A small country town marked with a rather modest finish line, fans counted by the 100’s, not thousands scattered behind the barriers, sparing race commentary, a chaotic podium presentation with empty steps and nature adding to the chaos by blowing over the podium background. This was the scene at the end of day one of Australia’s only UCI ranked women’s cycling tour, the Santos Women’s Tour, and the first international women’s cycling event of the 2017 season.
It was somewhat charming, relaxed and fun. And there was no doubt that, thanks to a big international presence, there was exciting, high quality racing on display. Riders put everything on the line and left everything on the road to take a crucial early tour advantage.
But it was more reminiscent of the feel of a club race than what you’d probably expect from the end of the first crucial stage of competition in a race stacked with the best women’s field we have seen in this country since the World Road Championships was held in Geelong in 2010.
The women’s tour runs in parallel with the men’s WorldTour ranked Tour Down Under, so sometimes it’s hard not to compare the two. When you do it’s hard to imagine the contrast being much greater. At the end of the men’s stages you find large crowds, a buzzing media presence, slick presentation and well-controlled podium ceremonies.
But the question is, is the fact that they are different all together a bad thing? Can and should the Aussie summer of racing for women aspire to be like the men’s events it is running alongside and make a quick shift up the rankings toward Women’s WorldTour level and the additional organisation and cost that goes with it?
This has undoubtedly been a breakthrough year for women’s racing at Australia’s summer of cycling. For a second year in a row, the races received UCI status but the difference this year was a bumper field of international teams – including half of the top ten on the UCI teams ranking. This meant tough competition out on the road and some of the most phenomenal displays of sprinting from two of the best in the world, Kirsten Wild (Cylance Pro Cycling) and Chloe Hosking (Ale-Cipollini).
In an additional gesture of respect for women’s role in the sport, the men’s parallel Tour Down Under event stopped the use of podium girls.
The Santos Women’s Tour was followed by the women’s event at the Cadel Evan’s Great Ocean Road Race late in the month of January, which is officially named the Deakin University Elite Women’s Road Race. The race, which Deakin University stepped up to take naming rights for last year, not only set forth on a world-class course, but also offered live television coverage. It was a breakthrough moment, the first time a women’s international level cycling event on Australian shores had been broadcast live since the World Championship race was held on some of the same roads more than six years ago.
“That’s another big step forward,” said Rochelle Gilmore, team owner of the world’s second-ranked cycling team Wiggle High5.
“And you can’t be disappointed with the type of racing we’ve had out here this summer in Australia and that’s due to a couple of things. Mostly the international teams and riders having more respect for the level of competition out here and the value that Australia offers, with a training base, with the weather … we are really seeing some big developments out here for women’s cycling.”
The momentum in Australia’s women’s racing has definitely picked up, but compared to what we see from the men’s racing in Australia, there is still a long, long way to go.
Currently, both the men’s Tour Down Under and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race are part of the sport’s top series, the WorldTour. And while the women’s events have stepped up in being given a UCI 2.2 and 1.2 ranking, they are still two steps away from being worthy of the Women’s WorldTour. For the riders, this means fewer points are on offer to go toward their UCI ranking.
The crowds, while respectable at the in-town Adelaide criteriums and women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, were small for the Santos Women’s Tour road stages especially when compared to the tens of thousands that rocked up to stages like Willunga Hill at the men’s race.
And while television coverage has levelled up for the Cadel Evan’s Great Ocean Road race this year, it falls far behind when it comes to the Santos Women’s Tour. While every stage of the men’s tour was live-streamed and had television coverage, the women’s cycling fans had to make do with an hour-long highlight package, which was half an hour more than they had last year. Live coverage is a crucial component of Women’s WorldTour level racing.
“Of course we’d like to see more (coverage),” Santos Women’s Tour race director Kimberly Conte told Ella CyclingTips. “It’s expensive but part of the investment process … every year you look at things and you try to figure out how can we do more.”
The disparity between the television coverage of the men’s and women’s was one of the areas of difference that drew much discussion during the race, but Conte asked for patience, pointing out that comparisons were being made between a three-year-old women’s tour still in its infancy and a men’s tour that started in 1999.
“We’re still developing the race here. It’s still a new event. We are still working at all of those things so as the race continues to grow everything else does as well. I don’t think you can really compare them,” Conte said.
“I just think that the men’s race, took a long time to get to where it is now. It didn’t just start out as this massive event again it went through its growth period and has continued to significantly grow, with just really steady growth I hope that we can do the same for women’s racing.”
Ease off the accelerator too much and risk stalling
The concern though is that if race organisers ease off to consolidate just as momentum is building, instead of seeing steady continued growth the races could just plateau.
“It could work really well for the women’s program to have a one day race and a tour out here at the top level of UCI status because I think that this year … the level of racing deserved and warranted more recognition in terms of UCI points,” said Gilmore.
“If they don’t lift up the UCI status in the next year you might find athletes choosing alternatives. So I think it would be a big risk to not take that step to WorldTour for next year,” Gilmore added.
A summery early season option
The scheduled first Women’s WorldTour event, the Ladies Tour of Qatar, was actually a factor that provided some impetus for international teams to come to Australia and it was too late to make changes when it was cancelled because of financial difficulties in December.
“When we made a program before, it was more because we would go to Australia to prepare for the racing in Qatar, but since Qatar wasn’t on we tried to focus a bit more on these races and we had a good training camp here, so it is perfect,” said Kirsten Wild (Cylance Pro Cycling) after taking her third and final win of the Australian summer season.
Qatar’s demise intensified the questions about whether or not Australia could shift from a preparation event for the season opener, to the season opener itself, filling that gap early in the year that many other nation’s can’t because they are in the middle of winter. Additionally, it added weight to its claim as a host location as it would further internationalise the series. With the demise of Qatar and just recently the Philadelphia Classic, the WorldTour currently has 14 out of the 16 events taking place in Europe.
A step in the path to a truly global Women’s WorldTour?
The women’s event at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race put itself in a strong position to be a women’s WorldTour option when it announced the introduction of live coverage late last year.
“We are looking for a truly global WorldTour, and frankly this event ticks the boxes for a future ascension to WorldTour status, should it so desire to apply,” Tracey Gaudry, UCI vice president told Ella CyclingTips following the announcement.
“With the number of international teams that are already secured, with the live broadcast and what we know is a world class, quality event … it has all of the ingredients for a Women’s WorldTour race as a one day classic at the start of the year.”
The four-stage Santos Women’s Tour’s claim, however, isn’t as clear cut. Currently featuring two crits and just two road stages, the format would need to change to be less criterium focussed, and it would need a step up in its television coverage.
“Because of the environment that we have right now WorldTour is on everyone’s mind,” said race director Conte. “But I’ve worked in enough races and they have been some really spectacular events that I didn’t thing would ever go away … yet they lost the funding. They grew so quickly that it wasn’t sustainable.”
“So I’m really conscious of that and I don’t want to ever put this event in that position,” added Conte. “I’d rather have us take our time, continue to craft things and make sure we’re doing everything right before we just go barging through even though it’s so exciting to think about WorldTour level.”
The event is currently supported by the South Australian Government, through the South Australian Tourism Commission and doesn’t have a key naming sponsor, although Santos and Subaru have assisted. The jump to WorldTour level, brings a considerable jump in costs.
And the issue of costs doesn’t just weigh on the organiser, either. While the January weather in Australia is a distinct natural advantage, as it is summer in the nation while most of the cycling strongholds battle through the depths of winter, the location makes it expensive for the teams as well. Riders, staff and plenty of excess luggage make the long flight costly and general expenses in Australia, too, are relatively high.
Opportunity: when giving also means taking something away
Raising the level of the Australian races may sound unequivocally like a mark in the positive column to many, but the reality is that it does mean taking a high level racing chance away for many domestic riders in an environment where those are thin on the ground.
Australia is a long way away from any country that offers female riders the opportunity to make cycling their main profession, so those rare chances to make an impression or get experience at the top level are highly valued.
This year, the Santos Women’s Tour and women’s Cadel Evans Road Race were dominated by international teams for the first time, but there were still four spots for teams from Australia’s National Road Series, providing many local riders with valuable exposure to an international field and the top teams to try and make the contacts and impressions they need to progress.
The same goes for lower ranked UCI women’s teams that don’t get an automatic invitation to WorldTour events as well as Australia’s development squad, the High5 Dream Team, and a New Zealand national team, who’s oldest and most experienced member was just 23.
“It is a really big development step for me,” said 22-year-old Racquel Sheath, New Zealand’s national criterium champion.
“I am really grateful for the opportunity to be able to race with the likes of these women just to be able to see where I stand next to them and to see if there is potential for me on the road, as well as on the track.”
A bump up to the Women’s WorldTour level would mean that fewer teams outside the top 20 UCI women’s teams would actually get the chance to take part as the top 15 teams for stage races and top 20 teams for one-day events must be invited to WorldTour level races.
“This year we had to turn away international teams because we were really committed to keeping that domestic racing open right now,” explained Conte. “So as you know UCI rules, as you’re progressing through, regulate the amount of domestic teams you can have involved but at this point we’re still able to include them.”
“I think it’s really really important. I don’t think it’s something that we want to stray away from anytime soon,” Conte added.
On the road to WorldTour
There are so many good reasons to be impatient for Women’s WorldTour racing in Australia and there is no doubt the level of competition at the nation’s top women’s races has ramped up to a whole new level. And it’s clear from the discussions with race organisers, team owners, riders and industry players that the excitement is there and it’s feasible that Australia certainly could put on at least one women’s WorldTour race next year. However, the answer to the question of should Australia jump a step straight to the highest level for both its major women’s races, is more complicated.
With the Philadelphia Classic just adding its name to Qatar as among the cancelled women’s WorldTour events for 2017, it’s abundantly clear that it’s not hard for races to come unstuck because there isn’t enough financial support available to run a WorldTour level race. This makes it hard to dismiss Conte’s assessment that you are better to make sustainable moves and accept steady growth, rather than bet the house on rapid expansion.
Unless sponsors step up to make it financially viable on an ongoing basis and the domestic scene is also looked after, it may not be wise to wish for too much too soon. Still, with the progression this year it’s hard not to think the summer of racing is travelling in the right direction, even if at times we may wish it could make it to the destination a little faster.