Analysis: Paucity of top-level women’s stage races in March takes the zing out of spring
After a flurry of stage races in the opening two months of the season, there will be no more Women's WorldTour stage races until May.
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My kingdom for a stage race.
The women’s cycling calendar marches on this week with visits to Nokere Koerse and the sixth round of the Women’s WorldTour at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda.
While these are great races that give us some fantastic action, there’s a glaring absence on the calendar and that is major multi-day races.
This year, we’ve had a few more than usual with Tour Down Under making a return to the calendar and the inauguration of the UAE Tour for women, combined with the established Setmana Ciclista Valenciana through January and February.
As we get well into March, however, top-level stage races have fallen by the wayside in favor of one-day action.
This is nothing new for the women’s calendar but each time it comes around it’s a reminder that the schedule needs some work for the future.
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There are a few stage races littered through the next four weeks, which have been introduced to the UCI calendar for 2023, but they are few and far between and they’re all ranked either 2.1 or 2.2 with nothing in cycling’s two top categories until the Festival Elsy Jacobs until April 29.
It’s not to throw shade on these races, which give us plenty of good racing and are important for the sport, but the lack of high-level events means that the big hitters go into hibernation for a few weeks and it takes a little bit of the zing out of the spring.
After she rode Strade Bianche at the start of March, we’re not going to get to see Annemiek van Vleuten again until the Tour of Flanders next month. We can’t even blame a reduced final-season calendar as she had a similar approach last season.
“In March it is more for sprinters and flat racing and it’s a bit sad that we have then all the stages races back together,” Van Vleuten told VeloNews in an interview. “Maybe it could be better in the future that [the UCI] reanalyze our calendar. I would also like to have a bit of an earlier stage race but now they’re really together in July and August.”
While there is no WorldTour stage racing throughout March and April, there are four in May and two in June. Couldn’t we spread the love a little more?
This March, Demi Vollering is also heading for altitude rather than racing as she hits the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. It’s not clear when she’ll be back in action but last season she returned to competition at Flanders as well.
Other riders taking a break from racing in favor of training for much of March are Lianne Lippert, Juliette Labous, Mavi Garcia, and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.
Elisa Longo Borghini has been out for some time, but that is more to do with the flu symptoms she developed ahead of Strade Bianche and she’s one of the climber types that also likes to mix it on the flatter races, as her 2022 Paris-Roubaix win shows.
It’s normal for riders to take elongated breaks from racing to ensure they hit their peaks for big goals, but it’s disappointing to see so many big names out of action at the same time.
On top of that, with a maximum of two major race days a week, it feels as though the peloton hits a slight lull through much of March.
The classics are great, but the spring would be even better if we had a bigger variation of races available in the early spring.
Of course, there are some challenges that make reworking the spring calendar extremely difficult. While men’s teams are easily able to run dual and even triple race programs, it is far harder for the women’s squads to spread their racing schedule across multiple events at the same time.
With most teams boasting a roster size of around 14 or 15 riders and the likelihood of a couple of riders being out of action, trying to field two teams of at least six riders is tough and leaves squads open to having to start with reduced numbers.
There’s no way we could have what we saw last week in the men’s peloton with Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico running at the same time. Any schedule change would need to ensure no major clashes.
To be honest, that’s not something women’s cycling should strive for anyway. Having two of the biggest stage races of the spring overlapping seems like bad planning.
The other challenge for any calendar reform for the women is that most of the spring one-day races, aside from the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, are tied to men’s races, which makes it far harder to shift them around.
Most organizers like to put their men’s and women’s races on the same day to save costs.
However, if a couple of organizers were willing to either split their men’s and women’s race days or move the whole event forward or back a day or two we could make room for a couple of extra stage races in the spring and convince a few more of the top climbers to keep racing in March.
The new three-day 2.1 Tour de Normandie is a move in the right direction in having a few more stage races in the early spring and sees the likes of Veronica Ewers in action, but its relatively rolling terrain means that most climbers of stayed away.
What we need is a hillier race slotting itself into this spring calendar, but we also need an organizer ready to step into the breach. The new Vuelta Extremadura looks like a possible option for the future, but it is currently ranked just 2.2 and did not attract any WorldTour squads for its debut edition.