Did the inaugural Women’s WorldTour live up to expectations?

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When the inaugural 2016 Women’s WorldTour (WWT) was announced last year it was greeted with much excitement and anticipation. Touted as a “major step forward for women’s cycling,” the series aimed to grow the profile and professionalism of women’s cycling by replacing the existing UCI Women’s Road World Cup with a season-long WorldTour, similar to the men’s, and open only to the top 20 UCI women’s teams.

The new series increased the competition days by more than 60 percent as compared to the World Cup, and promised to offer increased publicity through “substantial live broadcast and streaming.”

The series was given name parity with the men’s leading series, a new logo and new leader’s jerseys. Combined with the fact that 2016 was an Olympic year, the anticipation was high.

So now that the first year of the WWT is in the books, we can reflect and ask, “did the UCI Women’s WorldTour live up to its expectations?” and “Is the WorldTour an improvement of the World Cup?”.

Let’s start with the positives

– More race days and stage racing

The UCI Women’s World Cup of recent years consisted of 10 rounds, all of which were one-day races. The WWT did indeed increase the number of competition days with 17 rounds across nine countries in Europe, North America and Asia. Among the 17 rounds were four stage races –including the 10-day Giro Rosa –for a total of 35 race days.

– Race selection

Not everyone might agree, but we feel that the race selection for the inaugural tour was well done. From one-day crits to hilly stage races, there were events for all types of riders. But to win the overall title, you had to be a consistent participant and strong all-rounder. Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) is just that and a most worthy first winner of the UCI Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey.

Additionally, it was great to see some of the world’s best riders and teams make the jump across the pond and compete in the United States. Yes, traveling to other continents is incredibly expensive and teams did have to pick and choose which races to attend, but in terms of showcasing the sport of women’s cycling, seeing world-class events outside of Europe is a welcome change.

Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) increases her lead in the Women's WorldTour after winning the 2016 Philly Cycling Classic.
Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) increases her lead in the Women’s WorldTour after winning the 2016 Philly Cycling Classic.

– Naming parity

There is something to be said for having the same naming convention across men’s and women’s racing. There’s name recognition as well as expectations and standards that come with it. Hearing “WorldTour” and knowing that this is the pinnacle of the sport, should motivate riders to want to do well and sponsors and race organisers to be part of it. Sometimes, labels are a good thing.

– The racing was fierce!

The UCI can’t really take credit for this, but how good was the racing this year?! The level of women’s cycling has grown year after year. The riders are getting faster, fitter and more aggressive; the equipment is top-of-the line; and the courses and race venues are improving as well.  The 2016 season saw perhaps the best showcasing of what women on bikes can do, yet.  Of course, it being an Olympic year had a lot to do with this, but there is a lot of more depth and strong talent in women’s cycling these days, and it’s making the whole peloton step it up a notch. Now if only we could see more of this…

The negatives

Christine Majerus (Boels-Dolmans) is the winner of the first stage in the 2016 Aviva Women's Tour.
Christine Majerus (Boels-Dolmans) is the winner of the first stage in the 2016 Aviva Women’s Tour.

– Coverage

The inaugural WWT started with a great battle on the iconic mixed-pavement roads of Strade Bianche. World champion Lizzie Deignan (then still Lizzie Armitstead) showed off her rainbow stripes in style and with dominance, setting the tone for the season to come. However, we did not get to see live images of the historic race, despite big promises of increased publicity.

Ahead of the season, the UCI stated that each race would have either a live broadcast, live streaming or a highlights package. What it didn’t clearly specify, however, was that this was a mere guideline established by the UCI and it was up to organisations to follow this guideline and provide the coverage.

Much criticism was directed towards the UCI for its vague communication in regards to the promised coverage, especially when fans went looking for coverage and couldn’t so much as find a highlights package.

TV coverage now being part of the race organisers’ duties meant that when there were live images, it was often poorly promoted, hard to find, unpredictable or geo-restricted at best. Instead of progress, this was actually a step back from last year, when the UCI itself provided extensive highlight videos of all World Cup races on the UCI YouTube channel.

Needless to say, the Women’s WorldTour was off to a rocky start.

Thankfully, this changed after Gent-Wevelgem, when highlight videos started to get published on the UCI YouTube channel, thanks in part to the outcry of cycling fans and some passionate videographers.

Still, coverage was not an improvement to the World Cup.

Positive sidenote: the “Chronicles” and blog posts on the UCI website have been a great addition! 

– Women’s WorldTour is not truly ‘WorldTour’

As the WorldTour is the pinnacle of the sport, ‘only’ the top 20 UCI women’s teams receive an automatic invitation to its events. Other teams can only get invited by race organisers if there is a need to fill up the startlist.

However, this is problematic because:

a) There is no secondary or Continental level, and there is a huge gap in ability levels among these top 20 teams.

With the lack of funding in women’s cycling, amateurs, domestic and international professionals continue to race side by side, and there’s a huge variety in ability levels. There are only so many truly professional teams out there, and while riders on the top 5 team may all receive a (small) salary that allows them to dedicate all their time to the sport, the lower ranked teams’ riders certainly do not have that luxury and can only train and race part time.

b) Most, if not all, races ended up allowing domestic teams into the events to fill up the startlists, making this huge gap in ability levels even more obvious when some riders started getting dropped before the actual racing even started.

When the “WorldTour” label is synonymous with the best-of-the-best, you can’t have amateurs and pros racing side by side. It’s not safe and it does not look very good for the sport. With that said, it’s a chicken and egg thing because you need a professional series to showcase the sport and attract new talent. Additionally, you need a stage for this new talent to prove themselves and have opportunities to be picked up by top teams. Without the number of riders and/or a two-tiered system (Continental and WorldTour) in place, this will continue to be a problem.

– Racer Turnout

The first stage race and overseas stop on the WWT was the Tour of Chongming Island in China. But for many teams the cost of sending their riders, gear and staff halfway across the world prohibited them from attending.

Then, when it was time for women’s cycling’s biggest Grand Tour, the Giro Rosa, some top riders and teams again decided to forego their automatic invite because the timing conflicted with Olympic preparations.

This meant that fans and organisers did not get the teams and riders they were anticipating. A letdown for fans, and of potential sponsorship significance for organisers who rely heavily on the top names to attend. So, if you’re a top 20 UCI team and race organisers are reliant on you to be present, should you, as a team, be obligated to attend? If, in turn, it’s cost prohibitive to attend all the events, should the series be smaller?

– Lack of Rules and Regulation

Right now there are still very few rules and regulations around the WWT, for the teams and race organisers alike.

Take the prize purse, for example. There is no standard or prize purse minimums. So while Kirsten Wild took home 25,000 Euros after winning the Prudential RideLondon criterium, Guarnier received only 1,050 Euros for winning the overall in the 10-day Giro Rosa.

And as far as rules for teams go, what about attendance? As mentioned earlier, race organisers are obligated to invite, and reliant on, the top 20 UCI teams. In return, should a top 20 team be obligated to attend?  But who’s going to pay for that? The sponsors get so little exposure. And speaking of pay, should women’s WorldTour teams be obligated to pay a minimum wage, too, like the men’s WorldTour teams are?

Clearly, there are still a lot of things that need to be figured out. And we do not have the answers, either, but we do think that the WWT has some work to do before it can call itself a success.

Looking ahead to next year

La Course 2016 celebration

In 2017, the Women’s WorldTour expands to 47 days of racing with four new races, a women’s Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège among them.

While we are thrilled to see more women’s races added to these classic men’s races, the introduction of both races does come with a heavy price.

The Boels Rental Hills Classic organisers decided that their objectives were met with the introduction of the women’s Amstel Gold Race, and are discontinuing their own race.

While lots of Dutch riders have been requesting a women’s Amstel Gold Race for years and we are thankful of race director Leo van Vliet for making it happen, the disappearance of the Hills Classic on the calendar means that iconic race through the Limburg hills of the low lands will now only be available for WWT-riders.

Other racers were asked last-minute to change the dates of their events, which was the case of Dwars door de Westhoek, for example, which was moved to May 14 in favour of a women’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Another race negatively affected by the Women’s WorldTour is the Euskal Emakumeen Bira. The popular stage race sent out the following open letter to the UCI last month.

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In it, organisers complain about the treatment they have received from the UCI. The Euskal Emakumeen Bira has been on the calendar since 1992 and one of only four remaining UCI races in Spain on the calendar. When they changed their dates in 2016, it was in anticipation of being entered into the WWT. However, not only were they not accepted into the WWT, they were also asked to move their race to the rather undesirable time of February.

They are currently on the calendar in April, but have stated they are unwilling to organise their race if they stay classified as UCI2.1.

And then there’s the ‘progression’ of La Course by le Tour de France. While it was rumoured that La Course might develop into a multi-day race, it turns out that the 2017 edition will still be just another one-day race. This time in the Alps on the final Thursday of the Tour de France for a one-day hill climb race.

While the women’s race on the Champs Élysées is little more than a criterium, the media attention is enormous and for the racers, it’s a huge thrill to ride those iconic cobble stones in front of all the spectators on one of cycling’s biggest days. It’s a unique venue to showcase women’s cycling and taking it away from the city and into the mountains, seems like a step back in terms of exposure.

Change is always hard, and shake-ups are inevitable. But perhaps, the UCI’s biggest mistake when it comes to the WWT has been their communication, or lack thereof.

What the UCI has to say

UCI Vice President Gaudry, in a retrospective of the inaugural Women’s WorldTour, admitted that they have “a lot of development to go” and that the biggest take-away from all this is actually a positive: “the biggest lesson for us is how strong the appetite is to follow women’s cycling. The demand out there is very, very high”.

She admits that the UCI wasn’t ready for the “flood of interest for the Women’s WorldTour” and we sincerely hope that improvements will be made in that area in 2017.

Improvements will come from “working with the teams, to develop a new set of teams criteria that provide a stronger team environment that not only supports the teams viability (…), but to provide a more secure environment for the athlete”.

Conclusion

In terms of people talking about women’s cycling, the racing itself and the venues, women’s cycling did take a step forward with the inaugural WWT. The UCI, however, made a lot of mistakes in launching the Women’s WorldTour. There were a lot of i’s left undotted and t’s left uncrossed. Perhaps it was simply too soon. But good and bad, the attention women’s cycling has received this year will hopefully lead to progress.

We do look forward with some optimism at the added women’s events alongside classic men’s races, and growth of women’s cycling as a whole. We hope the UCI and race organisers are recognising this ‘appetite for women’s cycling’ and take it seriously, starting with meeting the demand for more women’s cycling coverage.

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