Has the Women’s WorldTour overtaken the teams racing there?
This weekend, Strade Bianche kicks off the Women’s WorldTour. Although this is only the eighth edition of the women’s event, it has become one of the most anticipated races of the season, with a place in the hearts of cycling fans.
A heady mix of beautiful rolling Tuscan countryside, steep and punchy climbs, white gravel and fervor tifosi combine with an enthusiastic peloton to create what is consistently one of the most time-consuming days on the calendar.
From the freezing slush of 2018 to the sweltering heat of the displaced race of 2020, Strade Bianche always delivers.
The women’s Strade Bianche will forever be associated with the Women’s WorldTour. The day after the first edition in 2015, just along one of Siena’s narrow streets from the Piazza del Campo where Megan Guarnier had raised her arms in victory, stakeholders gathered at the Palazzo Ugurgieri to discuss the future of women’s sport.
Among the proposals they confirmed was the creation of the Women’s WorldTour. The new top tier would replace the World Cup – which that year consisted of 10 one-day races – with a mix of four stage races and 13 one-day races.
So much has changed in women’s sport since that encounter in Siena. Live TV coverage is the rule rather than the rare exception, and the introduction of WorldTour teams, also decided at the Siena meeting, has brought genuine professional teams.
There are more races, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France to name just two, and the WorldTour has grown from 35 days in the first year to a maximum of 52 in 2018. If the calendar is to be believed of the UCI, this year there will be 71 days. Including 57 days of stage races.
But one thing that hasn’t changed much is the number of riders in the teams. SD Worx have been the highest ranked team in the WorldTour for all but one season. Like Boels-Dolmans in 2016 they had 12 riders, this year they have 14, although Amy Pieters is unlikely to race, the Dutch champion in a coma after an accident late last year.
Of all the WorldTeams UAE Team ADQ and Canyon-SRAM have the most riders with 15. So are there too many high-level race days?
“We’re not men’s WorldTour teams with 30 riders, we have a maximum of 16,” says Ronny Lauke, Team Principal at Canyon-SRAM. “No team has that, and so it’s a challenge, but I like challenges.
“It’s good to see there’s growth in the sport, but July and August are pretty demanding so you’re bound to have a big roster with 14-16 riders to meet the demands of the race and spread out the runners. You need a big team.”
And big teams need bigger budgets.
“It’s very good because we have development, but next season, I have 31 employees in my team, says Stephen Delcourt, head of Futuroscope FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine. “And when we travel, the organization only pays €3,000, but the cost of a minimum ride is €8-9,000. It’s really hard on the budget, if you don’t have more than €2,000,000 is not possible.
The two longest and most coveted races of the year, the Giro Donne and the Women’s Tour de France together comprise 18 days and take place entirely within the 31 days of July, which poses planning problems, especially more than the route of the old race has not yet been announced. Then the six-day Battle of the North begins nine days after the Tour. With two days in between.
“I think it’s possible to be good on the Giro and the Tour de France or on the Tour de France and Norway, but not all three”, continues Delcourt. “For many years women’s cycling said ‘ah this is so crap, we don’t have big races’, now we have 10 days [Giro] and 8 days [Tour] and the arctic race [Battle of the North.]”
In the pre-Covid years, the WorldTour was finished and dusted before the World Championships in mid-September, but this year there are two stage races in October, one in Switzerland, the other in China, where there is also a one-day race. Combine that with the expected return of Cadel Evans racing to the next level in 2023 and not only are there more race days and travel, but the off seasons are getting shorter than ever.
“My team will be made up of 11 riders so everyone is going to be really pushed,” said former British champion Hannah Barnes (Uno-X), who pointed out that some teams had been forced to withdraw from the Ronde van Drenthe last October due to lack of riding riders.
“It’s tough, it’s up to the teams not to push the riders and the staff too much. But for years and years we’ve been asking for more days, more races and TV time, and the events WorldTour mean that. We’re going to have to support that and with the right team and the right support I think you can stay healthy all year round.
More races mean that over the past few seasons we have seen race organizers lay out a wider variety of routes which, in turn, has created opportunities for a greater selection of runners. It’s a good thing and the expansion of the WorldTour means it will continue, making the events even more interesting.
“Things are changing right now because people are specializing,” says Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), one of the best climbers in the peloton and the most offensive. “I think in the future we will see different riders target different races.
“You can’t do every race, otherwise you’ll be overtaken, you can’t be good all the time, it’s just not possible. It’s good that there are a lot of races, but the teams have to keep up because you can do a doubleheader, but there will be other factors and the teams’ budgets will have to increase to create a better structure.
Between May 13, when Itzulia Women starts in the Basque Country and September 11, when the Ceratizit Challenge ends elsewhere in Spain (the route has not yet been announced), there are only once more two weeks between stage races, with 54 WorldTour race days in 121 days.
This not only puts pressure on teams and riders, but also on lower level races, which rely on the participation of big names for continued sponsorship and without these teams the foundations of the sport are in jeopardy.
Much of the change women’s sport has undergone in recent years has been driven by the UCI. It is the global governing body that created the WorldTour and mandated television coverage. WorldTour teams have finally brought in minimum wages and even maternity leave. For this they must be credited.
Overall, there aren’t too many WorldTour race days, however, the women’s sport is on the crest of a wave that shouldn’t be let up. The UCI needs to support the whole sport and to do that it needs to walk the fine line between ensuring continued progress and pushing too hard and causing the sport to collapse on itself.