Five takeaways from the women’s Spring Classics
The level of the women's peloton is growing, and that is a good thing, but there are still some pains to manage.
The level of the women's peloton is growing, and that is a good thing, but there are still some pains to manage.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the final Spring Classic, is over, and with it the 2022 Spring Classics season. The first “normal” Classics campaign of the last three years – without surprise cancellations and with some fans on the side of the road – the racing was dramatically impacted by illnesses, weird tactics, and surprise finishes. A new team emerged as a dominant force while the team that had spent years at the top struggled to adjust.
A lot has happened in the two months since Strade Bianche, the first Women’s WorldTour race of the season. Despite some of the most dynamic racing we’ve ever seen a few key riders managed to take home multiple victories, and the woman to beat was bested a few times before she managed to cross the line first.
Before we dive into a summer focused on stage racing, with tons of new events to watch, let’s take a look at some of the key takeaways from the Spring Classics.
As more teams jump up to the WorldTeam level and are required to pay their riders a minimum salary more women are finding it possible to be truly professional, to make a living by racing a bike. There are fewer side jobs, less scrambling to make ends meet, at least at the top level. What used to be a “marginal gain” is now the norm, like weekly appointments with a physiotherapist, a proper coach, and enough time to properly relax after training.
With more top tier riders available in the peloton and more teams offering professional working environments talent is starting to migrate away from the two go-to teams of SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo. On top of that, some new riders are able to climb the ranks faster, because they don’t have to scramble around at the bottom trying to find their footing in the sport first.
While there is definitely a long way to go in terms of depth in the peloton, this season saw the emergence of two teams to rival those at the top: Movistar (bear with me) and FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope.
Movistar started its women’s team back in 2018. At the time, the team was primarily Spanish riders, with one rider each from France, Australia, and Poland on the 10-person roster. Over the next two years, they added more women to the team, but it wasn’t until last season that they really upped their game with the signing of Annemiek van Vleuten and Emma Norsgaard. Van Vleuten was, of course, one of the top two women in the world, and Norsgaard would prove to be a very successful addition for the Spring block.
In 2021 the vast majority of Movistar’s results came from their two new additions, but this spring we saw the team play a larger role in the races, specifically another new signing Arlenis Sierra and the previously mentioned Frenchwoman who has been a part of the Spanish team since it’s inception, Aude Biannic.
As the remnants of the Flèche Wallonne peloton approached the Mur de Huy for a final ascent, Van Vleuten still had two teammates to form a lead-out into the base of the climb and at the Tour of Flanders, Movistar landed three riders in the top 10. It’s a team that started small and by adding a few very skilled riders, they have become one of the best teams in the peloton.
Another team to start small and slowly build to become a powerhouse squad is FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope. The French team started in 2006 as Vienne Futuroscope and over the years grew from a predominantly French development program into the third-best team in the WorldTour (at the time of writing this). FDJ signed on as a sponsor in 2017, the same year Australian Shara Marche finished 5th at La Course by the Tour de France. French team, French sponsor – everyone was thrilled.
After that, the team started to get more support and was able to sign a few other key riders, like Emilia Fahlin in 2019, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig in 2020, Marta Cavalli last season, and most recently Grace Brown. They achieved a few notable results in 2021 but their teamwork this spring was next level and delivered Cavalli to two WorldTour wins and Brown to second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It seems like things over at the French team have really clicked, which is great news for anyone hoping to watch some competitive stage racing this summer.
With FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope and Movistar on the rise, SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo have some competition. UAE Team ADQ is well on their way to being part of this list as well, with Marta Bastianelli and Mavi Garcia constantly featuring in the hard races.
Slowly the teams in the WorldTour are starting to be able to compete against SD Worx, who has been the top team for many years. As more teams acquire top talent and the resources to properly support all their riders, we will see even more competitive racing from the women’s peloton. No one wants a repeat of the 2021 Giro Donne where SD Worx swept the GC podium on stage 2 and the race was over before it even started.
Hand-in-hand with the teams acquiring more talent is the team to be able to support them. Again, Movistar and FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope have shown incredible teamwork and support for their leaders in the spring races. One team that has maybe fallen short on teamwork is, interestingly, SD Worx.
The powerhouse squad has displayed some interesting tactics in the past but has always had Anna van der Breggen, or another former world champion like Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, to pick up the pieces when the race goes sidewise. With the loss of Van der Breggen, the team’s multi-leader approach doesn’t work quite as well. We saw it at Amstel Gold Race when Cavalli attacked after the final climb and rode solo to the finish with Ashleigh Moolman Pasio pulling a group of pre-race favourites and her teammate Demi Vollering to the finish.
At Liège-Bastogne-Liège, FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope displayed incredible teamwork and even though they didn’t win, it was obvious that the commitment they have to each other will pay off this summer. Likewise, Trek-Segafredo went all in for Elisa Balsamo at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Gent-Wevelgem and was able to secure the world champion two WorldTour victories. In a third race, where the team was riding for Chloe Hosking at Exterioo Brugge-De Panne, the Australian was caught in a late-race crash and Balsamo pulled off a last-minute tactical pivot that saw her outsprint Lorena Wiebes to win.
FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope didn’t display incredible tactics at every race, nor did Trek-Segafredo, but when they did, they won. And when the races went in SD Worx’s favour, like at the Tour of Flanders, it was due to impressive displays of teamwork.
With the rising level of competition in the women’s peloton teams will find it more and more beneficial to ride together. Riders like Van Vleuten can no longer win on their own by pure strength, even the former world champion needs a team around her to be successful.
The women’s WorldTour calendar expanded from 37 race days in 2021 to 71 in 2022. At the end of the 2021 season teams were barely able to take full rosters to races, and with most of the teams fielding the same number of riders in the new year it doesn’t take an expert to notice that there may be an issue later in the season. Unfortunately, covid-19 and other illnesses ran rampant through the peloton. Add to that a few injuries, and some teams really struggled to survive the spring.
Multiple teams lined up for the first WorldTour race of the year Strade Bianche without the full roster of six. Human Powered Health, a new WorldTeam, only started with four riders. There wasn’t a single time during the spring when all 14 WorldTeams started races with a full roster. BikeExhange-Jayco, Jumbo-Visma, Liv Xstra, and new WT team Roland Cogeas Edelweiss struggled more than most. Jumbo-Visma was mainly taken down in the final three races of the spring after a few of their riders, including their top competitor Marianne Vos, tested positive for COVID-19.
Not only were some teams unable to send the maximum six riders to races, but some WT teams also opted out of some WorldTour races altogether.
Usually, teams would be able to readjust and refocus after the spring campaign has ended, but the next WorldTour race is only a few weeks away. The new three-day Spanish stage race, the Itzulia Women, kicks off on May 13th, and after that, the racing will come fast and furious with Vuelta a Burgos, RideLondon (no longer a one-day event, the race is now three stages), the Women’s Tour, the Giro Donne…it literally does not stop.
So if teams are struggling now, just imagine how hard it’s going to be to complete a roster come July. If the calendar continues to grow, and there is every indication that it will, teams will have to pick up more riders for the coming years.
A great place for teams to start looking for new faces is apparently in Italy. We saw a hint of what Italian riders have to offer at the 2021 World Championships when Balsamo sprinted to victory after a tremendous lead out from her teammates. This spring we saw a few incredibly talented young Italians mixing it up in the races. Six of the ten WorldTour one-days were won by Italians, only two were won by Dutch, and the remaining two were Belgian.
Of those six races Balsamo won three, Cavalli won two, and Elisa Longo Borghini won one. But behind those three top riders are a handful of young Italians swiftly climbing the ranks.
Chiara Consonni, the 22-year old who rides for Valcar-Travel & Service, took an impressive victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen, the one-day right before the Tour of Flanders. She was also second at Scheldeprijs, Le Samyn, and GP Oetigen, and fourth at Danilith Nokere Koerse. At the WorldTour races, she finished consistently in seventh at Ronde van Drenthe and Brugge-De Panne. Going into the summer, and 2023, she will be a rider to watch.
Silvia Persico, Consonni’s teammate and Italy’s national cyclocross champion, impressed with a tenth at Strade Bianche, eighth at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and just won the Gran Premio della Liberazion, a 1.2 in Italy. The 24-year old is another impressive young Italian to remember.
Other Italians who impressed this spring include Marta Bastianelli, who won a few races and was active in a lot of the hard WWT one-days, Maria Giulia Confalonieri for Ceratizit-WNT, Soraya Paladin for Canyon-SRAM and Sofia Bertizzolo for UAE Team ADQ. All four have pulled off results in the past, but overall have helped Italy really challenge the usual Dutch domination this spring. The most notable Italian domination was at Trofeo Alfredo Binda where Italy swept the podium with Balsamo, Bertizzolo, and Paladin.
Since the UCI included 45-minutes of mandatory live coverage for all WorldTour events fans of women’s cycling have been lucky enough to actually see the women race, rather than trying to follow along on Twitter. The benefits of the live coverage can be seen in the numbers of people who now follow the sport, the growing sponsorship, the men’s races signing up to have women’s editions of their events, etc.
A few of the races threw out the rule book and provided us with hours and hours of live coverage. There were even a few non-WorldTour races like Scheldeprijs and Brabantse Pijl that showed a hundred kilometeres of racing, something that was nearly unheard of back in 2020. Flanders Classics in particular has raised the bar for live coverage this year.
In comparison the ASO fell short of expectation, if we really expected them to provide adequate coverage to begin with. They did have three hours of viewing for Paris-Roubaix Femmes, covering all of the cobbled sectors so we barely missed any of the action, although that was thanks to the race’s title sponsor Zwift.
As we head into the stage-race season we will need to adjust our expectations for live coverage. We got used to seeing a ton of racing, but last year Vuelta a Burgos barely showed 45-minutes of racing, and the Giro Donne continued to disappoint with their spotty coverage. The Women’s Tour has already announced that they don’t have a title sponsor, and thus do not have the funds to provide live coverage at all, something that should be grounds to kick them off the WorldTour calendar altogether.
And look, live coverage is expensive, we get it, but we can no longer settle for the bare minimum, and at this point as the sport grows having nothing at all is frankly unacceptable. If a bear poops in the woods…if the women give their everything in a race but no one sees it, does it even matter? Results on a page mean nothing when our attention spans are getting smaller and smaller and the internet can provide us with endless entertainment.
In order to keep people interested, keep people following the sport, and keep the growth going races need to provide live tv coverage of at least the last 90-minutes of racing. At least. Men’s WT and ProSeries races are required to provide an hour of live coverage, while Grand Tours are required to show the final 90-100 km. The women deserve more than what the UCI currently mandates. If a race can’t afford to provide live coverage, it should not be part of the WorldTour calendar.
So now we turn our attention to a whole host of upcoming stage races across Spain, Great Britain, Italy, France, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. We made it through the classics, barely, but there’s a lot of cycling on tap in the coming months. What we don’t yet know is what the live coverage situation will be, so cross your fingers but based on recent years don’t hold your breath.
What we can count on is some fantastic racing from the women of the peloton. There are plenty of teams coming out of the spring with something to prove, and teams that are riding the high of the Spring Classics, full of hope for more success. The competition this summer will be steep, especially with a few new WorldTour races on the books. Stay tuned to CyclingTips.com for race previews, analysis, and all the good stuff coming out of the races.