Women’s Elite Racing – It Isn’t a Sideline Act

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Elite Women's Racing - My Name is April
Source: Getty Images

Ah, July. Quite possibly the best month of the year…and not just because it marks another proverbial notch on my birthday belt. It’s a big month for the world of cycling. The UCI Women’s World Tour – oh, you thought I was going to start talking about the Tour de France didn’t you? Au contrare, my mi gorengs, whilst the majority of the cycling world has been fixated on what has become the great spectacle of peen and TUEs (lol jks…but srsly), the largest event of the calendar for the UCIWWT was held – the Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile (Giro Rosa) and in its wake of spectacular female racing, it has left me with food for thought around the culture of women’s bike racing.

The 2018 Giro Rosa was a 10 stage tour that saw some challenging days, including a climbing ITT and the second last day finishing on top of the Monte Zoncolan, a climb that actually does justice to the incredible skill of our top performing women. The Monte Zoncolan is a mountain that has been deemed savage enough to include in the men’s Giro d’Italia 5 times (including this year’s summit finish for Stage 14). Back in 1997, the women were granted rights to summit it too…on the less steep side. But not this year; this year they were treated to the same niceties as the men and attacked the mountain on the western side, from Ovaro to the very top.

I’m talking in past tense, because it’s already happened. The 2018 Giro Rosa was held on July 6 and finished on July 15 with a 120km stage in Friuli. I only know this because I actively sought out any and every piece of coverage of it I could find, even watching hour long stage highlights in a different language…because it shit all over the UCI’s piss poor attempt at a 3 minute wrap up of the day’s events.

At first, I was bitterly disappointed with the cycling media for not delivering more coverage of the Giro Rosa. Even with the Tour de France going on at the same time, surely there were enough journalists and camera crews spare to ship them off to Italy for 10 days to cover the largest event of the UCI Women’s World Tour? But then I stumbled across Owen Rogers of Cycling Weekly’s article that highlighted the challenges the cycling media have historically faced with race organisers whilst attempting to cover the Giro Rosa.

And I became incensed with the cycling community as a whole. It appeared this wasn’t a cycling media issue, or even a race organisation issue. It is a supply and demand issue. I was apparently an outlier in my desire to watch Giro Rosa coverage. An hour long recap of one of the most inspirational moments in women’s cycling of the modern era has less than 10,000 views. PMG Sport was the only media and broadcasting group to document the Monte Zoncolan climb in its entirety…its numerous camera crews capturing the leaders and the chasers as they battled up the 11.9km climb that maxes out at 22%. Tim and I were literally on the edge of our couch screaming at the laptop as we watched absolute powerhouse women (the battle came down to Annamiek Van Vleuten, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, Amanda Spratt and Eider Merino) attack, chase, attack, chase all the way up this monster mountain.

As an aspiring racer, it was one of the most inspirational, adrenaline-pumping moments of a female cycling race I have watched. It wasn’t just me though – Tim also conceded it was a great race, a great stage and fantastic racing by the ladies. Just a glimpse into the true potential of what women’s cycling could be…if UCI gave them the chance.

But it seems UCI doesn’t want to give them the chance. In fact, they’d rather give that chance to a revenue-raising sportive that sees the women miss out on racing up a mountain nicknamed the Holl during the World Championships’ women’s road race later this year in Innsbruck.

The Holl, affectionately dubbed The Hell Climb, is Gramartboden – a 2.8km climb that rises 899m above sea level and has a max gradient of 28%. It is the finishing touch for the men’s road race but the women don’t even get a look in – a fact that is not lost on Cecillie Uttrup Ludwig who wrote a blog article for Vox Women Cycling decrying the UCI for their unjust decision.

Elite Women's Racing - My Name is April
The Elite Women miss out on riding this Hell Climb because the UCI chose to host a sportive on it the morning of their race instead.

The UCI had responded at the time that it was regrettable the women could not also experience the Gramartboden, explaining that race organisers had limited road closure options for the World Championships multi day event and this was the catalyst for their decision to only include the Hell Climb in the men’s race. Except it wasn’t…because as mentioned above, there is actually a sportive occurring on the same day of the women’s race that uses Gramartboden…a sportive which at the time of writing this has only 43 entries taken of the 1500 available – a fucking joke right?

What this spells out to me, is that the UCI sees Elite Women’s racing as simply another bead on the Fondo, Sportive, Amateur thread…a warm up side show act to the main event…the men’s cycling race.

Further proof in this pudding is the La Course by Le Tour de France (also part of the UCI Women’s World Tour)…what was a 2 day event last year and looked to be progressing into a more dominant presence of a women’s cycling event within the Tour was only one stage this year, albeit a tough and challenging 112.5km that, thanks to Tour de France’s existing coverage, had plenty of air time with a lot of people tuning in to watch – potentially not even realising they were watching some of the same women that just 2 days ago completed a gruelling 10 day tour through Italy. The finish of La Course was spectacular, with Annamiek Van Vleuten pipping Anna Van Der Breggen 20m from the line and backing up her Giro Rosa win with victory of La Course just 2 days later.

It was the type of racing that has people on the edge of their seats screaming at the tv – I know the multiple cycling group chats I am in all were all abuzz with excitement as they witnessed the ending unfold in front of them. It was a race that could very easily match the men’s in terms of excitement and “watchability”.

Because that is the crux of it. How “watchable” is a women’s cycling race? Every year something new and exciting is introduced to the men’s races whilst the women seem to only be thrown the offcuts and morsels like hungry mutts at the back of a butcher shop. The viewers are left unmoved, the female racers are indifferent, the UCI doesn’t see the revenue or demand for more, and everyone loses.

The women’s cycling races have the potential to be just as exciting as the men’s, the Giro Rosa and La Course this year alone have proven that. The women are strong, talented and hungry for rides, races and climbs that challenge them. A race worth racing is a race worth watching. The UCI needs to stop ignoring the elephant in the room, stop with the game of chicken and egg and start injecting the women’s races with the excitement the cycling community is craving and the challenge the elite women deserve.

 

 

Image Source: Getty Images

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