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Women’s cycling has been on the up and up over the last decade, but the rapid development of the sport has not been without its teething problems.
The 2023 season is the biggest year yet for the Women’s WorldTour, with 86 race days spread across 30 events, up from 67 days of action at 23 races last season. However, the calendar has already taken a hit this season with two organizers forced to pull their events.
Both Vårgårda WestSweden and the Women’s Tour have been pulled from the calendar since the start of the season, with the former potentially gone for good while the latter hopes to be back next year.
Losing two races in one year is a big blow to the WorldTour, but is it a sign of bigger issues for the women’s side of the sport, part of something else, or a mere coincidence?
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SD Worx rider Christine Majerus believes that it is an indication of a wider issue within women’s cycling at this time.
“It’s a sign of a problem and I think women’s cycling has been growing quite fast now and the financial part still needs to follow up,” Majerus told VeloNews. “At the moment, we try to ask for more and more, but I think that we need to try to stabilize everything.
“Something, I think we try to go too fast, and some teams and organizations cannot follow the financial requests that come with it. It is a problem. I don’t know, maybe there will be more races that will have a problem.”
Vårgårda WestSweden was the first to feel the pinch with organizers announcing in January that the one-day race and team time trial it had hosted since 2006 and 2008 respectively would be cut from the calendar.
The organizer stated that the increased investment needed to host a Women’s WorldTour event, alongside the struggling economy, was behind its reason to pull the plug.
“Arranging the competitions, which include both team time trial and road race, is estimated to cost just over four million kroner,” the statement in January read. “Despite significant financial support from our long-standing partners, and mainly Vårgårda municipality, Sparbanksstiftelsen, and Sparbanken Alingsås, the club cannot finance the event in a responsible manner without risking the association’s future.
“The association also sees increased demands from the UCI (International Cycling Union), both organizationally and financially in the coming year and beyond.”
In early March, there were the first indications that the Women’s Tour was also in trouble as it launched a plea for additional sponsors.
At the time, it was still on the hunt for a primary backer as well as sponsors for most of its leaders’ jerseys, after already cutting the race down from six to five days.
A few days later, it also launched a crowdfunding campaign, but it wouldn’t be enough to secure the race for this season. In the end, organizer SweetSpot decided to pull it from this year’s schedule with the hope of returning for next year.
It was another big blow to the women’s calendar and meant some seven days would be trimmed from the WorldTour before March was even up.
In contrast to Majerus, reigning Women’s Tour champion Elisa Longo Borghini believes that the trouble is not specific to women’s cycling but a wider issue with the world economy, which is seeing potential sponsors spending less money.
“To be honest, it is a little bit how the economy is going at the moment. It’s not only cycling, it’s a little bit the world. Finding funds for sport is always a little bit complicated, at least that’s how it is in Italy,” she told VeloNews. “If you want to organize an event that has such a high status you have to have money and the costs are always higher and higher, so it must be hard for organizers to find it.
“I’m really sorry that the Women’s Tour won’t have an edition this year because during the years it has gained a status in the women’s calendar and it was a prestigious race to win, too. I know that next year they have a plan to return, and they will probably start in Wales. I wish them the best of luck because they were always amazing and they were really stepping up and giving the women’s peloton good exposure with the media, even back in 2014.”
As women’s cycling develops, the demands of hosting a top-level race are getting harder at a time when costs are going up. To enter the Women’s WorldTour, the UCI requires an “annual calendar fee” that is set by its management committee.
This year wasn’t the first time that the Women’s Tour had spoken out about its need for additional funds. It also launched an appeal last year for a sponsor to help it broadcast the race live for the first time.
As with many things, there doesn’t seem to be just one issue behind the struggles of race organizers. The UCI is issuing higher financial demands, while other monetary outlays are also going up, and it is harder to find the money required to fulfill these newer demands.
“I do think that it is a coincidence, but I also think that the WorldTour sets certain barriers to the races that they have to reach, so maybe that could be something challenging,” Kasia Niewiadoma told VeloNews.
Work for the future
Vårgårda WestSweden and the Women’s Tour are not the only races to be feeling the financial strain of late and money troubles for organizers are not just limited to the women’s side of the sport.
In January, the Tour de la Provence was not allowed entry onto the French calendar after the French cycling federation refused to sanction it after it reportedly fell behind on payments.
It’s not a secret that the world’s economy has been struggling over the last year or so as it comes to terms with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, among other issues. Brexit has also been another factor in the British economy and one that may have impacted the Women’s Tour and its ability to attract sponsors.
All of this has also led to growing costs for materials and labor, putting the pinch on funds that are already quite tight for many organizers.
While the loss of the two days of racing in Sweden is a blow, especially as the event had become a well-liked part of the calendar and a rare standalone event for the women’s peloton, there are enough races in August and September that it should not disrupt the schedule of too many riders.
However, the loss of the Women’s Tour is a different problem as it comes in June and many in the bunch will have used its five days of racing to prepare for the Giro d’Italia Donne and the Tour de France Femmes the following month.
While there’s still the Tour de Suisse later in June, it’s likely that it will force many of the big names into training camps in the early summer rather than racing.
Majerus believes that better due diligence by the governing bodies and others involved in the sport could prevent races dropping out just months before they’re due to take place.
“I think that the stakeholders at the top need to realize that it’s not only about the money and about the business, everything else needs to follow,” Majerus said. “If you’re not careful and you don’t watch out about what is at the base of your pyramid then your pyramid will collapse. That’s probably the biggest challenge for the next few years.
“At this point, I feel that the UCI should be more strict with whether or not the race has the financial strength when they are getting put on the calendar and not having them say ‘we can do it’ and then four months later saying they can’t. I know it’s not necessarily their fault, but the problems were already there when they were put on the calendar. That probably would have avoided the problems for the teams and the riders.”