Commentary: Something’s missing from the 2020 Olympic women’s road course

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On Thursday the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body for professional cycling, unveiled the men’s and women’s road race courses for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

And yet again, there’s more than a little something missing from the women’s route. 

The men’s route includes three key climbs, the most noteworthy being that of the lower slopes of the iconic Mount Fuji and the 6.5km climb of Mikuni Pass, with its average gradient of 10.6% and sections reaching 20%. Neither of those are on the women’s course at the Olympics. 

It’s not that the women’s route is flat, with 2,692 metres of climbing in 137 kilometres, compared with 4,865 metres in 234 kilometres for the men. However, setting the two courses side by side makes for a pretty stark contrast, with the most challenging and exciting climbs absent.  

Simply put, a decisive climb 30km from the finish, followed by another climb 20km from the finish, will animate the men’s race; the women’s course features a much less-decisive climb 40km from the finish and ends with 1.5 laps, or 17km, on the Fuji Speedway circuit.

The course profile for the men’s road race at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
The course profile for the women’s road race at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. The first 110km is the same as the men’s route, followed by 1.5 laps, or 17km, on the Fuji Speedway circuit.

Here we go again

It’s repeating a pattern we’ve often seen in recent times. The women’s 2017 World Time Trial Championship course, in Bergen,  Norway, omitted the Mount Floyen finish, instead giving them a flat finale. For the 2018 World Road Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, the Gramartboden climb — the crux of the men’s road race with punishingly steep gradients of up to 28% — is nowhere to be seen for the women.

Now we’ve got yet another race where the key features that everyone is looking to as the most decisive bit of terrain is missing from the women’s race, right when the world is focussed and able to watch a rare well-televised women’s race. There was instant and widespread backlash on social media to the announcement.

The Tokyo 2020 route announcement comes after a month when the women’s peloton once again demonstrated its ability to perform in the mountains, entertaining fans with an explosive Giro Rosa stage up the brutally steep Monte Zoncolan followed by a nail-biting finale to a climb heavy La Course.

The announcement also follows the UCI’s announcement of its Agenda 2022 earlier this year, which was largely focused on moves to promote gender equity. “It contains crucial initiatives for guaranteeing equality between men and women, whether they be riders, Federation employees or any other women involved in our sport. It is essential that we all work together for this cause, which is one of my biggest priorities for action,” said UCI President David Lappartient in the June media release on Agenda 2022.

Yet it was that very UCI that worked with the Tokyo Organising Committee (Tokyo 2020) to design these courses.

“Both the men and women’s elite road races will begin from Musashinonomori Park in the north western suburbs of Tokyo,” the announcement reads. “For the first 80km, both male and female riders will ride through the mostly flat outskirts of Tokyo’s metropolitan area until reaching Doushi Road, which marks the start of a long, steady climb with an elevation gain of more than 1000m. This section features an array of windy roads that snake their way alongside picturesque streams and pass through several small Japanese villages and dense forests. After passing Lake Yamanaka and crossing the Kagosaka Pass, there follows a very fast descent of about 15km. It is here that the men’s and women’s courses diverge.”

Yes, the men’s and women’s courses diverge — but should they?

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