise winner of Paris-Roubaix Femmes - got people talking as much about her sporting achievement as for her post-race dances on social media. But it seems to be limited to that. Let's hope Alison wins a few more races.

In short, we see some great racing in the women's game and there are some outstanding riders. But we could do with more characters and back-stories to make the sport. That's what garners a wider interest than just pure sport, and what brings more eyeballs, and hence increasing TV deals, and sponsorship. We all want to see our favourite sport on television, but clearly given the costs of televising a sport event, there needs to be something in it for the organisers who would sell the rights, and the broadcast companies who purchase the rights, and ultimately the sponsors and advertisers who are hoping to get the visibility and the returns. 

There needs to be solid evidence that loads of people will watch the event on TV. The Tour de France Femmes last year was deemed a success in terms of viewing figures which is great, but that scenario needs to be replicated again and again across the collection of big races in the racing calendar. As annoying as it may be that a women's cycle race isn't shown on terrestrial TV, it has to be kept in mind that it's an ambitious expectation to see a race televised if viewing figures are measured in the thousands - which is not uncommon for some World Tour races -  rather than in the millions.  

Sadly, sponsorship was lacking when it came to the Women's Tour of Britain race. The week-long stage competition had been running since 2014, attracting the best riders in the world, and was a paragon of parity in sport, with the race being televised on terrestrial free-to-air TV in the UK, and offering over a 90,000-euro prize fund - equal to the men's Tour of Britain, and more generous than other World Tour races apart from the Ride London Classique, and the later revived Tour de France Femmes.

But the organisers, Sweetspot, could not sustain this model and find a company willing to become the headline sponsor once the OVO Energy sponsorship ended after 2019. The event took place in 2022 but without a headline sponsor, but this could not continue for 2023. With funds desperately needed following the departure of other sponsors of the winners' jerseys and a vehicle sponsor, crowd funding was set up to try to make up the £500,000 shortfall. Sadly, there was no light at the end of the tunnel for this year.

The organisers, hope to hold the race in 2024, but that remains to be seen. The Vårgårda one-day race in Sweden has been stopped altogether due to economic reasons. Meanwhile, the women's Vuelta a España race, which had been held over one or two days in the September (and known as the Challenge Madrid) has been brought forward to May and will be a week-long stage race. The inaugural women's United Arab Emirates Tour took place in February over four days, and two newish stage races - the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de Romandie continue to establish themselves in the women's racing calendar. The women's calendar is busier than ever with 27 races (including 13 stage races) on the calendar, up from 23 in 2022. This is a far cry from the 17 races (including four stage races) when the calendar was established in 2016.

On paper professional women appear to have significantly less racing to do than their male counterparts who have 20 one-day races and 15 stage races (of which three are three weeks long) on their calendar. But in fact a men's team has around 30 riders in its squad, with an average of 12 sports directors/associate sports directors, so they can run dual squads in parallel. Women's teams don't have the resources to do that, especially as many teams will have just one or two sports directors, and 15 riders to fill the calendar. It is not uncommon for teams to run overlapping squads, and some also have a development squad too, but still, athletes can quickly become maxed out in racing if there are any injury or illness issues. This was a problem for Trek-Segafredo, which led to Lizzie Deignan returning to racing slightly earlier than planned. 

Some of the smaller World Tour Teams have said that the changes in structure and conditions in women's professional racing - increased minimum wages, greater prize money, television coverage, maternity pay - are very welcome, even long overdue. However, this can only be sustained with more cash, which can be challenging to find and sustain.

In the words of a UK Prime Minister, "There is no magic money tree".

Hoping for a great future

As well as the unfortunate absence of a few races from the 2023, in the last couple of years teams have spectacularly folded, among them Team Virtu Cycling, Paule Ka, and B&B Hotels - which led to Chloe Hosking unexpectedly facing the prospect of an early retirement from racing. Lifeplus-Wahoo had previously been a World Tour team (when sponsored Trek), but sponsorship issues led to the outfit dropping down to a Continental team status. As for Zaaf Cycling Team, this has been a catastrophe with several riders leaving, including French National Champion Audrey Cordon-Ragot (who had also been a casualty of the B&B Hotels fall-out) after there were reports of riders and staff not being paid.

Development in women's professional sport is always a good thing. But it is also important that any growth be sustainable. This apparent boom in women's professional cycle racing will do wonders for the future of the sport - for athletes, businesses, media, and inspiring more girls and women to get on a bicycle. But the proportionate financial support needs to be there to keep things going, and there needs to be an incentive for corporations to want to pour money into the sport. 

Serena Williams 

In my opinion, the incentive comes down to eyeballs - maybe a Megan Rapinoe moment, which raised the profile of women's football during the 2019 Fifa Football World Cup, or a Serena (Williams) Slam, circa 2003 and with the matching flamboyance and character - or is it sacrilege if I mention a Lance Armstrong moment - but without the industrial scale doping programme and bullying.

Megan Rapinoe at the 2019 football World Cup

Putting women's professional cycling properly on the map like sports such as football or tennis is easier said than done, at a time when professional women's cycle racing is finding its climbing legs. But I think the gains for the sport would be significant, and can move it from it's current reasonably good place, to a great place.

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