Why the best parts are missing from the Tokyo 2020 women’s road race course

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Last week the UCI revealed a women’s road race course for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that is markedly different from the men’s. While the men’s race will tackle the lower slopes of the iconic Mount Fuji (pictured above) and the steep ramps of Mikuni Pass, the women’s race — while still challenging — will skip these key climbs.

Social media lit up with discussion, including from notable voices such as Marianne Vos and Annemiek van Vleuten who pointed out that the route was hardly in line with moves toward greater equality in sport.

It was another case of leaving exciting (and most likely decisive) features out of the women’s race, as happened at last year’s World Road Championships and will happen again at this year’s Worlds.

We asked the UCI to comment on why there’s such disparity between the Tokyo 2020 road race courses, which the UCI put together in collaboration with the Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Tokyo 2020).

One of the key factors influencing the design of the women’s road race course, the UCI said, was that the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee stipulated that both the men’s and women’s races had to start in the Tokyo Metropolitan area and finish at the Fuji Speedway, near Mount Fuji. And with UCI Olympic distance limitations set at 160 kilometres for the women and 280 kilometres for the men, designing comparable courses was always going to be a challenge.

“The already significant distance between the start and finish means we were limited, as far as the number of kilometres is concerned, when designing the finale of the women’s race in the Fuji region,” said UCI spokesman Louis Chenaille.

The courses — 137km for the women with 2,692m of climbing, and 234km for the men with 4,865m — both follow the same route for the first 80 kilometres and both finish on the Fuji Speedway.

“Using the Fuji Speedway circuit for 1.5 laps for the women’s race, compliments the route between Tokyo and the Speedway which is truly unique and will lend a special atmosphere for spectators along the roadside and at the finish,” added Chenaille. “Meanwhile TV viewers will have the chance to follow an event of the highest quality.”

Where the men’s course differs is with two significant loops out from the speedway, adding in exciting and decisive climbs that are more likely to animate the race (given their proximity to the finish). The first extra loop climbs the lower slopes of Mount Fuji and the other takes in the 6.5km climb of Mikuni Pass, with a testing average gradient of 10.6% and sections reaching 20%.

“With almost 100km of additional distance in the men’s race, this presented an opportunity to add additional climbs in the region within the regulatory distance and to return to the finish at Fuji Speedway,” said Chenaille.

The 137km women’s course falls well short of the maximum allowed distance, but so does the men’s — in fact, the men’s course is slightly shorter than the normal minimum.

“We wanted to create course configurations that will allow the strongest riders to showcase their talent while also [giving] as many starters [as possible] a realistic opportunity to finish the race on the Fuji Speedway,” Chenaille continued. “Given that both the men’s and women’s courses are at the extreme end of elevation gain, it was decided not to further exceed what riders would normally face at events on their respective international calendars.

“Weather conditions – likely to be hot and humid – were also taken into consideration when it came to deciding the course distances.”

Both courses include more than 1,000 metres of additional climbing compared with the challenging routes of the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Rio Olympics, 2016. Photo by Cor Vos

The differences between the men’s and women’s peloton go beyond gender. For a start, the women’s field at the Olympics will have 67 riders while the men’s will have 140. There are also fewer riders in the women’s peloton that can dedicate their time completely to cycling as a profession, given financial constraints. Additionally, racing is often more aggressive throughout for the women and the courses the riders face on a regular basis are usually much shorter than for the men.

There are also fewer climb-heavy events in the women’s calendar (compared to the men’s). Also worth noting: the UCI’s maximum distance for women’s road races was only increased to 160km in 2016 (from 140km).

“It is one of the most challenging courses of any race or stage when compared to events on the 2018 women’s international calendar, including the UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck,” said Chenaille. “Regulations continue to evolve and the UCI listens to feedback from all stakeholders for any future consideration,” added Chenaille, pointing to the distance change.

If the public response to the Tokyo 2020 women’s road race course is anything to go by, the UCI won’t be short of feedback in the months and years to come.

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