Australian Michael Matthews has just missed out on a podium finish at his maiden Tour of Flanders, won by unfancied Italian Alberto Bettiol.
This week is an important milestone in women’s professional cycling, with the inaugural Women’s Tour starting on Wednesday.
Don’t be confused by the name, this is not a Women’s Tour de France. Rather, it’s the Women’s Tour of Britain, a five-stage race in the East Midlands of England.
Why is it so important?
Well, the organisers (who are also in charge of the men’s Tour of Britain) have gone all out to produce a race of the highest professionalism. As the race director, Mick Bennett puts it in his introduction to the race handbook:
“Welcome to the 2014 Women’s Tour – the first edition of what we hope and believe will be a cycling event that sets new standards for the fair and equal treatment of women cyclists not only in Great Britain but the world.”
It’s a lofty goal, and to its credit the race has gained good support from local sponsors, and pretty good media coverage, which is vitally important for team sponsors.
There’s an hour of TV coverage every day, on free-to-air TV in the UK through ITV (also available online). Australian fans with pay TV can watch the daily highlights package each morning on Eurosport.
The official Twitter account, @thewomenstour, will be providing live updates during the race.
There’s also the all-important prize money, totalling €30,000.
So this race is easily a big enough deal to attract almost all of the big teams in women’s cycling, and almost all of the top riders.
The parcours is a mix of flat stages with a couple of classics-type rollers thrown in. That part of England isn’t particularly hilly, so there’s not a huge amount of climbing, but enough to create selections.
I expect the GC to be decided in Stage 4, a shark-toothed stage with a short climb a few kilometres from the finish in Welwyn Garden City, but the gaps won’t be large.
Marianne Vos will lead her Liv Giant squad, and despite a quiet start to her road season, she should be the hot favourite for overall victory. If you don’t know who Vos is, many consider her the greatest cyclist, male or female, ever.
Vos has won 12 world championships and two Olympic gold medals, on the road, the track and cyclo-cross. She hasn’t finished worse than second in the World Championships road race since 2006. She has won seven cyclo-cross world championships, including this year’s. She’s the Olympic road race champion. She’s won the women’s Giro d’Italia twice, the Flèche Wallonne four times, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and just about everything else.
On the bike, Vos has the attributes of some diabolical combination of Fabian Cancellara, Cadel Evans, Sven Nys and Mark Cavendish. And she’s still only 26 years old.
Among the leading contenders to beat Vos will be Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead, of Boels-Dolmans, who leads the UCI World Cup competition. Her teammate Ellen van Dijk has also been one of the strongest riders this season.
Emma Johansson of Orica-AIS, Linda Villumsen or Giorgia Bronzini of Wiggle-Honda, and Elisa Longo Borghini of Hitec Products will also be dangerous.
As you would expect, there’s a strong Australian contingent: Shara Gillow, Nettie Edmondson and Australian champion Gracie Elvin are riding for Orica-AIS; Chloe Hosking for Hitec Products; Tiffany Cromwell for Specialized-Lululemon; Amy Cure for Lotto-Belisol; and Peta Mullens as a late inclusion for Wiggle-Honda.
However, the representation of British riders is astonishing. Over the last decade British Cycling has had an incredible knack for producing champion track cyclists, and clearly this is transferring to success on the road.
Aside from the well known riders like Armitstead, Emma Pooley, and Laura Trott, there is a Great Britain national development team, and the Matrix-Vulpine squad drawn from the ranks of the UK domestic scene.
The race organisers fully intend to use this event to engage local women in sport, and really drive home the benefits of increased participation.
As Bennetts writes in the race handbook:
“Every stage town is organising a sports festival targeted at attracting young women to engage more widely in sport, healthy living and cycling in particular. These young people will be looking to our race participants as their role models for the future.”
Participation is important, but at the elite level it needs to be about providing opportunities for women to make a living from their sport. Today, only a very few are able to do so, and one race won’t change that.
Nevertheless, the Women’s Tour of Britain is a big step towards greater equality, and it’s important that it’s a sporting as well as financial success, to hold as an example to other race organisers and governing bodies.
Hopefully, it’s a sign that elite female riders are finally being taken seriously and treated properly by race organisers and media partners.
A five-stage race isn’t unprecedented, and it shouldn’t be unusual. There is still a long way to go before women’s professional cycling reaches the status it deserves.
However, that this event is happening at all is reward for many years of hard work from many people – women and men – and I hope it receives the public support it deserves.