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Colorado Classic women’s race a work in progress

Riders want more challenging courses and broadcast coverage — Colorado Classic organizers agree, but it's not so simple.

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There was a concrete canyon between the men’s and women’s teams during the final two stages of the Colorado Classic. Each group was set up in adjacent parking lots, with Denver’s busy North Broadway dividing the two. The men’s teams were closer to the start/finish, while the women’s teams were on the far side. Fans, riders, and staff could take a bridge over Broadway to get across, but the symbolism was hard to ignore.

The second edition of the Colorado race represented a step forward toward parity between the men and women. In 2017, the women had two days of racing, and this year they had four. Yet riders and organizers saw room for improvement following the 2018 edition, both in terms of the distance and difficulty of the women’s stages, as well as the broadcast coverage of the event.

The only limit to their ambitions — like all things in cycling event promotion — is money.

“We’re committed to improving our ability to do more and make [the race] more,” said Ken Gart, co-chairman of RPM Events, owner of the race. “We want to make the race as equal as we possibly can.”

How short is too short?

The race courses for the third stage were drastically different for the men and women. While the men raced a 161.9km stage through the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range, the women raced a 50-minute criterium around the Velorama concert venue. For reference, the men’s race that single day was longer than the combined four stages of the women’s event.

“A criterium makes for an exciting race but at the same time it kind of feels like a circus show,” said ALP Cycles team director Alison Powers, an ex-pro and multi-time national champion.

Jennifer Valente (Twenty20-Sho-Air) made the most of Saturday’s short, flat criterium, winning stage 3 despite rainy conditions at the start. An Olympic silver medalist on the track in Rio, the stage suited her, but she recognized the appeal of longer stages. Valente, and several of her teammates on the Twenty20-Sho-Air team, said they hoped the Colorado race would continue to add to the women’s race in the future.

“Our race overall it’s very intense and I think it’s really good racing and the women race really aggressively, but we can also handle longer stages,” said Valente. “I think we’re taking advantage of the fact that we’re given four stages and regardless of the length of them we really come out swinging.”

Colorado Classic
Jennifer Valente won stage 3 of the Colorado Classic. Photo: Mark Leffingwell

UnitedHealthcare director Rachel Heal agrees that the expansion to four days of racing was a great improvement in the second year of the Colorado Classic. She said the criterium left her wanting more for the professional women’s peloton. Yet Heal said that bigger isn’t always better for stages. Challenging terrain is often better than a long distance.

“I’m not an advocate of trying to make women’s stages the 200-kilometer stages because I don’t think they’re exciting I don’t think they’re particularly exciting for the men either,” she said.

Like the riders and other directors, Heal said that the women’s field could handle a hilly queen stage and that such a course would improve the race. Heal suggested organizers simply add more laps to the opening circuit race in Vail.

The Colorado Classic women’s race director Sean Petty said he understands the frustration. He too wanted to offer a challenging route for the women’s race.

“We’d love to be able to do a stage like [stage 3] that the men were doing or a portion of it, but it’s another good step in the progression of the women’s race,” he said. “There’s certainly a cost involved and getting the approvals from all the jurisdictions along the way is a real challenge — just to get the men’s race sorted out with all the cities and governments. … Budget’s a big part of it.”

The race receives a limited window to close roads for both the men’s and women’s races, and the race must decide how to structure each event to utilize the closed roads. Petty said that the race received negative feedback in 2017 from Colorado Springs residents when the race’s first stage shut down roads for several hours during a weekday. Putting the women’s field on a similar route through multiple cities and towns would overstep the race’s window for closing down roads.

Adding more laps to the women’s race in Vail would also be difficult, Petty said.

“You have roads and availability for a certain amount of time so you have to manage both races, get both races in a fixed amount of time — sometimes you can’t change that,” he said. “We did shut down Vail for the whole day as it is so there’s only a certain amount of tolerance in a city to do that.”

The live broadcast lifeline

Thirteen-time cyclocross national champion Katie Compton, who raced with the Fearless Femme squad, recognized the race’s limitations when working with local governments. Yet Compton said the race could have provided live online video coverage of the women’s race, as it did for the men’s event. Compton compared the lack of TV coverage to what she sees in the European cyclocross scene, where women’s events are often livestreamed online.

“Just cover the women’s races,” Compton said. “Women’s racing is entertaining — it’s exciting, it’s short, it’s fast. If we get that on TV people will pay attention. It’s worked wonders for ‘cross so why can’t that happen on the road side too?”

Colorado Classic
The Colorado Classic women’s field rounded a corner in Denver on stage 4. Photo: Gruber Images

Cycling fans have become accustomed to finding online livestreams for nearly any race. When that option isn’t available for a race like Colorado Classic, they take to social media to vent. Point S Auto-Nokian tires director Molly Cameron noticed the frustration over the lack of broadcast coverage of the women’s race throughout the four-day event.

“I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on social media because there’s no coverage of the women’s race. They just follow on Tour Tracker — they’re getting frustrated,” Cameron said.

Petty also has ambitions to broadcast the women’s race, and his counterpart Jim Birrell, director of the men’s race, echoed that sentiment. They took a unique approach to the men’s race this year by only offering online streaming instead of television coverage. Overall, they said the strategy was a success and that might buoy support for broadcasting the women’s race.

“It is a goal for us to be able to provide that live broadcast to the women’s race and after consultation with Sean [Petty] and understanding the dynamics with the women’s teams, I think that’s the next step,” Birrell said. “We’re taking a stand-walk-run approach.”

The transition from “walking” to “running” is an expensive one though. Birrell estimated that expanding live broadcast to include women’s racing would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

And what of that physical divide between the men’s and women’s teams in downtown Denver? Cameron felt that was one of the greatest setbacks.

“The biggest thing is better placement for the teams closer to fans and spectators,” Cameron said. Ideally, fans can easily access the teams’ tents to speak with riders, check out bikes — and above all give sponsors the visibility that they are paying for.

“We look across the way and the men’s vans and trailers and RVs are right along the racecourse. It makes everybody feel like second-class citizens,” Cameron added.

Even that change isn’t so simple for a race that is working on a budget and competing for space in an urban environment, Petty explained.

“Could you jam them in there? Perhaps,” he said about the men’s lot, which was closer to the action. “But this way we had a separate spot designated for the women. It’s a short trip [from the venue], and real estate down here is difficult. Parking has been difficult to find, so we were glad to get a separate one for the women.”

The riders, team directors, and Colorado organizers all seem to share the same vision for how this race could best showcase women’s race. For the coming years, it’ll be a matter of finding ways to bridge the chasm between what is ideal and what is actually doable.