Opinion: Do we want a women’s Milan-San Remo?

More and more men's races are adding a women's event, but do we really need a women's Milan-San Remo?

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This weekend, the men will race the 113th edition of Milan-San Remo and while the keenest fans will take up their positions on the sofa from 9 am to watch the race right from the flag drop, I’ll be going about my day and periodically refreshing the website ‘ismilansanremoexcitingyet.com’ until the ‘no’ changes to ‘yes’ (usually with around 6km to go) then I’ll think about firing up Eurosport. 

I’m aware that I’m probably the wrong person to give a balanced view on the merits of watching a 293km men’s race, but there’s something about televising the most absurdly long race on the cycling calendar in its entirety that, as a women’s cycling fan, I find pretty jarring. I can already hear the reply guys waiting to tell me that I simply don’t ‘get it’, that: ‘iT’s oNe oF tHe mOsT iCoNiC rAcEs’ but, just like I will never read War and Peace from cover-to-cover, I’ll never sit and watch 7 hours of a bike race. I’m sure both Coppi and Tolstoy are turning in their graves. 

But I didn’t come here to slag off the men’s race. I came here to say why a women’s edition is a bad idea.

While the trend for adding women’s versions of men’s races seems to be growing, the jury is out as to whether this is a wholly good step for women’s cycling or whether the women’s side of the sport could better benefit from going its own way. Paris-Roubaix Femmes was long overdue, the Tour de France Femmes has already stimulated growth for the women’s peloton, of course we want women’s editions of the most exciting, action-packed Spring Classics, but do we need an entire calendar of races called ‘[insert men’s race] femmes’?

In fact, a women’s Milan-San Remo used to exist. The Primavera Rosa (because what’s a women’s race in Italy without ‘pink’ tacked onto the end so we know it’s for the girlies), which finished in Sanremo just before the men’s race on the same day. Run by the same organisers as the men’s, RCS, the race started in 1999 and ran until 2005 when it was axed.

The Primavera Rosa was held on the same day as Milan-San Remo and ran over a considerably shorter course, natch. It started in Varazze, rather than Milan, making it just shy of 120km long – hardly as ‘epic’ as the 293km men’s event. 

Unpopular opinion

The thing is, a few of the riders in the women’s peloton disagree. They want to see a women’s Milan-San Remo.

Lizzie Deignan said in an interview about her second maternity leave that a women’s Milan-San Remo would be “an amazing thing to take part in” and, in a recent interview with VeloNews, Deginan’s teammate, World Champion Elisa Balsamo talked about her desire for a women’s version of the men’s race:

“I really hope that they can have a Milan-San Remo for the women,” Balsamo said. “Of course, is not from Milan to San Remo because that’s very long, but I think that they can do a very wonderful and also exciting race in the last kilometres of the men’s race.”

While earlier this year, Balsamo’s compatriot, FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope rider, Marta Cavalli, told CyclingNews of her ideas for a women’s MSR: “It would be great to skip the first part [of the men’s race route from Milan] and start in Genoa along the coast. It could be an awesome race. I love San Remo and I’ve spent a lot of timing training there,” Cavalli said.

“The Poggio is one of my favourite climbs and I’ve done it 15 times at a camp last year. I know it well. I would love to play out a big fight with all the riders from the Women’s WorldTour on the Poggio. It would be a dream to win San Remo.”

The takeaway? Leave out the first bit. The boring bit.

In the same VeloNews interview, Balsamo herself even said: “I think that our races are not so long and so watching them is very exciting. Maybe there is not a breakaway with a lot of minutes, but the race is more open and with a lot of suspense and the solution.”

Far be it from me to put words into the riders’ mouths but it seems that, rather than a direct women’s version of the men’s race, the women are looking for a similar race that matches the challenge of Milan-San Remo.  

Nowadays, a women’s Milan-San Remo would likely be around 160-170km long – a distance that went down like a lead balloon at the 2020 Giro Rosa and would be the longest one-day race on the women’s calendar by far. There are undoubtedly plenty of riders who would be more than capable of racing over that distance, but the greater the length of women’s races, the more the aggressive, dynamic style that characterises it is eroded.

Besides, logistically, there is no way it could be run on the same day as the men’s race given the length of the thing, which brings me to the main issue here:

Not only is a very long, very boring race the antithesis of what makes women’s racing great, but the biggest reason why a women’s Milan-San Remo is superfluous to the calendar is also the existence of the longest-running one-day race on the women’s WorldTour calendar, Trofeo Alfredo Binda – held the day after Milan-San Remo. 

Binda is one of very few standalone women’s races and has been going for 48 years – which in women’s cycling years (like dog years with added gender-based discrimination) is ages. The Italian one-day has given us some of the most exciting racing in the Women’s WorldTour. A memorable 2018 edition took place in biblical conditions and was won solo by Kasia Niewiadoma. Then there was last year’s race where Elisa Longo Borghini went on an absolute rampage to win by almost two minutes.

The organisers have historically been pretty consistent at providing live coverage, even when they didn’t have to, and the parcours is challenging and varied meaning it’s almost any riders’ race to win. 

Indeed, Binda contains all the hallmarks of what makes a good race: unpredictability, a varied parcours that encourages varied tactics, and – a Freewheeling favourite – it’s raced on a circuit. To see it bumped off its calendar spot in favour of a women’s edition of a men’s race, or overshadowed by a ‘bigger’ race, would be a huge shame.

One of the refrains often heard when discussing women’s racing is that it has its own distinct style and, as it grows, shouldn’t morph into a version of men’s racing. Part of that is maintaining the few standalone women’s events on the calendar of which Trofeo Binda is one of the best.

So fine, take the best bits of men’s and leave the rest. Take the final kilometres of Milan-San Remo and let the women’s peloton rip over the Poggio – I’d love to see it. Just don’t do it at the expense of an existing race that is part of women’s cycling’s own history, nor as a sideshow to a seven-hour men’s race.

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