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You can’t compare apples and oranges.
Women’s cycling has been long been fighting for equality with their male counterparts. From wages to support to television coverage, the gap between men’s and women’s racing has been gradually closing in recent seasons.
We’re now able to watch more racing live than ever before, the salaries of top riders are growing and a whole host of men’s race organizers and teams have added a women’s wing to their operations.
However, equality doesn’t mean that everything must be homogenized and former world champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak says that female riders mustn’t just be treated as “little men.”
“You cannot compare with men’s cycling, I think we need to focus on our sport,” van den Broek-Blaak told VeloNews. “It’s not the men’s because we are not small men. This is something I always say, not everything needs to be like the men’s. We are women, and we do it this way and it’s a different sport.”
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At 32, van den Broek-Blaak is one of the many older riders in the peloton who has seen the huge changes that have come over the last decade. Indeed, she recently extended her contract with SD Worx due to a recently gained benefit in women’s contracts.
Maternity leave now means that she won’t have to end her racing career to start a family. She also has the financial support to stay racing longer, with the added possibility of working as a sports director when she does finally retire.
There’s definitely still a long way to go in closing the gap to men’s cycling, in terms of the opportunities comparative male and female riders get, but van den Broek-Blaak is awed by the changes she’s seen.
“Sometimes we are complaining because we need better prize money, we made that better, more races, we need better this and that and everything. But then if I look back, from when I started till now, there are such big changes,” she said. “Women’s cycling is just more professional. On our team, there’s no one who is also, and it sounds strange, working because when I started there were girls who were in professional teams, working and riding and now you don’t see this anymore.
“Also the way of training the way of living the nutrition [has changed]. Men’s cycling has always been a step ahead, but now you can see we train the same. Okay, we do it as a woman, but in the same way. It’s professional.”
Balancing growth with tradition
With the growth of women’s cycling, there have been a plethora of major new races added to the women’s calendar. This year sees the introduction of the Tour de France Femmes, which follows the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes last season.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen women’s editions of many long-standing men’s events, such as Strade Bianche, Amstel Gold Race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Gent-Wevelgem, and many more. However, there are some well-established women’s races that hold plenty of prestige on their own, such as the Giro d’Italia Donne, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, the Thüringen Ladies Tour, the Holland Ladies Tour, and the Open de Suède Vårgårda.
There’s a risk that with the influx of races being duplicated from the men’s calendar these women’s events could get squeezed out by bigger organizers. The teams are also feeling the strain of a building race calendar.
“I’m a bit scared for this, to be honest,” van den Broek-Blaak said. “There are so many races coming, which is good, but I think we also need to make sure we don’t grow too quickly. The peloton is not that big and you saw by the end of last year how many riders there were starting at Ronde van Drenthe. I think not one single team was complete, except for us, I think. It was the end of the season and there were so many races, and it was a difficult year.
“I really hope they will stay there [the women’s only races]. Women’s cycling is growing and every race wants a women’s race, but we don’t have enough riders.”
Structural changes, such as the introduction of a Women’s WorldTour, are needed to help push the sport forward. However, van den Broek-Blaak says that growing the calendar will only work so much and aspects such as increased television coverage to promote the sport are hugely important in not only making it more financially lucrative but also attracting more riders to it.
“I think the goal must be that we get more media attention and lots of races on the TV. Then young riders think ‘ah this is a nice sport’ and then the peloton is growing. When the peloton is growing, we are also able to race more,” she said. “Also, when you see races on TV, then more money is coming. I think it’s still the same as in the beginning, the media attention is more important than keeping the calendar growing and growing and growing and the prize money going up. By the end, it must be the goal, but slowly.”
Is women’s cycling ready to add a third tier?
The 2022 season marks the third year of the Women’s WorldTeam classification after it was introduced for the 2020 season. For many years, women’s racing operated on a single-tier basis with overall ranking deciding who was awarded an automatic race invite.
With a WorldTeam license, each team has a number of benefits and obligations that it must adhere to. There’s the prestige of it and the automatic entry into all WorldTour events, but there’s also the requirement to pay a minimum salary and provide benefits such as health insurance, maternity leave, and a pension plan — a requirement that was added just for the 2022 season.
Unlike in men’s racing, there is not a middle ProTeam tier and squads that are not one of the 14 that currently make up the WorldTour do not have to follow these minimum requirements. With the WorldTeam licenses almost all gone — there’s just one more place available — there may soon become a time when there needs to be that middle tier, but van den Broek-Blaak believes more top-level riders are needed before that can happen.
“I think we are only ready when we have more riders. Because if you see now, in the whole peloton, it’s not so big and we cannot do a double program,” she said. “We also need double staff then the cars and everything, but also double riders and they are not there. It’s hard to find riders.
“If you focus also on developing and showing how interesting the sport is for the younger riders, then also the peloton keeps growing and then we also are ready for that kind of steps. But for now, I think is not so big the bunch, you always see the same girls.”