Why growing the women’s Sun Tour isn’t as simple as you might think

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Put the men’s and women’s Herald Sun Tours side-by-side and it’s not hard to spot the differences. The men’s race comprises five stages, the women’s is just two. The men’s offers a total of €65,130.50 (AU$103,000) in prize money, the women’s offers just €9,511 (AU$15,000).

In short, the two races are far from equal. But there’s a desire for that to change, not just among fans, but among the riders and those behind the scenes as well. At a surface level, the solution is simple – parity in prize money, and the same number of race days. At a stroke, it would equalise the current disparity and it would feel ‘right’.

But as with most things in life, it’s not as easy as it may first appear, thanks to a number of complicating factors. If the women’s Sun Tour is going to grow then it will be a stepwise process. A process that, behind the scenes, is already underway.

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At just two stages long, the 2019 Lexus of Blackburn Women’s Herald Sun Tour might look the same as last year’s inaugural edition. But this year’s course was a considerable improvement.

The 2018 edition featured just one road race stage plus a super-short, 1.6km time trial — a time trial that mirrored the prologue for the men’s Jayco Herald Sun Tour. In 2019, by contrast, the women’s race included two full road stages.

The first of those stages comprised 22 laps around the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit, meaning the women raced on the same course and over the same distance (97.9km) as the men. The second was a tough road stage in West Gippsland featuring the same finale (including a steep gravel climb) as the men.

Women’s race director John Trevorrow sees this year’s course as a step up.

“I was really pleased to be able to put two proper races on this time, whereas last year it was just one stage and virtually a prologue,” Trevorrow said. “We can’t call it a prologue after [the first stage] but you know what I mean …”

The riders, too, felt like this year’s course was an improvement.

“The two days we’ve had, I think it’s a step up from last year,” said Lucy Kennedy after winning the 2019 race. “It’s been a really good tour. And two longer stages this year so I think it’s on the way up for sure.”

There have been other improvements too. Prize money for the women’s race has increased slightly compared to last year, with stage wins paying out more than 20% extra compared to last year (from €195 to €215).

Lucy Kennedy won the 2019 women’s Sun Tour ahead of Amanda Spratt and Brodie Chapman.

So things have improved in 2019, but there have also been some trade-offs.

While last year’s stage 2 “epilogue” was less than 2km long, it was held in the heart of Melbourne, attracting an impressive post-work weekday crowd. This year, both stages of the women’s tour were raced nearly two hours from Melbourne, on weekdays, limiting the opportunity for fans to see the race.

The men’s race, meanwhile, gets two high-profile stages, both on the weekend: the much-loved queen stage at Arthurs Seat, and the final stage around Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens.

In an ideal world, Trevorrow would have run the final two days of the women’s race alongside the men’s. But it wasn’t a possibility this year — doing so would have meant keeping the riders around for an extra three days post-Cadel’s Race. And with the Sun Tour responsible for rider accommodation after Cadel’s Race, the cost of holding the race later would be significant.

“I’d much rather see them racing for the final three days of course where they get to do Arthurs Seat and the Botanic Gardens,” Trevorrow said. “But keeping everyone for a week, it’s just the expense is too much. We haven’t got the budget for that.

“Naturally, what better [race] would you want? You’d put them on that [Arthurs Seat] circuit, race them at the Gardens — it would be wonderful. But just financially we can’t do that at the moment. But if a godfather comes along, we’ll take it!”

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Unsurprisingly, the future of the women’s Sun Tour largely depends on the race’s financial situation. Like the men’s race, the women’s Sun Tour is largely funded by the Victorian Government (among other sponsors), but the women’s race has its own funding pool — a considerably shallower pool than the men’s race.

“We’ve got a budget a quarter of the size [of the men’s Sun Tour] which we struggled to even put two days on!,” said Trevorrow. “We can’t go crook at the [Victorian] government — they’re putting a lot of money to all these events.

“The Cadel Evans classic is a sensational event and the women get equal footing there. I’d love to pursue that with the Sun Tour but you know, the money’s got to come from somewhere. We’re working on it.”

It’s not as simple as siphoning money out of the men’s Sun Tour to expand the women’s — the men’s event is run on a shoestring as it is. To withdraw funding from the men’s event would be to jeopardise the state of Australia’s oldest stage race.

But as tight as money is, there’s still talk of expanding the women’s Sun Tour to three days in 2020. That’s certainly what Trevorrow’s hoping for.

“I’d love to, but it’s all about the dollars,” Trevorrow reiterated. “There is not enough money coming through for the event to expand. I’d really like to take it to three days for next year.

“It all depends on our budget, on our sponsorships and it’s all new contracts being done. A lot of the major people involved in the sport would like to see it go an extra day.”

If the women’s Sun Tour is to expand, there are some challenges that need to be worked through. For a start, it’s not possible to run men’s and women’s Sun Tour stages concurrently on different courses, as is the way at races like the Tour of Flanders. As it currently stands, the same workforce puts together both the women’s and men’s Sun Tour; the same officials, broadcast crews, moto scouts, police, commentators, media and so on. The resources simply aren’t there to double that workforce.

“I’ve always thought it [the women’s race] should run alongside [the men’s] but there’s lots of challenges with that,” Trevorrow said. “In Australia we just don’t have the police to be able to run them separate, so they have to be one after the other.”

Stage 2 of this year’s Sun Tour is an example of the solution Trevorrow mentions. The men’s race started first, running from Wonthaggi to Churchill, before the women raced on a course that started and finished in Churchill. The courses featured the same final 40km or so, but weren’t identical.

But even a setup like that, with the races run one after the other, isn’t perfect. It doubles the workload of everyone on the race, which creates considerable strain on all involved.

Another option could be to follow on from what happened at last year’s Sun Tour when stage 1 of the women’s race was held the day before the men’s race’s and the men’s prologue and the women’s “epilogue” were held on the same day. The same model is employed at the Tour Down Under, where the women’s race runs on its own for a few days, then the men’s race starts on the final day of the women’s race, and finally the men’s race continues on its own.

“I thought the Tour Down Under actually worked better this year where they ran it before the men and the final day was the People’s Classic so they got the big crowds and all of that,” Trevorrow said. “It wasn’t a part of the real Tour Down Under at all but the people came out and the women were really happy with it because they got looked after properly.

“So maybe that’s an option for next year. Maybe we run Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday [where] Monday and Tuesday are just the women and the Wednesday is a joint day with the first stage for the men and final day for the women.”

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It’s easy to point to the differences between the men’s and women’s Sun Tours and call for change. But as much as everyone would like the two races to be equal, it’s hardly surprising that they’re not. One is an event that’s only just had its second edition, the other is Australia’s oldest stage race, now in its 66th edition.

But as unequal as the two races are, there are some similarities. The payouts for the daily sprint, KOM/QOM and most aggressive winners are the same. And there are similarities when it comes to coverage as well.

Stages 1 and 2 of the men’s and women’s Sun Tour were each streamed for the same amount of time. Of course the men’s race gets more coverage (including live TV coverage of the final stage) by virtue of its extra length, but on the days that both the men’s and women’s stages were running, the coverage was the same.

It’s going to take time for the women’s Sun Tour to grow. And, of course, it’s going to take money. Much more money than is currently available. But there’s a willingness to see the race expand, from organisers, from race directors, from riders and from fans.

Five stages is not a realistic expectation for next year, and perhaps not even in the foreseeable future. But three stages might be. Ultimately, it’s in the hands of the current and future sponsors of the event.

But if you’re a fan of women’s racing and would like to see the Sun Tour expand, you aren’t without power. Engage with as much content from the women’s race as you can — show the sponsors and organisers that there is interest out there, that their investment is worthwhile. Hell, tell them that directly.

The expansion of the women’s Sun Tour is more about money than anything else. So if the sponsors feel they’re getting their money’s worth, that certainly won’t hurt the cause.

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