The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
It took a remarkable individual performance from a time trial champion to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen. A dominant performance combining raw power, skill over the cobbles, and plenty of panache.
Of course, I’m talking about Ellen Van Dijk, who smashed the women’s race apart with a solo attack 27km from the finish, holding off a powerful chasing group to win by a minute. It was a performance that typified all that is good and right about racing in Flanders.
Then in a textbook team performance, Van Dijk’s Boels-Dolmans teammate Lizzie Armitstead defeated Orica-AIS leader Emma Johansson in the sprint for second, to retain her lead in the UCI World Cup series. Australia’s Tiffany Cromwell (Specialized-Lululemon) finished ninth.
The women’s Ronde is one of the few races on the calendar that takes place simultaneously with the men’s race, on the same (albeit shortened) course. The women race over most of the same climbs, the same cobbled sectors, and finish at the same spot, about 90 minutes before the men.
The race itself is a pretty good example of how to improve equality between women’s and men’s races. Even the podium presentation was held at the same time as the men’s – something that Van Dijk was obviously overjoyed with:
Did I really win Flanders today? And am I really going to the podium ceremony together with Cancellera now? Hope no'one will wake me up 😀
— Ellen van Dijk (@ellenvdijk) April 6, 2014
So yes, the Tour of Flanders is a really big deal in women’s cycling. As Australian Champion Gracie Elvin wrote in her race review for Cycling Tips:
The race is special for us not just because of the history of the roads, but because it comes second to none for the crowd.
We don’t get to experience the craziness of the Grand Tours like the men, so for one day of the year we soak up the craziness of the Belgian fans hollering over the fences for any rider in any kit.
Important races in front of huge crowds are exactly what is needed to improve the financial situation and viability of women’s road racing. It’s becoming a cliché, but this was a perfect showcase for women’s racing!
Sadly, the Belgian host broadcaster completely ignored the race, despite the presence of cameras, production staff and broadcast infrastructure.
Fans were crying out for coverage, updates, information. But there was no live television. No online feed. Big problem.
Maybe I’m just cranky from sleep deprivation, but we’ve been beating this drum for a while now, in time with plenty of others, and it was yet another huge missed opportunity, while the demand for televised women’s road racing continues to grow.
By now, the standard response to the lack of TV coverage is some tired variation on, “Yes, but there’s not enough interest and producing a live telecast is expensive,” but the online clamour for information demonstrates how absurd this position is.
During the race, the demand for updates via Twitter was huge. Tweets from the official Ronde account, from teams and their management on the course (Wiggle-Honda boss Rochelle Gilmore @RochelleGilmore was a popular example) were being retweeted around the world.
And let’s not forget that all the television infrastructure and personnel were in place. The extra cost would’ve been minimal. The host broadcaster missed a trick. Someone failed to sniff the winds of change at the UCI, and among the fans.
Eurosport commentator Carlton Kirby was clearly exasperated at the lack of footage, but he did manage to call Van Dijk crossing the line, live from his box at the finish. Sadly there were no live (or near-live) pictures showing Van Dijk’s attack or its result.
Kirby was not the only Eurosport commentator annoyed. His colleague Anthony McCrossan tweeted:
I really fail to understand why host broadcaster can't show the last 200m of the womens race. The cameras are there….
— Anthony McCrossan (@antmccrossan) April 6, 2014
SBS Cycling presenter Mike Tomalaris suggested one possible reason:
Is this a sign of sexism by Belgian TV? Cut to the women's race FFS! #rvv
— Michael Tomalaris (@miketomalaris) April 6, 2014
I find it pretty hard to disagree with Tomo’s assessment. Ignoring the women’s race is blatant sexism. You wouldn’t see it happen in athletics, swimming, or triathlon. Can you imagine if Channel Seven decided not to broadcast the women’s final at the Australian Open?
The UCI did publish a seven-minute online highlights package of the race, but compared to the hours of live streaming and broadcast of the men’s race, this is slim pickings.
So once again we’re left raising our hats to a wonderful performance from a brilliant athlete, or rather a whole peloton of brilliant athletes, and cursing the lack of coverage available. It’s time for the UCI to demand more from its host broadcasters.