How is a race route designed? Aviva Women’s Tour race controller Guy Elliott explains
In the build-up to the Aviva Women’s Tour, we explained all the reasons we love the British race – and why you would, too. Well, Aviva Women’s Tour race controller Guy Elliott recently gave us one more reason to love this race when he reached out to us on Twitter following the publication of our story that questioned whether the Aviva Women’s Tour is too easy.
“Good to see you at the race,” Elliott wrote. “If you would like an interview on the parcours in a little more detail, I’m happy to do it. I liked your opinion.”
Of course , we jumped at this opportunity to learn more about the thought behind the race route and the plans for future editions of the race.
Elliott clearly recalled the exchange with Emma Johansson referenced in that post-race opinion piece. Following the final stage, Elliott had approached Johansson and had opened the conversation with: “You know –a lot of people had their money on you.”
Johansson, who finished fourth overall, responded with a blunt: “It’s too easy. You need to make it harder. I’m not coming back next year if it’s like this again.”
“Yes, I remember that conversation,” Elliott said when we connected. “I consider it good-natured and friendly and constructive. I didn’t find the comment negative at all. You can’t say thank you for the nine positive comments you get and pretend the one less than positive or more thoughtful or nuanced comment doesn’t exist.”
“We actually tried to make a much more demanding course this year,” Elliott continued. “We knew we didn’t have mountains, but we had lots of hills. We were very surprised it came to a bunch sprint every day. That says a lot about the increased strength of the women’s peloton.”
The 2015 Aviva Women’s Tour consisted of five stage ranging between 102-139km. The opening two stages were fairly flat stages that clearly favoured the sprinters. Stage three was an undulating stage -constantly up and down -with a highly technical finish. Stage four, the longest of the race, was a transitional stage with hills that split the peloton but offered an opportunity to regroup before the finish. The fifth stage was the hardest on paper with narrow roads and short steep climbs.
“Emma –you want hills? You’re going to get your hills,” Elliott promised, directly addressing Johansson’s critique. “Next year, we’re free to move out of our area, and we’re actively looking at different mountains and an even more demanding course. We know what you want, and we’re prepared to deliver –in a way that fits with our commercial model, of course.”
You see, it’s was easy to dismiss the Aviva Women’s Tour for being too easy when considering the course merely from a racing standpoint. But an event like this takes into account far more than the race itself. It’s the juggling and fine balancing of a number of variables including funding, rider input, safety, UCI rules and regulations, city councils, roadside spectators, television viewers, social agenda and more.
Elliott is the first to admit that he and rest of the Sweet Spot team knew very little about women’s racing when they decided to build this race not quite three years ago. To take out as much guesswork as possible, Elliott and his team turned to experienced riders.
“We took advice from several riders – current and past – about how we should get the race off the ground,” said Elliott. “They said stay near the channel ports. They suggested shorter stages. That’s what we did in the first year.”
“All we knew at that point was that we wanted to run a race in England and that the race would be five days long because that’s what the women’s calendar would allow us to do,” Elliott added. “Many of the initial early decisions were made after we spoke with people like Rochelle Gilmore.”
While Elliott knows more about women’s racing now, he still has the utmost respect for opinions of the riders that take center stage at his race.
“I think we could probably get a conference call going with Emma [Johansson] and Marianne [ Vos] and Lizzie [Armitstead],” said Elliott. “I would love and ask them:’What should we be doing next year? How can we improve it? What do you think is still missing?’ That would be really interesting and informative to us.”
The Aviva Women’s Tour included five road stages run over five days in both the first and second edition. The length of the race, in some ways, will dictate the route, and when Elliott speaks about plans to grow the race, he understands it begs the question of additional stages.
“Some people have told us that if we want to be the best race in the world, we have to go longer than five days,” said Elliott. “And a lot of team managers have specifically asked us not to increased the length.”
“In five days, you get very high quality racing on every stage,” Elliott explained. “If we go for seven or eight or nine days, we may end up with tired legs and less explosive racing. That’s not what we want.”
“I hear the comments for and against it,” Elliott added. “The key barrier is that there is no room on the calendar. We just can’t get room on the calendar beyond five days.”
The Aviva Women’s Tour operates with a rolling road closure, which means that it’s important the very front and very back of the race aren’t too far apart. As the difficulty of the race increases so too do concerns about the race’s ability to keep every rider on the road safe.
“This is a very important consideration,” said Elliott. “It’s not the Tour de France on closed roads. With rolling road closure, we know we’re perfectly okay at the front of the race. What worries us most is riders that are spread out on the road. We were able to have a motorbike with each dropped rider this year, but if riders were to become too spread out, it could present a real problem.”
UCI Rules and Regulations
“A lot of riders complained about short stages last year,” said Elliott. “That mystified us because we’re only allowed to have an average of 100km each day per UCI rules. And last year our race added up to 499.9km. But we heard riders asking for longer stages, and we wanted to deliver.”
“This year, we decided to run the race in East England but spread it westward a little bit to go for some longer stages and to put some hills in,” Elliott added. “We put in two 140km back-to-back stages in.”
In order to have stages of that length Elliott was required to write the UCI for special dispensation.
“We asked for a maximum of 150km stage, which they approved, but in the end we went for 140km because of logistics,” Elliott explained. “And we asked for dispensation to take our average stage length up to 130km. The UCI said yes, providing that we’re not going hilly. In fact, our average stage length was 120km.”
“What we were trying to do there was say that we’re developing the strength of the women’s peloton without crippling everyone in the process,” Elliott continued. “We’re pleased that we had two longer stages back-to-back.”
To be financially viable, the Aviva Women’s Tour must follow the money, and the city councils in East England are the ones currently funding the race.
“The councils who paid a substantial amount of money to get a stage the first year all wanted to us to come back,” noted Elliott. “They all told us: ‘We want you to come to us for several years.’ We were not going to abandon the councils that helped us create this new event when we didn’t even know if it would get off the ground.”
The city councils’ involvement does not necessarily stop with the financial backing. Many of the counties have specific requirements for the routes they host.
“Let’s talk about Northamptonshire, which is a county we’re very close to,” said Elliott. “They pay a lot of money to get the race, so they sit down with us and ask us how many towns and villages we can visit. They’re always putting pressure on us to go to more places. We have to tell them where we need to draw the line. We have to say: ‘We need to get hills in, so we can go through this town and this town but we can’t go through this one.’ ”
“And here’s where the sporting side comes into play,” Elliott added. “A surprising number of riders are asking us for at time trial, and those are the specialists in that discipline. When we go to a council and say, we want to run a 15km time trial, that’s just not interesting to them at the moment. They want us to go cover as much of their town and villages as we can.”
“Let’s say we want to go and do mountains next year,” Elliott continued. “We will need to find councils that want to do that and that can find the money to allow us to do that. It’s very tight with cutbacks in England at the moment. Meanwhile, we’re in the east of England with councils saying don’t go. Stay here. We’ve got the money.”
“We need a bit of sympathy and understanding with that,” said Elliott.
The Aviva Women’s Tour is one of the few women’s races that is broadcasted daily on television. As such, it’s a race that is designed for a television audience, and a race designed for a television audience may prioritise a different sort of outcome than that of the top athletes
“To design the race for television, we knew wanted a good race but a close race all the way to the finish,” said Elliott. “We knew this would allow us to maintain public interest. Let me exaggerate by saying, we didn’t want to come to the final stage and have a rider ten minutes in the lead.”
“Because the race was so close, riders were fighting tooth and nail for every second,” Elliott added. “Breakaways were going away and being caught 200 metres before the line. From a television perspective, I can’t imagine a better show. But Emma wants mountains. Lizzie would want mountains. Marianne wants them, too. We know that. We understand that. We need to balance that desire for a harder race with the spectacle we want broadcasted on television.”
Ask any of the riders who have raced the Aviva Women’s Tour what they consider the best part of the race, and you will repeatedly hear about the crowds. People staked out spots against the barriers at every stage start and stage finish. School children lined the roads along the entire course. The Strava Queen of the Mountain points proved popular for viewing. And it’s no accident. Elliott and his team, along with the city councils, specifically selected routes that not only allowed for but also encouraged fans to come out to the race.
“Let’s say we take this race up the hardest mountain,” said Elliott. “Let’s say we go up to Mid-Wales and into the real mountains. We have to be careful about the crowds. Up until this point, we’ve stuck to centres of populations where we can get good crowds and school kids and that sort of thing. I think it’s an evolutionary process.”
“Maybe it’s time for a hilltop finishm but we need to be sure of a crowd, so we need to find a town on top of a hill,” Elliott added. “We’ve got good crowds, but I don’t think it’s like the men’s race where people will travel 50 miles to stand on a windswept mountain to watch a stage finish. We’re not there yet. We’d love to get there.”
The crowds are important to Elliott for a number of reasons – the biggest being the social agenda around which the Aviva Women’s Tour has been built. The race is about far more than sport to Elliott. It’s about equality.
“The men’s Tour of Britain is an elite cycling race for elite men, and it’s a great sporting spectacle,” said Elliott. “That’s it. It’s a great test of physical endurance and speed or whatever. The women’s race is totally different. At the center of the Aviva Women’s Tour is an elite cycle race with the best female cyclists in the world and that’s great. That ticks a lot of boxes, but what we’ve got around it is a larger agenda.”
“We want to change the world for women,” Elliott explained. “That to me is much larger than a women’s bike race. We are saying women don’t have to be second best. We are saying look at this wonderful female role models. See how they interact with the crowds, with the families, with the children. Watch how they stay feminine even when they’re ferocious athletes.”
“I say to people that this event package is about a social agenda,” Elliott continued. “The men’s races are about a very hard physical bike race. Period.”
“When [Aviva Women’s Tour overall winner] Lisa Brennaur crossed the finish line on stage two in Clacton, she had earned the yellow leader’s jersey,” said Elliott. “She had a jersey presentation and within minutes of accepting the yellow jersey, she came into the hospitality area and picked up a young lady, a little girl that lost her arms and legs due to meningitis. Lisa spent 20 minutes with this little girl and her family.”
“You know, that’s quite inspirational to me,” Elliott added. “Everywhere you look those moments were happening all day long on every single stage. That’s more important to me than the actual race. For me, that’s what it’s all about.