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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colorado (VN) — The Colorado Classic kicked off Thursday in Steamboat Springs, Colorado with the most competitive and international field in the race’s three-year history—and all of the riders are women.
During the opening press conference, race organizers praised the event’s model as a stand-alone race for professional women. For the first two years, organizers held the women’s race alongside a men’s event, before deciding to drop the men’s race and keep the women’s race for 2019.
“This race is a platform for empowering women,” said Sean Petty, the event’s race director. “It’s a platform for equality in women’s professional cycling. We’ve flipped the script on this one. Usually when a race gets cut, it’s the women’s race. But this year we took a big step and went with the women only: No more early starts and short races (for women’s cycling).”
The format places the four-day race in rare company. No other stage race in North America boasts the women’s-only format. All of the other major races—from the Tour of the Gila to the Amgen Tour of California—are all held alongside men’s events.
Yet the professional women’s riders told VeloNews there are advantages to both stand-alone women’s races and women’s races that are combined with men’s events. Combining a women’s race with a men’s event often means the women must start at odd hours. Yet the combined model often generates greater fan interest on the side of the road.
“It really depends on the race and how it’s managed,” says Canadian rider Sarah Poidevin (Rally-UHC). “Sometimes with a combined event usually the women’s race is pushed to an earlier start time when people aren’t out and watching. But the events like the Spring Classics are two really well run events on the same course.”
The merits of a stand-alone event
Petty argues a standalone race puts less strain on host cities. “When races are combined,” Petty said, “Ultimately both races are compromised because resources (time and money, namely) have to be shared.”
Indeed, in the opening two editions of the Colorado Classic, the men and women competed on the same courses for just the opening few stages, before the women lost out on the longer road stages. In 2018 the men and women shared the opening two races in Vail—a circuit race and time trial—but then the men competed in two longer road events, while the women raced circuit races in Denver.
This year, by contrast, the women will race four individual courses, all of which contain plenty of tough terrain. And the race falls at a period of the season where domestic women’s racing can cut through the sport’s crowded schedule to get better media attention.
Australian cyclist Tiffany Cromwell pointed to the recent Tour of Scotland as an example. Every stage of the recent race received coverage on BBC’s website. As a standalone event it didn’t have to compete against news accompanying a men’s race.
“I think we still need a little bit of the support from the men in terms of building the women’s profile. But women’s standalone races can be successful when the organizations want to do them properly,” Cromwell said.
The stand-alone format also allows race management to put more resources toward the women. This year the race is paying out $75,000 in price cash to the women’s peloton. That amount is four times as big as the prize purse for last year’s women’s race, and more than the race paid last year to the men’s event.
Combined races may get more fans
Another rider told VeloNews that combined events often attract more spectators along the roads. Riders pointed to events like the Tour of Flanders and other Belgian classics as examples of combined events that generate enormous fan interest.
Those fans who attend the races get to see the compelling nature of a professional women’s race.
“I think it’s better when there are combined races because there are more spectators with a professional men’s race,” said Italian rider Tatian Guderzo (BePink). “There’s a civility to show people that women can do the same sport and are equally tired.”
This year, Flemish race organizers Flanders Classics experimented with staging the women’s races in close proximity to the men’s races, in an effort to get live television exposure for the women’s races.
Emma White (Rally-UHC) said she saw the merits of the stand-alone model at the European races Ride London Classic and the Tour of Scotland. White said the combined model can benefit women’s races, but only if the organizers commit to steering adequate resources to the women’s event.
“I think having a men’s race does bring a lot of people to watch. There’s something to be said for that as long as we are getting the same coverage and access to resources,” White said. “Until I see how it works this week, I won’t know. But I think it’s really special to have this women’s standalone race, especially following the men’s Tour of Utah.”
It’s about the racing
Olympic medalist and world champion Chloe Dygert-Owen believes that perhaps the size of the race impacts which format works best. “Creating these standalone women’s races is a step in the right direction, but I think combining them for the smaller races is the smarter option.”
The debate over which model works better was not confined to the pro riders. One team mechanic told VeloNews that most fans don’t necessarily attend bike races to see star men’s riders compete.
“They come to see a bike race because it’s a fun event to attend,” the mechanic said. “And because people have a short attention span, they’re going to pick one race to watch, and it’s usually the one at the end, the men’s.” With a women’s only race, there’s no choice to make.”
Watching olympians like Chloe Dygert-Owen, Italian Tatiana Guderzo, and Canadian Allison Beveridge race the Colorado Classic inspires the youngest generation of spectators and riders.
A line of young female cyclists from Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club stood at the foot of the stage collecting high-fives from professionals. Among them was 13-year-old Kelsey Cariveau, who sported a #weride hat and banged a cow bell. “These women are super inspiring. It makes me feel like I can grow up to be like them,” she said.
Steamboat resident and cyclist Kira Reynolds stood at the starting line with her three daughters Ellie (12), Eva (12), Delia (9) and her four-year-old son, Issac. “Seeing the women get this much recognition is super empowering for these younger girls and boys. Isaac rides bikes because his sisters do,” said Kira.
Her daughter, Ellie, agreed.
“I think a lot of men take over sports,” she said. “So, I think it’s cool to see women race by themselves.”