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While the return of a women’s Tour de France will, and already has, encouraged growth and investment in women’s racing there are already signs that some of that growth may have happened too quickly.
By Amy Jones
When the two-tier team structure was introduced for the women’s peloton in 2020 there were eight teams who took out Women’s WorldTour licenses. Most of those who opted to join the top tier were the ones already behaving as though they were in another league from the rest of the peloton. The exception was Boels Dolmans (now SD Worx) who didn’t join the WorldTour until the following year when they were the only team to move up.
The advent of a two-tier system that mandates structure and basic contractual rights only for the top-level has its own issues. Namely, a top-heavy team structure does little to help low-budget Continental squads and development teams.
This season, a new problem has arisen, the Tour de France Femmes effect. Now, there are fourteen Women’s WorldTeams with the formation of the new team Uno-X, and with Jumbo-Visma, Human Powered Health, EF Education First Tibco, and Roland Cogeas Edelweiss Squad jumping up from Continental level.
The UCI’s growth plan for the Women’s WorldTour involves an annual increase in the number of Women’s WorldTour licenses that are available to teams. For 2022, the governing body also did away with a clause that stipulated that new teams must spend one season at the Continental level before moving up. The advent of the Tour de France Femmes for 2022 meant a rush on Women’s WorldTeam licenses thanks to the possibility of wooing sponsorship through the promise of exposure at such a big race.
The issue with buying a WorldTeam license in order to guarantee participation in one race, however, is that there is a whole WorldTour calendar to be raced on either side of that one week in July. This year, in particular, that calendar is bigger than ever – with 71 race days.
So far this season there have been four rounds of the Women’s WorldTour at which only one, Strade Bianche, has seen all fourteen WWT teams present. Even then, EF Education First Tibco was only able to field four riders. Before that, Human Powered Health and Roland Cogeas Edelweiss Squad missed opening weekend while Roland Cogeas Edelweiss Squad, EF, and Movistar missed round two, Ronde van Drenthe. Human Powered Health and Uno-x also sat Trofeo Alfredo Binda out, and at yesterday’s Brugge – De Panne EF weren’t present while Jumbo Visma opted out of the race – presumably to focus on this Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem.
Luckily for the women’s teams, there is no fine for WorldTeams who skip WorldTour races, which is just as well considering that the teams who are doing so are mostly the ‘smaller’ WorldTeams with presumably smaller budgets to match. Indeed, it’s the newer Women’s WorldTeams that are struggling the most to make it to all of the races and while some of the problems lie with their own organization, it was the UCI who allowed these teams to register as WorldTour without the budget to back it up.
Alongside budgets and resources, roster size has a part to play – unlike the men’s wherein WorldTeams often have rosters of around 30 riders and ProTeams around 20 or more, every one of the Women’s WorldTeams has 15 riders or less. Spreading those 15 or so riders across 71 race days are bound to test a team’s resources regardless of budget and the level of those riders.
Of course, the Tour de France effect is a phenomenon that is not exclusive to the women’s side of the sport. Many men’s teams have WorldTeam licenses for the same purpose however, while they may structure their seasons around that race, they also have the numbers and resources to do the rest of the calendar justice.
The answer is not as simple as bigger teams – there are not yet enough riders at the highest level to fill the spots – rather, sustainable development to allow greater depth within the peloton to flourish. The obvious solution is to introduce a ProTeam tier within which a handful of teams who are currently at Continental level and some of the ‘smaller’ WWT teams would naturally sit.
The provisional start list for Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday so far contains all fourteen Women’s WorldTeams all, for the first time, with full rosters. Whether that transpires remains to be seen but with teams struggling to turn up to races in March, it does not bode well for the tail end of the season.