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Commentary: The bar for women’s race TV coverage is higher than ever, ASO fell short at Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Live TV coverage has long been pointed to as one of the key components in developing women's cycling and we must expect more than the minimum from organizers.

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The bar for coverage of women’s racing has risen inexorably in recent years and race organizer ASO fell short of it with its Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes broadcast.

Fans were left anxiously waiting Sunday to find out just how much of the race they’d be able to watch and whether or not the main action would be all but over by the time TV pictures flickered into life.

Fortunately for everyone involved, and helped by a headwind, the live coverage kicked in with 40 kilometers to go, just before the key ascent of the Côte de la Redoute. The action was well underway, but it was far from over and we still had just over an hour of exciting racing.

It’s not good enough, though.

Especially when you consider that well over 100 kilometers of the men’s event was broadcast.

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Flèche Wallonne had a similar situation but the disparity between men and women stood out much more in Sunday’s race. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is one of the biggest races on the calendar, for men and women, and the riders deserve more.

The landscape for women’s cycling and how it is treated by organizers, media, and fans has changed dramatically in recent years. Just five years ago most would have been utterly delighted to have 40km of a women’s bike race broadcast on live television.

Indeed, five years ago, the only way to watch Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Flèche Wallonne live was to get to Belgium and stand on the side of the road. Even then, you’d only catch a fleeting glance of the riders as they blasted past.

As a journalist at the race in 2019 — and at La Flèche Wallonne in 2015 when the women’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège didn’t exist — it was next to impossible to see any of the race at all. Furtive looks at Twitter and craned necks as we stood just beyond the finish line were the only ways to figure out what was going on before you spoke to riders.

Also read: Prize money vs television coverage: What’s more important in the development of women’s cycling?

Astonishingly, even the fixed cameras up the final ascent of the Mur de Huy at La Flèche Wallonne weren’t used to show the finale on the big screens at the finish line, let alone live on television.

This all happened despite rules being introduced in 2019 stating that organizers of Women’s WorldTour races must broadcast at least 45 minutes of live coverage. The French organizer even intimated that it would pull its events from the WorldTour for the 2020 season if it was forced to oblige by the rule.

It took outcry from big-name riders, and fans, to force ASO’s hand in delivering the required coverage. Two years on, it still puts out just above the bare minimum required by the regulations with the extra few minutes likely forced by the desire to at least include the key Côte de la Redoute.

The bare minimum is not enough

In many ways, we should be happy that we’re getting anything at all, but women’s cycling has progressed so much that being thrown minimal morsels will no longer sate fans of the sport.

The contrast is particularly stark when it comes off the back of the Flemish classics where even Brabantse Pijl, a smaller mid-week race, had more than 100 kilometers of live coverage. Among other issues, Flanders Classics has been criticized in the past for its reluctance to put its women’s races on television, but it has really upped its game in the past five years. In addition to providing extensive coverage of its women’s races, some of the biggest have been given primetime slots.

In contrast, the women’s field at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège were having breakfast at around 5:30 a.m. ahead of an 8:30 a.m. start. The decision to do this makes sense for Flèche Wallonne with the finishing circuit making it practically impossible to run two concurrent races.

The same excuse can’t be used for Liège-Bastogne-Liège with its more linear route meaning the races can be run much closer together. While the earlier start works better for some of those on the east of the globe, it puts a serious dent in the viewing figure opportunities in Europe.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Canadian audiences have to be extra dedicated if they hope to watch it live as the women’s race was shown just as east coast viewers were getting ready to take their first sips of morning coffee.

An argument can be made for the fact that men’s races still largely pull in bigger viewing figures and organizers — and broadcasters — will want to pool their money where they get the biggest reward. However, it feels that ASO is shooting itself in both feet with its decision to run a much smaller broadcast and so early during the European day.

Budgets can be tight, it would not have taken much to trim the men’s broadcast by 15-20 minutes to get a longer broadcast for the women’s race. Very little happened in the early part of the men’s TV coverage, while we were thrown straight into the middle of the action of the women’s.

What makes it yet more frustrating is that ASO showed it can deliver a proper women’s race broadcast. It did it just last week at Paris-Roubaix Femmes with, after outcry last year, all of the cobbled sectors on show.

Time and again, proper television coverage has been pinpointed as the biggest factor in developing women’s cycling. We can no longer accept this bare minimum approach if we want to continue to grow the sport.