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In early October, in the final weeks of the cycling season, the UCI announces the teams that have filed applications to compete at the different levels of the sport for the coming year. Earlier this week we covered the men’s WorldTour and ProTeam moves for 2020, and now it’s time to take a closer look at the women’s peloton.
The coming season sees the first steps toward seismic reforms in women’s cycling, scheduled to be phased in over the coming three seasons. The practical effect of this is a split of the women’s peloton from one division – UCI Women’s Teams – into two – UCI WorldTeams and UCI Women’s Continental Teams.
A ranking system, based on points accrued by the top four riders on a team’s roster, was previously used to determine the 15 Women’s Teams who received automatic invitations to WorldTour races, with remaining places filled up by wildcards.
In total, there were 46 UCI Women’s Teams racing in the 2019 season, some achieving much greater prominence than others, and with a wide variation in wages and benefits provided to the riders. A rider survey conducted in 2017 found that nearly half of the women’s UCI peloton then raced for less than 5,000 Euros (A$7,700) a year, with 17.5% of that group going completely unpaid.
For the 2020 season onward, however, the UCI is introducing upper-division UCI WorldTeams, who will gain automatic access to WorldTour races. For the first time in women’s cycling, a minimum wage will be introduced at the WorldTeam level, and applying teams will also be assessed “on the basis of sporting, ethical, financial and administrative criteria,” according to the UCI.
The WorldTeam tier offers a substantial step forward for women’s cycling, which has been criticised in the past for the lack of financial and career security it offered to female cyclists. Minimum wages – well-established in the men’s peloton – are now being phased in, with salaries of €15,000 in 2020, €20,000 in 2021, €27,500 in 2022, and from 2023, parity with men’s ProTeam (ex-Pro Continental) – currently around €30,000.
Also appearing for the first time are rules around holiday pay, sickness cover, maternity cover, and limits set for race days.
Separate to the introduction of the WorldTeam tier, the UCI has announced a revised race calendar, with four racing divisions: UCI Women’s WorldTour, UCI ProSeries, Class 1 and Class 2.
The UCI has also committed to a 10% per season increase to prize money for the top 20 riders in every race on the UCI calendar. For a full summary of the changes to the structure of women’s professional cycling, see here.
Who’s stepping up as WorldTeams?
The UCI had originally planned for five teams to make the leap to WorldTeam status for 2020, but they’ve surpassed that minimum level, with eight teams having submitted applications. These are as follows:
- Alé BTC Ljubljana
- Canyon-SRAM Racing
- FDJ Nouvelle – Aquitane Futuroscope
- Movistar Team Women
- Team Sunweb
Some, like Trek-Segafredo, who are trailblazers in their advocacy for women’s cycling and signed a then-pregnant Lizzie Deignan to the team when they launched, are unsurprising inclusions. The other consistent theme is that most of the teams have an equivalent men’s squad in the WorldTour: only Canyon-SRAM and Alé BTC Ljubljana are standalone women’s-only entities.
All of the eight prospective WorldTeams are in the top 15 on the Women’s WorldTour rankings, so in that sense, it’s a fairly good representation of the upper echelons of the sport. However, there are some surprising omissions.
Boels-Dolmans, the top-ranked women’s team since 2016, and home to four consecutive road world champions, is notably absent. Team manager Danny Stam is on record saying that he felt the reforms were happening “too fast”, although he was broadly supportive of moves to professionalise women’s cycling.
In an interview with Cyclingnews, Stam stated that the team had no problem meeting the minimum wage requirement, but found the additional costs associated with WorldTeam status too onerous for teams that did not have a corresponding men’s team to increase efficiencies.
For Boels-Dolmans there’s the added complication that their sponsorship deals with plant hire company Boels and landscaping company Dolmans expire at the end of 2020.
Other notable absences from the list of WorldTeam applicants include:
- ParkHotel Valkenburg, the team of dominant sprinter Lorena Wiebes
- Virtu Cycling, the team of former world champion and Tour of Flanders winner Marta Bastianelli
- WNT-Rotor, the team of Dutch powerhouse Kristen Wild and German climber Clara Koppenburg; and
- Bigla Pro Cycling, the team of the charismatic Dane, Cecilie Uttrup-Ludwig.
There’s concern from some team owners that not enough is being done by the UCI to increase exposure for women’s cycling, weakening the value proposition for potential sponsors. There are also higher costs associated for WorldTeams, both from the perspective of registration fees and in staffing. Given the lack of money in the sport relative to men’s cycling, the sums apparently don’t add up to create a strong business case for making a jump to WorldTeam level for a majority of the existing women’s teams.
What it all means
Women’s professional cycling is in a period of flux coming into the 2020 season, and the longer-term implications of the well-intentioned – and long overdue – reforms are as yet unknown. A general increase in minimum team sizes at both divisions has opened up a few spaces, but it appears there’s been a much more significant contraction in the number of teams applying for licenses for 2020.
To date, the UCI has only listed the eight WorldTeam applicants – the final tally of teams at the Continental level are as yet unconfirmed. By ProCyclingStats’ count, however, there are only 27 women’s teams (eight WorldTeam, 19 Continental) in the mix for 2020 between the two divisions – a significant drop from the 46 UCI Women’s Teams of 2019.
There have been whispers of moves into women’s cycling by EF Education First, Ineos and Katusha, although these are as yet unsubstantiated. However, given the majority of the proposed Women’s WorldTeams sit alongside top-tier men’s teams, it seems that this is a template that works. Although there is no formal requirement for men’s WorldTour teams to field a corresponding women’s team, hopefully it becomes an increasingly common sight over the coming years.
By 2022, the UCI plans to have 15 WorldTeams competing at the top division of women’s sport, and are more than half of the way there before the 2020 season has even begun. It just remains to be seen whether the rising tide will raise all boats, or merely be a drop in the ocean in reaching equality for women’s cycling.