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Monday’s 170km Giro Rosa stage is the longest in women’s cycling. Does it represent progress?

While the women's peloton is more than capable of longer distances, some riders say that more exciting racing unfolds on shorter courses. Especially when they're televised.

At 170.3 kilometers, Monday’s fourth stage of the Giro Rosa exceeds the UCI’s recommendation that Women’s WorldTour races be no longer than 160km. We reached out to female pros to get their take on the long stage.

While opinions are varied, all riders agreed that they are looking forward to the long and punishing route.

“I think it’s pretty interesting to have a really long stage in a grand tour,” CCC-Liv’s Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio told VeloNews. “I definitely think that women’s cycling has progressed in such a way that we’re ready for it.”

The progress of women’s professional cycling has been difficult to measure over the years. For every new race that pops up, another falls off the calendar, and the sacrifice of being a full-time pro often comes at the cost of earning a living wage.

The sport’s governing body has been decidedly slow to implement standards to advance the sport for women, and the unholy trinity of poor media coverage, a dearth of racing opportunities, and financial hardship for teams continue to make real progress nominal.

In 2016, when the UCI increased the maximum race length for women’s events from 140 to 160 kilometers, riders were of course appreciative. Still, opinions are varied about whether longer stages and longer races equates to the evolution of the sport.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge of this long stage of the Giro,” Team Sunweb’s Leah Kirchmann told VeloNews, “however, I don’t feel that women’s racing needs longer distances to improve the sport.”

Riders said they know they are physically strong enough to race the full distance of the stage. Since the upper limits of distance were modified, the peloton has proved that it has the depth to handle the extra distance; at last year’s Women’s Tour in the United Kingdom, two of the six stages tipped the scales at nearly 160km. The real question is what longer races add to the overall development of women’s racing.

Often, the excitement and dynamism of women’s racing is attributed to the very fact that events are shorter in length and duration. Canyon-SRAM’s Kasia Niewiadoma was not particularly excited about the addition of a longer stage to this year’s Giro.

“I’m not a big fan of long stages,” Niewiadoma said. “Not because of the fatigue that you feel afterwards but because of the dynamic of the race. From my experience, all of those long stages that I have done were pretty boring and not much action was going on, as everybody waits for the final and tries to save as much energy as possible. Shorter stages provide more excitement because the women are on fire from kilometer zero, and personally I’m a fan of this type of racing.”

Shorter races don’t just breed exciting racing within the peloton, Kirchmann said, but also make it more accessible and interesting to spectators.

“Fans are more inclined to watch the shorter Tour de France stages from start to finish because of the action,” she said. “This is already what every women’s race is like!”

In late August, La Course by Le Tour de France generated buzz along various wavelengths. Normally, the volume is turned up on how short the race is; one day for women isn’t much when set against the backdrop of the 21-day Tour for men. World champion Annemiek van Vleuten thought the course itself was offensive.

“A 96km ‘race’, only two laps with a third cat climb – not really WorldTour level,” van Vleuten wrote on social media when the course was revealed earlier this summer.

Nevertheless, despite its meager one-day spot on the calendar and sub-100k distance, La Course did offer something that is proving to be much more important to the peloton than kilometers: live coverage.

The world was able to watch Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) and Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) sprint to the finish at this year’s La Course. Photo: David Stockman/AFP via Getty Images

Danish rider Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) celebrated the addition of a lengthy fourth stage to the Giro Rosa but was also clear on the real key to advancing the sport of women’s cycling.

“Just this last week, with the GP de Plouay, the European Championships and La Course being televised – and men not doing any interviews – people were able to watch us racing, and I gained, like, 3,000 or 4,000 new followers [on social media], which shows that we need women’s cycling out there in the living rooms, as then people can see that it’s so much fun, and the riders are firing and attacking each other, and it’s not boring,” she said.

Will stage four of the Giro Rosa be exciting to watch? Given what we’ve seen so far in this year’s Giro Rosa, absolutely. However, using the 170km distance as a metric of success for women’s professional cycling as a whole would be shortsighted.

“I think a measure of true progress in women’s cycling would be extensive TV and media coverage and to have teams run at a high professional level,” Kirchmann said.

While a 170km stage in the Giro Rosa might show progress on paper, the more important length is the one that women’s cycling has yet to go.