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Women’s road races are getting longer, but is that good?

Annemiek van Vleuten says that plans to increase the maximum worlds road race distance to 180k 'raises the bar' for women's cycling.

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Women’s world championships and Olympic road races are set to get longer from 2025, but is that a good thing?

Rules published by the UCI following a management committee meeting at the recent world championships in Australia show that an extra 20 kilometers will be added to the minimum and maximum distances for these. Instead of a bracket of 130km to 160km, the rules will allow for races of between 150km to 180km.

Distances for women’s races have long been a big topic of discussion and it is something that has only intensified as the sport has drastically developed over the last 10 years. For recently crowned world road race champion Annemiek van Vleuten, it is not a binary decision but a balancing act between distance and parcours.

“Sometimes it depends on the course thing for me is always important that the organizer designs a route that will give us an interesting race,” Van Vleuten said in a recent press conference ahead of the Tour de Romandie Féminin. “You have the world championships in Qatar, for example, when we had that it could have been longer and it’s flat and fast.

“I think the organizers need to keep in mind that it’s it needs to be hard to win the race. And what I like is that say it can be 180 and that we raised the bar. So sometimes, in women’s cycling, they give us races below 100 kilometers. I think that’s not meeting what we can do as women and also it, it doesn’t put up bar high.”

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Women’s time trials are also set to get officially longer with the distance range growing to 30-40 kilometers. It makes sense given that the last worlds TT to fall under the 30km distance was in 2018, though it will see the Olympic courses lengthened.

TT distances haven’t received the same scrutiny as road races, though there are definitely questions to be had about how long is too long for both women and men. The recent TT at the Wollongong worlds was well received and the peloton seems happy with the slightly longer format.

For road races, there are an array of opinions on where the distance bracket should fall and that was evident with this year’s road race at the world championships. At 164.3km, it was the longest women’s road race on record and busted through the UCI’s own maximum ceiling of 160km — organizers must apply for an exemption to the rule for this to happen.

Keeping the explosiveness

With deeper fields of full-time riders and pressure from the peloton itself, women’s races have got a lot longer in general over the past decade. In the early 2000s, women’s worlds road races tended to be in the range of 120km to 140km and the Bergen worlds in 2017 was the first time one had gone over 150km.

It has not dipped below 140 kilometers since then and will not be allowed to under the 2025 rules. Just four of the 35 editions of the event have been long enough to satisfy these new criteria.

The question of distance is not just about whether or not the riders can do it, that has been shown to be a demonstrable yes. It is about the impact that it will have on the races and the tactics used within them.

One of the attributes of women’s cycling that has attracted many fans is the all-out action that is often seen due to the shorter nature of the courses. Though women’s racing is still exciting to watch, the tactics are already visibly changing with the longer routes.

The Wollongong road race proved to be more of a slow burn — though that can’t entirely be blamed on the length of the course — with much of the action featuring in the final laps.

Poland’s Kasia Niewiadoma was one of the main instigators in the race. While Van Vleuten was more than happy with the distance, Niewiadoma expressed her desire for shorter races to inject more explosivity into it.

“I was hoping that the action would start earlier, so I was surprised that my attack was one of the first ones and it was basically two laps to go,” Niewiadoma said last month. “I think it’s always like this when we have long races. That’s why I’m a big fan of having something like 130 or 140ks, because the race is way more explosive and way more dynamic and we have more attacks going on.

“Anytime it’s over 150, everybody is so cautious. It’s like there’s no racing but just riding and I really hope that the next editions will be more like 140k so that the action is on from early straight away.”

The answer you get in the great distance debate will change from rider to rider, often depending on their attributes.

For now, the rule changes will only apply to elite worlds road races. Women’s WorldTour one-day races will continue to have a maximum ceiling of 160km for the foreseeable future, while stage races are limited to a 160km maximum on a specific stage with the daily average set at 140km.

Exemptions can be granted, as was the case this year for several races, including the 175km stage of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

Van Vleuten believes that days like this do have a place in women’s cycling and pushes the expectations of the sport higher, but she’s not sure if it should get much longer.

“In the Tour de France, I heard some complaints like it was too hard, maybe. But I think also we need to set the bar high because that will also develop women’s cycling more and the women in our peloton know that we have a hard Tour de France and to win it you need to maybe train more or harder or longer,” Van Vleuten said.

“It’s it also starts by designing races that are like challenging. And I think for 180k we can do that. I don’t know if it’s necessary. I think this year I was happy with 170, it was a good distance. I like that they put the bar high for women, and I like that better than we are treated like women are too soft.”