A tightrope of growth: Balancing women’s cycling individuality with ‘imported’ men’s races

Elisa Balsamo said she'd like to see a women's Milan-San Remo come back, but where does women's racing draw the line with importing men's events onto the calendar?

Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images

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Elisa Balsamo caused a bit of a stir last week when she said she would like a Milan-San Remo back on the women’s calendar.

The behemoth one-day race, the longest single day on the men’s calendar, once had a female edition but it fell by the wayside in 2005.

The world champion also told VeloNews that not only did she want “La Primavera” back but she’d like to have some more select races from the men’s calendar.

“We have a very full calendar, but we need also, I think, about two or three really important classic races that now are not in our calendar, I think maybe two or three because all the others are in so we are waiting,” Balsamo said. “Il Lombardia is an important one in Italy, and then I don’t know maybe another in the rest of the world.”

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Her views sparked a range of responses from “heck yes” to “it depends” to a simple “no”. The mixture of opinions on social media was fairly representative of the wider women’s cycling world.

While there is an overwhelming desire to continue to push forward, there are different ideas on how it should be done. As the sport grows, tough decisions will have to be made.

There are plenty of issues that divide opinion on the push for growth in women’s cycling, including prize money, race lengths, and calendar size. One of the issues that can prove quite contentious is the importation of men’s races into the women’s calendar.

While there are some comparatively longstanding parallel events such as Flèche Wallonne, which began a women’s race in 1998, and the GP de Plouay, which started in 2002, the vast majority of so-called “importations” have been transferred over the last 15 years.

Indeed, the last decade has seen new women’s races at Gent-Wevelgem, Strade Bianche — though this is also a relatively recent addition to the men’s calendar — Amstel Gold Race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Clásica San Sebastián, Ronde van Drenthe, Challenge by La Vuelta, Vuelta a Burgos, Paris-Roubaix, and the Tour de France. The women’s Tour of Flanders just misses this 15-year cut-off as it was introduced in 2004.

This list is not exhaustive, and many more have been packed onto the calendar in recent years.

Avoiding homogeny and squeezing out existing races

One of the major attractions of women’s racing is that it is hugely aggressive and often unpredictable. Things have changed in the last couple of years on the men’s side, with younger riders throwing out the usual playbook, but some aspects of men’s racing had become formulaic.

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

Women’s races provided an antithesis to this, with shorter events allowing for a more attacking style of racing.

Though it is encouraging to see a growing number of well-established organizers finding the potential in women’s racing and being keen to invest in it, there are concerns it could end up becoming a carbon copy of the men’s side of the sport.

Importing every major men’s race could risk fans effectively watching the same season twice and diluting, or even extinguishing, the charm and thrill of women’s cycling.

“You cannot compare with men’s cycling, I think we need to focus on our sport,” Chantal van den Broek-Blaak told VeloNews earlier this month. “It’s not the men’s because we are not small men. This is something I always say, not everything needs to be like the men’s. We are women, and we do it this way and it’s a different sport.”

The inclusion of races like the Tour de France and the Paris-Roubaix — events that ultimately transcend the sport — have been seen as major boosts to the women’s calendar. With the huge worldwide interest that some events get, latching onto those brands can prove a major win for the women’s side of the sport.

Other events might not necessarily bring the same marketing boost, but they have introduced some very well-organized races, which shouldn’t be dismissed. However, there are some that have fallen short and many riders have complained about the poor organization at the Challenge by La Vuelta, to name one.

Meanwhile, there are already many well-organized events on the women’s calendar that have been supporting female racing before it was “cool.”

Balsamo took a hugely impressive win at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda on Sunday, with van den Broek-Blaak in fourth. Binda is the oldest race on the Women’s WorldTour calendar by a country mile having started in 1974, with the next best offering the Giro d’Italia Donne, which began in 1988.

Many of these standalone women’s races — which also include the Simac Ladies Tour, Open de Suède Vårgårda, and the Thüringen Ladies Tour — are put on by smaller organizers that will struggle to compete with the likes of ASO and Flanders Classics.

While the might of these big organizers getting involved is good to see, it risks squeezing out those that have supported women’s cycling for a long time and events that provide some of the best racing from the whole year.

When speaking with VeloNews, van den Broek-Blaak expressed her concerns about the issue.

“I’m a bit scared for this, to be honest,” van den Broek-Blaak said. “There are so many races coming, which is good, but I think we also need to make sure we don’t grow too quickly… I really hope they will stay there [the women’s only races]. Women’s cycling is growing, and every race wants a women’s race, but we don’t have enough riders.”

The development of professional women’s cycling is a fine line that must be trodden carefully. New races can be very important for the growth of the sport, but they should not be added just for the sake of it.

Should there be a women’s Milan-San Remo or Il Lombardia? There is an argument for both yes and no. If they should be included, it shouldn’t be at the detriment to pre-existing events that give so much to the sport.

The rich history of women’s racing should not be ignored and thrown away as it seeks growth.

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