The 2022 season saw women’s cycling close a major chapter in its history with the sport seemingly on an inexorable rise.
This particular part of the story began back in 2016 with the advent of the Women’s WorldTour calendar and concluded this year with the first cycle of Women’s WorldTeam licenses being awarded and the return of the Tour de France Femmes to the calendar.
A decade ago, women’s cycling was often seen as an afterthought and little was being done to develop it, with few riders earning a liveable wage. Thanks to the efforts of passionate campaigners, things began to change dramatically in the early 2010s.
The then UCI president Brian Cookson introduced the Women’s WorldTour in 2016, which replaced the pre-existing World Cup calendar. It was only a minor change, but stage races would now be included in this top tier of events.
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While Cookson was elected on a mandate that included introducing a minimum wage for women, he became reticent to do it following his election over concerns that it could crush teams. Riders would have to wait another four years when Women’s WorldTeam licenses were introduced at the beginning of 2020 — a move that would help to accelerate the development of the sport.
“When it was first pitched that there would be this minimum salary for teams and people said, ‘oh, well, you’re going to kill the sport because we won’t have the funds.’ It did not do that. It actually it absolutely helped,” WorldTour pro Alison Jackson told VeloNews. “It helps athletes be able to focus just on the sport and when you’re single-minded like that, you become better athletes, and then the sport becomes better.
“When you raise the minimum, you also raise the top level too because then you know I should earn this based on merit. Teams have been able to handle it and the races have been able to handle it and our industry has been able to support it. When it becomes a career and you’re not just doing it, because you love it and that you can earn money, you can save for retirement, all of these things, it makes it a great working environment, then you see athletes staying longer.”
Alongside the introduction of a minimum wage, the WorldTeam licenses required squads to provide other benefits such as insurance and maternity leave. It all adds up to making cycling a more realistic long-term career for women than it ever has been.
Jackson believes that the slowing turnover of riders within the bunch is a positive step and will ultimately help the younger riders coming out of the junior ranks by giving them more time to settle in.
“We do have a bunch of athletes in their late 30s that are staying in the sport. There is the trade-off of doing the sport and the risk and everything, but you’re getting paid well for that and you see them being successful,” Jackson said. “It’s really good when we have these senior athletes staying in the sport, because it also gives time for younger athletes to catch up, and there’s such a gap right between junior and U23 to elite levels. We’re just adding more athletes and it’s been a great development of the sport.”
Despite the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the sport, the 2020 season proved to be a major turning point for women’s cycling. As well as the new two-tiered women’s system, the WorldTour received a small overhaul with the top-level races now required to broadcast at least 45 minutes of live coverage per day of racing.
Anyone who has watched women’s cycling for more than a couple of years will recall being forced to follow even the biggest races of the year via posts on social media. That already seems like a lifetime ago as a growing number of races at all levels provide live coverage.
Some races have fallen foul of the rules, like the Giro d’Italia Donne, and have been punished for it.
Over the last three years, the Women’s WorldTour calendar has exploded with the number of race days rising from 34 in 2016 to over 80 in 2013. The dramatic rise shows just what hot property women’s racing has become, but it has left some riders with mixed feelings about the developments.
“This year we really struggled to fill the races with a full team of riders, because we had injury sickness and other stuff. And a lot of other teams had the same problem,” Trek-Segafredo’s Ellen van Dijk told VeloNews.
“In one way, it’s great that the WorldTour is expanding. But we have to see how the teams can manage all the races because you cannot do everything. Every team will have sickness or injuries. Teams cannot be bigger because we’re not men’s teams with 30 riders. I’m not saying it’s not good but also not like oh wow, it’s amazing. There are some ups and downs.”
Women’s cycling is a growing sport and there were always going to be some growing pains involved. Despite the increasing finances involved on the women’s side of the sport now, the size of teams has not been able to keep up with the expansion of the race calendar.
The 2023 season could see teams forced to make some tough decisions to avoid stretching themselves too thin.
“We need to be realistic, and in the future, the team’s needs to get wider. We need more riders in a team because, at the end of the day, we need to split the team in two and do a double calendar. Because otherwise, it’s always the same riders doing the same races, but you can’t do everything,” Elisa Longo Borghini told VeloNews.
Current UCI president David Lappartient has spoken about reworking the calendar to make it work better, but it remains to be seen just how well that would work. While it seems that nearly any race that applies for it will be accepted into the WorldTour, Jackson believes that the UCI needs to be more critical in its selection.
“Basically, every race wants to be a World Tour race and I think they’ve got to make it a little bit more elite where not every race can be accepted,” she said. We need to build those sports, so we need to have some of these .2s and .1s, where the continental teams are pro teams have a chance to race against other pro teams and really develop.
“I don’t think we need to keep adding WorldTour races. I think it’s great when we have a divide of top-level races and mid-level races. And if the smaller races can still have the video coverage, I think they’ll still be watched and it still helps the fan base, but they don’t need to have the WorldTour stamp.”
Looking to the future
When the Women’s WorldTeam licenses were first unveiled back in 2018 — prior to the launch in 2020 — the initial focus was on the opening three seasons. The target was to have a line-up of 15 squads for the 2022 season with five new teams joining each year.
While it didn’t quite work out that way with just 14 teams racing in the top tier this year, there is now a full complement for 2023 with a three-way fight for the final spot. Contrary to what some thought about creating a minimum wage mandate, there is no shortage of teams looking to step up into the WorldTour.
Until now, WorldTeams have been guaranteed a spot in the top 15 for the following season, that will all change in 2023 as all the top teams will have to fight to stay up. Points from the 2022 and 2023 seasons will count toward the overall tally with all 15 places up for grabs.
The move into a relegation and promotion system sees the sport move onto its next phase as its newer structures become more established. There’s still plenty to work on and the introduction of U23 races at the worlds in 2025 is part of this next phase.
With the top of the sport flourishing, the time now comes to work on and develop the right pathways for aspiring riders.
“I think it’s more important that the bottom of the sport is going to be raised now. Because teams like us have every facility and we have nothing else to wish for,” Van Dijk said. “I’m really happy with that, but there are a lot of teams who struggle at the bottom, like smaller teams. The depth of the peloton needs to be increased and then I think that that’s when the sport will really grow more. We shouldn’t look too much at the top level now maybe. Things are already really good already at the top level, but there’s still a lot that can be improved.”