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Flanders Classics broadens support of women’s racing

Women’s classics will finish after men’s races and include uninterrupted TV images.

Flanders Classics, one of cycling’s most powerful race organizers, is doubling down on its bet on women’s racing.

The Belgian group behind such races as the Tour of Flanders and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is bullish on the future of the women’s peloton.

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The group has already carved out a pioneering role in women’s sport over the past several years and is introducing a series of new initiatives in 2021 that will further raise the profile of women’s racing.

“We have felt for a long time to have women’s equality for all of our races,” CEO Tomas van den Spiegel told VeloNews. “All of our spring classics get a women’s race. Six races is quite something.”

New for 2021 will be a women’s edition of Scheldeprijs, meaning that all six of the races in the group’s portfolio — Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Scheldeprijs, Brabantse Pijl, Gent-Wevelgem, and the Tour of Flanders — will include both men’s and women’s events.

Also new, which the group revealed Friday, is that the women’s finale at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday will not only be streamed online but broadcast as well on live TV for the first time.

Women’s races will now finish after the men’s events

Even more important for 2021 is that the TV broadcasts during all of its spring classics will build on what was first tried out last year at Flanders, when the women’s races finished after the men’s race. The results were encouraging, and TV ratings were the highest ever for a women’s race in Belgium.

Under the previous system, the women would loop around similar parts of the course and finish about an hour or two before the men. That would lead to an overlapping of the TV broadcasts between the men’s and women’s races, when the live feed would cut away from the women’s race to the men’s race, and vice versa.

Going into 2021, the plan is that the women’s races will finish about an hour or hour and a half after the men’s race, giving plenty of uninterrupted TV time and a chance to put the media spotlight on the women’s action in the most decisive moments of the race.

“We tried it last year, and we saw the ratings at Flanders were the highest ratings we’ve ever had for a women’s race,” van den Spiegel said in a telephone interview. “Before, the women would arrive before the men, and that did not allow it to have the highest ratings. Now the race will finish after the men’s, and we found that people stayed tuned in and watched the race.”

That adjustment should give the women’s races an even higher profile this spring.

The Flanders Classics group has emerged over the past decade as one of the most innovative and forward-thinking organizers in the sport. Under owner Wouter Vandenhaute, the group has expanded upon the traditional classics and broadened its appeal internationally. The Tour of Flanders typically draws 1 million fans annually, a number the includes many international tourists.

Though COVID-19 and health restrictions mean that races will be contested this year without fans, the races are typically lined with tens of thousands of fans, many of whom pack into VIP tents and special events that Flanders Classics organizes during its races. The group has also widened its offering of gran fondos, gravel races, and expanded its reach into cyclocross.

Flanders Classics also moved quickly to embrace women’s racing, introducing its first edition of Tour of Flanders in 2004. Gent-Wevelgem came online in 2014, and both are now part of the women’s WorldTour.

And with the rollout of the women’s Paris-Roubaix, organized by Tour de France owner ASO, the women’s spring classics calendar is all but equal to the men’s.

“We’ve had that pioneering role as organizers and we want to keep that up,” van den Spiegel said. “We’re happy to see a women’s Paris-Roubaix. Now the men’s spring will look very similar to the women’s spring.”

Flanders Classics remains bullish on the future of women’s racing. There will be more investment in women’s racing in the coming years as part of its “Closing the Gap” plan, and the group is hopeful for a spike in interest from fans and media.

They’ve already noticed strong numbers in their cyclocross women’s races, and a new generation of road racers is invigorating the women’s peloton from within.

Flanders Classics, working with other key stakeholders, hopes that bodes well for the future of women’s racing.

“The final goal should be for women’s races to be stand-alone events that have commercial value and strong TV ratings,” he said. “We see the value in investing in it. The women’s races have never been profitable for us, but see it as our duty to invest and make them grow. If nobody does, then it can never achieve a point when there is value in women’s races.”

The expected rollout of a women’s Tour de France in 2022 will only add heft to the growing momentum behind women’s racing.

“Everyone will benefit from that,” van den Spiegel said. “You see initiatives that are working to make it bigger and bigger. There has been a lot of investment in women’s sport the last couple of years. We hope for it to be a business on its own.”