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Women’s peloton embraces cobblestone calendar

Top female riders welcome the block of cobbled classics that mimicks the men's schedule and puts their peloton in front of hordes of cycling fans.

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WAREGEM, Belgium (VN) — Crowds stood four-deep along the finish straight in this Flemish town to watch Ellen van Dijk coast in solo to win Wednesday’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen. The clap of helicopter blades echoed through the finish as van Dijk dismounted her bicycle and greeted the television cameras that circled around her.

It was a scene that the best female cyclists don’t often enjoy at UCI 1.1-level races: TV broadcast, aerial coverage, and throngs of media.

“Normally we get more attention from media at these races, and this was broadcasted now which is what we really need,” van Dijk told VeloNews after the finish. “For me, it’s great. The more the better.”

Dwars Door Vlaanderen marked the third of four consecutive cobblestone races on the women’s pro calendar. The block of racing began with Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne on March 28 and includes Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars, and this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.

It’s the second year in a row that these races have fallen in succession, a scheduling move that brings the women’s peloton into Flanders for two weeks of one-day classics. It shines a light on women who excel at racing on the cobblestones.

The women’s peloton then moves on to the hilly classics in the Netherlands and the Ardennes — a schedule that mimics the WorldTour men’s schedule.

Across the peloton, female riders told VeloNews that the new block of cobbles racing represents a major step forward for women’s pro cycling.

“It’s awesome. We used to feel like the sideshow and now we get equal billing,” said Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM). “These one-day races are the ones people know about. To have a calendar that’s almost in-line with the men’s calendar is cool because we get to race these tactical races that have great atmosphere.”

All four races are organized by Belgian company Flanders Classics, and all four women’s events are held alongside existing men’s races. The close proximity between the two races is by design. Organizers hope that the crowds and media that always show up for the men’s races also turn their attention to the women’s events.

The model follows that of the Ardennes classics, where the Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège feature races for both men and women.

“I do believe because of these races our sport is developing and growing,” said Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM). “Those races are well-publicized so we have more attention from media and other people. And it’s also nice to race next to the men’s race.”

The model has produced several hiccups. At the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad race, an early solo breakaway in the woman’s race was neutralized after she caught the men’s peloton, which was sluggishly pedaling into a headwind.

During Dwars Door Vlaanderen, it was the men who were neutralized to allow ambulances to attend to women who had crashed on the course.

All of the women interviewed by VeloNews said the hiccups were acceptable trade-offs for the greater media coverage and fan attention. Larger races in Italy that were held as stand-alone events attracted smaller crowds, some riders said.

“You’re always going to have a risk and challenge with [the model] and I think we can deal with these issues,” Cromwell said. “I like racing in front of a big atmosphere and big crowds more than I like racing in front of a couple of people.”

Riders and staff also pointed to the old format of the women’s Tour of Flanders, which for several years was held the day before the men’s race. In 2010, organizers decided to hold the races on the same day.

Under the old model, few spectators came out the day before to watch.

“When you ask fans to come out the day before, I think the crowds would not be as big as they are now,” said Danny Stam, director of Boels-Dolmans. “If you drive past the Oude Kwaremont on Sunday the scene is amazing, and I think you never got that when we had only women’s racing.”

Codifying this four-race block of cobbled events has had another impact on the women’s peloton. Riders and entire teams now specialize in specific blocks of racing, rather than targeting success at all of the races.

German team WNT-Rotor won Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem with its Dutch sprinter Kristen Wild. Both WNT-Rotor and Trek-Segafredo enter Sunday’s race as favorites to win.

By contrast, teams that target climbing events and stage races may not factor in the finale.

“Ten years ago every girl who won Flanders could also win the Giro,” said Trixi Worrack (Canyon-SRAM), a 20-year veteran of the women’s peloton. “Now you have girls just focusing more on the classics, or on the cobbles or on the Giro. It’s become hard [for] one girl to win in two different types of races.”

“I think this a good thing,” Worrack added.