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Opinion: Expanded Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta fell short of expectations

The race is growing but improvements still need to be made so that the Ceratizit Challenge’s ambitions can be turned into reality.

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The 2022 edition of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta was the longest version of the race so far, and should have been its biggest year yet, but the last five days of racing fell short of the standards that has come to be expected in the Women’s WorldTour.

Featuring five stages this year, the race has come a long way since the one-day Madrid Challenge that began in 2015, seemingly thanks to an organisation who wanted to go beyond a one-stage tag-on race and create an event that stood in its own right.

Also read: Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta: Elisa Balsamo wins final stage as Annemiek Van Vleuten takes overall

Where its Tour de France counterpart La Course stalled, staying as a one-day race for the majority of its eight-year existence, the Ceratizit Challenge seemed to flourish, taking a sustainable approach to growth by adding stages each year since 2018. The extra days have included time trials, team time trials, punchy finishes and hilly excursions in an effort to make a varied parcours. In light of its history, it’s difficult to argue that the organisers of the Ceratizit Challenge don’t care about women’s cycling.

When it was confirmed that the 2022 race would be five stages long, it seemed the natural continuation of the gradually growing race, and a step that would put them on the path to standing on a similar level to the Giro d’Italia Donne and the Tour de France Femmes, both prestigious and well-respected races.

However, the ambition behind the race and the reality of the race seem disconnected. It seems clear that the organizers, Unipublic, have a real commitment to women’s cycling and want to be part of its growth. Expanding the race year on year and trying to add hard and interesting stages doesn’t come across as the behaviour of an organiser who sees the race as an afterthought. And yet, the presentation of the race tells a different story.

The organizers broadcast approximately the last hour of each stage, meeting the UCI’s minimum requirements, and these largely went without issue, bar a lack of reliable timing during the time trial. Not the longest live broadcasts, but they were sufficient, and allowed viewers to see the decisive moments and climbs of stage 2 and 3.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming, though, was the updates the organizers provided before live images began. Instead of the detailed race centre that ASO races – including the men’s Vuelta – enjoy, the official updates came only via a Twitter feed, which often lacked key details like time gaps or kilometres to go, and sometimes went over 20 minutes without updating.

Races can be forgiven for not producing extensive live images of an entire race, an endeavour which can be expensive and practically difficult, but they cannot leave viewers and fans in the dark about what is going on in the race before the obligatory final hour. Exposure and engagement is key for races to grow, and races are now expected to provide more than what the Ceratizit Challenge did this week.

Moreover, the course design itself left a lot to be desired. Two of the race’s four road stages were below the 100km mark, meaning the race fell well short of the stipulated 140km average daily distance for Women’s WorldTour stage races. By comparison, at the Tour de France Femmes, only the opening Champs-Élysées stage was below the 120km mark.

In terms of difficulty, the route was middling, with just one day of multiple – but small – climbs and no peaks over 900m of altitude. Prior to the race, eventual winner Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) made clear her skepticism at the difficulty of the race, and explained her ambivalence towards the so-called Giro-Tour-Vuelta triple, as the latter did not compare with the climbing challenges in Italy and France.

It’s hard to know exactly why the race panned out as it did, but when the enthusiasm of the organizers appears to be a given, it seems money was the limiting factor. In the world of women’s cycling, it’s unfortunately true that some organizations simply lack the desire or commitment to helping the sport grow, but it’s also key to remember that having that desire is not a guarantee of success. Unipublic can have all the will in the world, but without resources, everything – from the coverage to the course to the fanfare around the race – will be smaller. The Ceratizit Challenge exists without the support of many of the main sponsors of the men’s Vuelta, and the 2022 edition highlighted how a lack of financial support can hold a race back.

The race is not done growing yet, and is expected to become a seven-stage ‘La Vuelta Femenina’ in 2023, with a move away from the dates of the men’s race also looking likely. Another tough and varied week-long race will be a positive addition as the women’s sport grows and deepens its pool of talent, but for the women’s Vuelta to be considered a third ‘Grand Tour’, there are improvements that need to be made. The enthusiasm for women’s cycling needs to be backed up by finances and resources to put on a well-designed and well-marketed race, so the Ceratizit Challenge’s ambitions can be turned into a reality.