Women’s cycling in 2017: Two steps forward, one step back

2017 has been the biggest jump for Women’s Cycling since the UCI added a Women’s Cycling World Cup in 1998. The Women’s World Tour has expanded drastically, the World Championships do some justice to the women’s side of the sport and media coverage has improved ten-fold. The sport isn’t without its issues though, with regulations and budgets limiting the potential of the sport. The UCI have taken steps this year to ensure a better future for Women’s cycling, and while there is more to do, we also need to look at how the sport has grown. There is a lot of negative media surrounding how poorly run the WWT is, but in context of where it began, so much good has happened.

In this article, I’m going to give a brief history of professional Women’s cycling, provide a discussion around the Women’s cycling regulations, and talk about the future coverage and goals of Women’s cycling. It’ll be a mish-mash of thoughts about Women’s cycling, but it’s something that needs to be discussed because without anyone talking about it, the sport will never grow.

The Beginning: Women’s Road World Cup

The UCI added a Women’s Road World Cup in 1998 to add a year round classification for women to race for, not just the World Championships. With 6 to 12 events on every year over its 17 year life, it was very similar to how the current Cyclocross World Cup operates. The marquee event was La Fleche Wallonne Feminine, featuring the infamous Mur du Huy. While there were races pre-existing, there was nothing on this scale. While all these events were one day races, it was the start of the UCI moving in a more professional direction for women’s cycling.

It was also the first time outside of the World Championships that women could compete in a points based competition on a UCI recognised platform. Diana Ziliute, a powerhouse in women’s cycling around the time of the Road World Cup’s beginning, won 2 events on the Road World Cup’s initial year in 1998, the overall title, as well as the World Championships. Current cycling legends like Marianne Vos, Kirsten Wild, Ellen van Dijk and Lizzie Deignan also performed at the Road World Cup. There was also the introduction of the team’s classification in 2005. The introduction of a team’s classification saw the start of some dynasties, like Vos’ Rabobank winning 5 in a row from 2011.

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Ziliute dominated the first few years of the Road World Cup. Source: CyclingNews. 

The Growth of the Women’s World Tour

The UCI replaced the Women’s Road World Cup with the Women’s World Tour in 2016. A summit in 2014 between the UCI, riders and teams led to increasing the number of race days from 10 to over 30, as well as splitting the women’s rankings into two to (kind of) distinguish WWT teams from their generic counterparts. Conditions were added to the WWT, forcing organisers to get TV coverage of their events to further the development of the sport.

2016 featured 17 different races, and this was increased to 21 in 2017 – including the first female monument in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Boels Dolmans have dominated both years of the competition, with Lizzie Deignan winning 5 races in 2016 and Anna van der Breggen winning 6 races in 2017 for Boels, on top of other riders like Dideriksen and Guarnier also taking out wins for the team. Considered a vast improvement over the Road World Cup, race organisers have hopes of bringing a race calendar similar to the men’s one over to the WWT.

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Anna van der Breggen won 6 WWT races in 2017. Source: Tim de Waele.

Size and length: regulations around the WWT

The UCI has rules and regulations around how the WWT is structured and scheduled which are different from how the World Tour operates. The two most noted ones are the size limits on Women’s teams, as well as the race length limits of WWT and non-WWT events.

Rule 2.17.004 limits the size of Women’s cycling teams to 8 to 16 riders. In contrast, rule 2.15.049 – which governs World Tour teams – requires a minimum of 23 riders; and rule 2.16.001 – which governs Pro Continential teams – requires 16 riders. Those latter 2 rules also require a minimum number of permanent staff (14 for WT, 8 for PCT), which isn’t required for a Women’s team.

Rule 2.17.004 also outlines that riders on women’s teams can either be professional or non-professional. This means that they can either be paid or unpaid. There is no limit to how many professional (paid) riders you need to have before starting a team. This means that you can have a women’s team, with 8 unpaid riders, only requiring approval from the national federation and a bond for financial security.

An interesting rule about team sizes which applies to Women’s teams and not WT/PCT teams is that they are allowed up to 4 non-Road race riders to participate on behalf of the team in other disciplines. This is most prevalent in mountain biking and cyclocross, with Boels Dolmans and Sunweb being the two most prominent Women’s teams fielding riders in these disciplines under their team and not their nation. Sabrina Stultiens, currently a Sunweb rider, has participated for the team in both Cyclocross and Road Races, and was once a Cyclocross specialist rider on a women’s road team.

Cyclocross : World Cup Hoogerheide 2016

Stultins representing her Road team, Liv Plantur, at World Cup Hoogerheide 2016. Source: Tim de Waele.

Some people consider the rules of the UCI surrounding the size of the Women’s World Tour to be chauvinistic. However, the rules do provide a number of protections for the women’s teams and opens the door for more teams to participate. Women’s cycling has significantly less funding from sponsors compared to men’s cycling because of reduced interest, so by allowing a team to be created on shoe string budgets is beneficial for teams to get their foot in the door.

There is a flip side to this though: the job security of being in one of these smaller teams is limited, and unless you are one of the best riders in the world on one of the best teams in the world, cycling is not enough to make ends meet. Sure, teams must apply for a bank guarantee (2.17.019) and insurances (2.17.031) to riders to fulfill contracts, but they provide a very small payout for the smaller teams. This provides some security, which is better than none.

However, I do have issues with the fact that it only takes 8 people to start a women’s team. You don’t need any permanent staff, or any sports directors, you can make a team with 8 people – all riders – and have a shot at participating on the Women’s World Tour. This mocks the prestige of the sport, in how you can be a professional team with just 8 people and the support of your national federation. It’s just another reason, to me, as to why people aren’t yet taking women’s cycling seriously. You should not be able to go pro and ride in UCI events with a team – not just riders, but all staff – of 8 people, who don’t even need to be paid.

Another nuance to consider is that this applies to all women’s teams. There is no differentiation between the Women’s World Tour or just another team. There are separate guidelines for World Tour, Pro Continental, and Continental teams for Men’s racing, but all of women’s racing is merged into one. It gives less protections to riders: your team’s success for a whole year could be determined on a strength ranking given by the UCI before the season starts. You might be strong enough to participate in events, but if you don’t place in that top 20, you lose your automatic qualification – and quite possibly lose your opportunity to ride in races to get your team name out there, and get your team valuable prize money for the future.

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Drops were rated #22 at the start of 2017, but still attended a number of WWT races, and were one of the better teams this year. Source: Jojo Harper.

Having no differentiation between a women’s team and a women’s World Tour team strips back the job security, as one year you might be on a top 20 team and the next year you aren’t – whereas with the Men’s World Tour your team has to apply for a license before being accepted onto the World Tour. Oh, and you could have 8 people on a team and be participating at the pinnacle of the sport. While I might be taking these rules to extreme lengths, you have to consider that once the national federation approves the team, the UCI doesn’t really have much of a say outside of ranking them and making sure their team name is appropriate. There needs to be more regulation in this area to make sure there are at least paid riders on women’s teams. I wouldn’t go as far as saying the rules are chauvinistic, but they are, in parts, un-professional.

Regarding the Women’s World Tour, all races are open to all women’s teams and national teams. The first 15 teams on the UCI Women’s Rankings get invites to all WWT races, while 16-20 get invites to WWT One Day races. Race organisers have an obligation of providing at least 5000 EUR in prize money, depending on the race. During races, rule 2.13.005 limits squad sizes to 6 riders for a one day race, and 7 riders for a stage race. This squad size limit accommodates for the limits placed on the size of teams.

However, race organisers are also limited in how long they can make stages and races. The UCI limits the maximum length of a race to 160km, and an 140km average for stage races. ITTs and TTTs are also limited in distance, 40km and 50km respectively. Finally, the longest a stage race can be is 9 days, including any transfer or rest days. These regulations are limiting the goal of organisers of races like the Giro Rosa of making 3 week long Grand Tours for women. ASO has come out and said that they would like to eventually extend La Course into a longer tour than just a weird 2 day race.

With the current investment and interest in the sport, as well as the current squad size limitations, it’s hard to organise longer races. To do a Grand Tour, you would need at least 9 riders to start, just like the men. Women’s cycling can only use 7. Women’s cycling can’t do the full length monuments like Paris-Roubaix because they are limited in having to fit every one day race under 160km. There was a step forward in adding a modified Liege-Bastogne-Liege to the Women’s calendar, but the regulations are stopping them from holding longer events.

In a time period where there are brother/sister teams from the same organisation going on training camps together, there will soon have to be change to allow them to do the same distances. There has been improvement over the years – even going into 2017 the maximum distance was raised from 140km to 160km – and eventually the regulations will catch up to where the community believes it should be. The race organisers shouldn’t be limited by the rules, only the roads they have.

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Annemiek Van Vleuten won the Giro Rosa in 2017, the closest to a GT you can get for the WWT. Source: Orica-Scott.

Bergen 2017: two steps forward, one step back

The Bergen 2017 World Championships is the main reason why I wrote this article. Promising climbing and mountains, it was supposed to be a change from the dead flat Doha 2016. While it hasn’t 100% delivered, Bergen 2017 is showing the world that the gap between men’s and women’s cycling is closing.

First, let’s talk about the Team Time Trial, which has already been and gone. The Men and Women both races on the same 42.5km course from Ravnanger to Bergen. The same hills, the same cobbles, the same roads. Simply put, it was as close to equality as you can get for cycling. Even better, was that both the Men’s and Women’s TTTs were won by Team Sunweb, showing how investors are not only putting resources into men’s cycling, but also covering women’s too. Having the same race for men and women over a time trial is a viable thing to do for races like Worlds. Sure, the WE teams were 5km/h slower on average (8-ish minutes), but it shows that they can do races harder than some people give them credit for. This was a great example on how far women’s cycling has come – a step forward.

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Sunweb dominated both the Women’s and Men’s TTT in Bergen on the exact same course. Source: Tim de Waele.

Quick side note: Ever wondered by Sunweb ME are a German team but Sunweb WE are a Dutch team? It’s to do with UCI regulations. WT team nationality is based off the primary sponsor and what national federation they get endorsement from, but women’s team nationality is based off what nation is represented the most in a team. Most of the Sunweb WE team are Dutch, hence Sunweb ME are German, and Sunweb WE are Dutch.

In saying that ME and WE should be able to do the same time trial courses, I cannot begin to think of the reasoning as to why the ME and WE individual time trials have different courses. Not just by a couple of kilometers, but 10 kilometers, and without the key part of the ME ITT, Mount Floyen. While the ME ITT is the only time trial including Mount Floyen in the whole championships, and the WE ITT includes Birkelundsbakken which was in the TTT, the inclusion of Mount Floyen in the WE ITT would make for a much more interesting finale in my opinion. They could keep the one 21km long lap and just turn right away from Bergen instead of left into Bergen so they do Mount Floyen.

They have already proven they can climb – the Giro Rosa this year had a 27% climb on a ITT and La Course this year features the Col d’Izoard, so why not include something similar in the supposedly hilly World Championships? 3 months ago, I would have said that this ITT was appalling. However, Birkelundsbakken did prove to be difficult in the TTT, and there are some cobbled sections on the route, so it is technical and difficult. But, I cannot begin to think about how epic the WE ITT could have been with Mount Floyen.

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Annemiek Van Vleuten won the Col d’Izoard mountain climb at La Course this year. Source: Tim de Waele.

The WE Road Race is everything you could have hoped for in Bergen, in 160km or less. Featuring 8 x 19.1km laps, it goes up Salmon Hill – Mount Floyen’s smaller cousin – and has undulations and cobbles on it’s way around Bergen. It reminds me of a longer Australian Nationals, with Mount Buninyong smack bang in the middle of the lap. This year’s Worlds is something you could have hoped for after last year’s Worlds, and while it might not be mountainous, it’s certainly punchy. It also makes the most (in most scenarios) of the regulations put in place by the UCI, and shows them that “Holy s***, Women can climb”, and will hopefully be another link in the chain for getting a Women’s GT off the ground.

Coverage: the helping hand of social media

#WomensCycling. It’s trended on Twitter quite a lot this year during the season. I even used it to promote this article on Twitter. Organisations like Ella and Voxwomen have really shone the light on Women’s cycling on social media; and people like Loren Rowney and Jose Been have really stood up for promoting Women’s cycling. Teams are getting more active on twitter, and even the UCI has improved coverage over time.

Since the WWT started, the UCI have been live-streaming most events on their Youtube channel, giving the general public access to Women’s cycling for free (with Ant McCrossan on commentary, which is enough of a selling point for me). On top of that, Eurosport have been buying rights to televise certain women’s races. The UCI also require organisers to put together a same day highlights package, a news clip, and social media promotion through hashtags for the race and the WWT and live trackers. This has made women’s cycling accessible for the masses.

This hasn’t just been limited to the WWT though. Channel 9 in Australia have been in discussions to televise the NRS for the past couple of years, and while nothing has been solidified, a move in this market would be huge for the local Australian riders. Even without this, organisers themselves have taken it into their own hands – the Amy Otway Tour in 2017 had a live stream on the Wiggle Facebook page, and users like Brakedown Podcast are always on the side of the road live tweeting about the local races (and I promise the Tour of Margaret River will have some form of coverage!).

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Rebecca Wiasak won the televised Amy Otway Tour Criterium, a NRS race. Source: Amy Otway Tour.

All Women’s cycling needs now is investors and viewers. The groundwork has been laid down. Social media this year has blown it up ten-fold, and hopefully soon there will be some women’s riders on the tongues of the general public. There has been pushes for more TV coverage – 2017 delivered more TV coverage. There has been pushes for more info on it on social media – there has been more races popping up on social media to promote their event in 2017. While we can’t just think the work is done and we can stop talking about it now, it’s leaps and bounds better than what it has been in the past.

This article is kind of a mish-mash on my thoughts on the state of women’s cycling now, and what it could look like in the future. From the WWT to Worlds, the public eye in coverage and the private eye in regulations, I tried to discuss everything. Women’s cycling will be something big in the future. It just needs fans on the side of the road, eyes on the telly, investors willing to take the plunge, and a change of regulations to create a more professional sport. Let’s hope for an even better environment for Women’s cycling in 2018.


All sources used in this article can be found in the below links:

Women’s Road World Cup – Wikipedia
Women’s World Tour – Wikipedia
2016 WWT Specifications for Organisers
2017 WWT Specifications for Organisers
UCI Regulations – Part 2 Road Races
UCI Regulations – Part 9 World Championships

I must also thank /u/adryy8, for throwing arguments at me which forced me to structure my article better and reconsider a few of the statements I made. Without him, it probably would have read more like a hate article than anything else. Also, thanks Tim for the proofreading!