Commentary: The women’s calendar needs to be changed

A lot of new races have been added to the women's calendar in recent seasons. Is it now time to go back to the drawing board to make it more streamlined?

Photo: Getty Images

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Hot off the heels of the Giro d’Italia Donne, the inaugural Tour de France Femmes is gearing up to begin later this week.

The Giro finished just over a week ago and those that competed in Italy have a short turnaround time. It is part of a very busy summer period for the women’s peloton, which will be heading off to Denmark for the new Tour of Scandinavia just over a week after finishing on the Planche des Belles Filles.

The tightly packed racing schedule has left several riders becoming much more selective about their programs, with many skipping the Giro d’Italia Donne in favor of the Tour de France Femmes.

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UCI president David Lappartient told reporters at the start of the men’s Tour de France that the organization was looking at an overhaul of the women’s calendar that could see some races, such as the Giro d’Italia Donne, moved from their current slots. It’s an idea that the peloton is open to, but it’s hard to know yet just how riders will cope with the packed schedule.

“I would maybe like to have the Giro a bit earlier, then you would have a little bit more time in between. But maybe, because I’m a bit older, now I can handle both races,” Demi Vollering, who skipped the Giro for the Tour, said in a press conference in late June.

“I don’t know. I need to see how that goes. I do the Tour of Scandinavia, so I have to see how I am after the Tour. Maybe I’m really good and then next year, I can do both the Giro and Tour. So, it’s still something I need to figure out for myself, and how I can handle that. I think most of the riders because we never had it like this. So, I think we need to see how it goes this year.”

A turning point

Women’s cycling is approaching a potential turning point in its development with the Tour de France Femmes later this week a potential catalyst for an explosion in funding and growth over the coming seasons.

The sport has already grown dramatically over the last decade with the introduction of a two-tier team system, a WorldTour race category, and a plethora of new squads putting relatively big money into it.

One of the biggest developments in the last 10 years has been the dramatic increase in top-level races. New events have been added to the calendar like cookies on a plate and most are fighting for a prestigious place on the WorldTour.

After years of seeing races drop away and be canceled, it is refreshing to see organizers investing in the sport at such a rapid rate. However, as with all growth, it must also come with a bit of pain and the rapid expansion of the calendar has left the UCI trying to fit new events into random gaps with some events coming in rapid succession.

Four new events will be on the WorldTour calendar for next season with the UAE Tour, Santos Women’s Tour Down Under, Omloop het Nieuwsblad and Tour de Suisse all set to step up. While RideLondon has been provisionally demoted due to its lack of live television coverage, it could still be a top-tier race next season if it can find the money to put on live TV. Meanwhile, there’s been talk of a women’s Milan-San Remo for 2023, too.

With teams already struggling to field full squads in all of the events they enter, it’s going to be even harder next year when it will be mandatory for WorldTeams to attend all 29 events.

While that doesn’t sound like too many, women’s teams have a much smaller roster to call from and a few illnesses and injuries can see teams running thin on riders very quickly. It makes dual race programs very difficult and could see big squads forgoing smaller events to make sure it has enough to start the WorldTour races it is required to go to.

The multi-discipline world championships in August 2023 and the Olympic Games in 2024 add to the challenges of the calendar. In fact, the Vuelta Femenina has provisionally been moved to May to accommodate this, adding another event to the already very packed month of racing.

“If I look at the next years, we have the World’s in August, and then the year after we have the Olympics,” Lotte Kopecky said. “That’s already two years that the dates will need to change. We have to see what they will do about it. Maybe it is better, or maybe it’s not. We have to see in the next years if there is a better solution.”

A better balance

Speaking to the press earlier this month, Lappartient promised that there would be no overlaps in the women’s WorldTour calendar and that there would be larger gaps between some of the bigger races. However, it’s not just the potential overlap of races that poses a logistical issue for the UCI and teams.

The order in which races come is also something to be considered. Annemiek van Vleuten voiced her frustrations earlier this season about the layout of the early-season calendar. The Dutchwoman skipped much of the opening weeks of action due to a dearth of hilly races through March, as well as a lack of stage racing in the same period.

There were only two UCI stage races from the start of the season in February up to the end of April. That will change with the return of the Tour Down Under and the introduction of the UAE Tour, but there’s still a gaping hole in the spring with next to no stage racing.

“It would be better to have more spread out the stage races. I like a challenge so that’s why I challenged myself to do them both, but I would have preferred to have them more separated from each other,” Van Vleuten told VeloNews earlier this year.

“Especially also with the [Tour of Scandinavia] coming up. We need a balanced women’s calendar. Our sport is evolving, so maybe next year or the year after, it’s probably time to reanalyze the calendar and maybe optimize it.”

The growth of women’s cycling is great to see but there comes a time when the cycling world takes a moment to pause and look at how best to work with what it already has.

Before it gets too cluttered, work needs to be done to assess how to make the calendar work best for the riders and the fans. However, riders may need to go through some growing pains to figure out what is the best solution.

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