Opinion – Cycling – Tour de France organisers veer off La Course with experimental format

Following disappointment in missing out to Anna van der Breggen in the 2017 Giro Rosa, not to mention the aftermath of her horror crash at the Rio Olympic road race last year, it was extremely gratifying to see Annemiek van Vlouten triumph in the 2017 edition of La Course by Le Tour de France last weekend. That she took victory with such apparent ease, despite her exertions in the Giro just 10 days earlier, shows the level that she is now operating at, and will no doubt be cause for concern for her compatriot and Giro winner van der Breggen. However, the ease of her victory also raises questions about the new format that was introduced for the first time for La Course.

That format change saw van Vlouten win a comprehensive victory in the first stage of the race, an exciting summit finish on the Col d’Izouard on the same day that the men’s race completed the same feat. Van Vlouten was then virtually transported to the Marseille velodrome along with any rivals who had finished within 5 minutes of her. They were then set off on a time trial at the same time differences that they finished on the Izouard. On paper, it could make for an interesting finish, as van Vlouten is chased down by a larger group of riders for a sprint finish in the velodrome. What transpired was that she easily held off the chase group of Lizzie Deignan, Megan Guarnier and Elise Longho Borghini, who also stayed clear of the rest of the field.

To some extent, I approve of the Tour de France organisers trying out a new format in an attempt to make their race more compelling, but it feels fairly disrespectful to use this new format for the first time at La Course, rather than trying it out and refining it at a smaller event before launching it in France. While La Course is fairly far down the pecking order of women’s bike races, the link to the Tour de France means that this event is always likely to glean more attention from the casual cycling fan, who, if they tuned in this year, won’t have been all that impressed with what they saw.

It’s clear that there is some disillusion around the format within the peloton. In the immediate aftermath of the race, Deignan was diplomatic, but also clear that more work was needed: “The format needs some work – it was good but there is definitely work to be done. I’m open minded to the concept but it needs tidying up.” Van Vlouten herself tweeted after the event: “Winning at d’Izouard was a ‘goosebumps moment’; today nice ‘bonus’ with great crowds. […] Next year stagerace @LaCoursebyTDF?”.

The challenge facing the organisers is that running a stage race has failed previously (the women’s Grande Boucle last took place in 2009, and currently La Route de France is the only major women’s stage race in France, although it did not take place in 2017, and even when it does it has the lowest UCI ranking for a stage race), due to a lack of sponsorship and organisational difficulties. It’s not a simple challenge to overcome, and indeed it feels like only with a major shake-up of the cycling calendar will a solution be found.

From my point of view, the best solution is to try to tie La Course to the men’s Tour de France, effectively ‘piggybacking’ off their extensive infrastructure and support, and hopefully increasing exposure. One suggestion has been to run La Course as a shortened version of Le Tour de France, with the women riding the stage a day ahead of the men. However, this risks additional disruption to local areas that already have to shut down for at least a day and often more while le Tour passes through. Also, while there’s no doubt the women riders are physically capable of riding the route (indeed data from van Vlouten’s climb up the Izoard suggested that she was close to the time of the leading men, although that should be put into context, since the women completed a shorter route without two earlier climbs faced by the men’s race), the length of the stages and the difference in pace between the men and women would likely mean the stages would take too long to complete to be practical. Therefore, I’d suggest a similar approach to that taken on the Izouard, where the women finish in the same place, on the same day, but ride a slightly shortened route and set off earlier, to reduce the risk of the tail-end of the women’s race being caught by the head of the men’s.

The other issue at the moment is that La Course is simply too short, and needs to be turned into a ‘proper’ stage race, ideally with a couple of mountain stages, a couple of sprint stages and a time-trial, in order to turn it into a race worthy of the best female cyclists in the world. In my view it should also incorporate the finish on the Champs-Élysées that is the traditional conclusion of the men’s race. Since the final men’s stage is traditionally ceremonial, bar the final sprint, I could even see an argument for a joint male-female group finish, although it has previously worked to have the women ride the route ahead of the men on the final day. The easiest way for this to work, in my view, is to have the women ride a week-long stage race to coincide with the final week of Le Tour (potentially with an additional stage on the men’s rest day).

However, this solution presents problems around the scheduling, since that would clash with the Giro Rosa, which this year took place during the first week of Le Tour. Leaving only a week’s rest between the finish of the Giro Rosa and the start of La Course would not be enough for the top women to be able to do both, and since the Giro is the premier competition in women’s cycling, that can only be detrimental to the quality of the field at La Course. Therefore, a compromise is needed, and my solution for that would be to move the Giro in the calendar to align more closely with the men’s Giro d’Italia, with the aim of exploiting the same synergies and harnessing the same marketing power that goes alongside the men’s race. There would no doubt be an impact on the other events in the women’s cycling calendar, but I would hope that these hurdles could be overcome, and ultimately something drastic will need to happen if the exposure of women’s cycling is to be improved.

The resistance to promotion of the women’s events tends to be centred around the historical lack of spectator interest, which negatively impacts the sponsorships generated, and therefore causes the event to lose money. However, this always seems to be a vicious circle to me: without a major event, it’s difficult to attract spectator interest (and even more difficult if the organisers choose to tamper with or us experimental formats) and therefore the situation will never improve. The argument missing from the above is the expectation that, by running a women’s event, the Tour de France organisers have a chance to attract viewers to their sport that might otherwise not be interested – young girls who are more interested in watching women race than men – rather than taking away from their existing fanbase. My proposal above is designed to hopefully increase the prestige attached to La Course, while keeping a lid on associated costs, by trying to exploit synergies with the men’s race.

One final word from me, and that is that this is a two-way street. If the organisers were to take this leap of faith, then there would need to be effort put in by the women’s teams and individual cyclists to ‘up their game’ in terms of their approach to the cycling. Whether it is respective of the whole field or not, it surprised me to hear Deignan talk after each of the days racing on this year’s La Course and reveal that she had not done a recon of either course (in Marseille, she was quoted as saying “I wish I had done a recon today – I was not expecting that climb”, and after the Col d’Izoard she said “I surprised myself for sure. I think I overestimated the climb, I had not done a recon and I didn’t find it as hard as the nightmares I had about”). The preparation that goes into the men’s race would need to be mimicked by the women’s race, otherwise they run the risk of being branded hypocrites – complaining that they are not taken seriously, but not putting in the effort themselves.

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