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Opinion: Equal distance elite TTs were a win for equality and drama at UCI Road World Championships

The elite men and women rode over the same distance and on the same day for the first time in the history of the world championships.

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WOLLONGONG, Australia (VN) — Last Sunday saw history being made on a few fronts at the UCI Road World Championships.

Not only was the first-ever U23 world time trial champion crowned with Vittoria Guazzini taking gold, but the elite men and women rode over the same course on the same day for the first time in the event’s history.

This year’s route was the longest-ever course provided for women at a world championships and the first opportunity for the women’s field to show what they were capable of on the same playing field as the men. It was a move that was welcomed by many in the women’s peloton.

“I think it’s strange that it hasn’t been like this before, because really 34 kilometers is not a huge challenge for women to undertake, especially with time trialing you pace the course that you’re given,” silver medalist Grace Brown said in her post-race press conference.

“I think it’s a no-brainer that we can do the same distance. Hopefully, it can continue like that. Some of the men may feel like it’s a bit short, but as women, we can probably do longer as well, it’s not a huge challenge.”

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The move to send the two races over the precisely same distance did raise some eyebrows when it was first announced, but the merge didn’t dampen the action on the day. The down-to-the-wire contest in both events delivered a thrilling day of racing that will go down in the cycling annals.

Much like with any time trial route, no matter the distance, the parcours will suit some over others and the shortening in distance perhaps allowed some male riders to shine brighter than they might have over a longer distance. Nevertheless, the riders that we would normally expect to see at the forefront in this kind of event were still there.

It was no easy ride, as was shown in the number of riders that significantly slowed down on the second lap. The distance may not have taxed the men to the fullest of their abilities, but there was still a very valid winner in Tobias Foss.

A developing format

The time trial discipline has been a part of the world championships since 1994, with both the men’s and women’s events added in the same edition of the race. American rider Karen Kurreck won over the 30km course with her time of 38:22, beating Anne Samplonius of Canada by 44 seconds.

With most women’s events being added far later than their male counterparts at the worlds (see the U23 category), that the two events were introduced at the same time was a win for gender equality at that time. The 30km distance for the women, compared to the men’s 42km, was a promising start, too.

Following that, the women saw their time trial distances reduce dramatically with the gulf widening between them and the men. In 2003, in Canada, the women were given a course of just 20.8km — the second shortest in the event’s history — while the men had a route of 48.3km. A couple of years later, it was a similar story in Madrid, Spain, with the women racing on a 21.9km course compared to the 44.1km offered for the men.

Even as recently as 2013 we have seen a stark contrast in what was perceived to be a good distance for the women compared to the men. When Van Dijk won her first world title in 2013, she did it over a distance of 22km. Meanwhile, Tony Martin took his third straight title there on a route of 57.9km.

The gap between those two distances, 35.9km, is longer than the time trial that was raced by both genders in Wollongong on Sunday.

That was perhaps the low point in terms of gender equality in the discipline, and things began to change dramatically the following season in Ponferrada with much longer courses finally being provided for the women.

The 2019 world championships in Yorkshire saw the women race over 30 kilometers for the first time since the inaugural edition in 1994.

While the men can race over longer distances, so too can the women. The courses do not always need to be exactly the same every year, but race routes — time trials or road races — need to be far more even than they have in the past.

This year’s world championships in Wollongong is making a big push for gender equality and while some of it has missed the mark — such as the U23 women’s category being contested within the elite women’s road race — there are some big hits too, and this time trial is one of them.

Another big win for equality is the prize money on offer during this year’s world championships with all genders getting the same prize money for each age category.