You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Never was the old adage more evident than in 2020, when the pandemic curtailed the cycling season and we were left bereft and grasping at the memories of 2019 and wondering when it would be back.
As a result of another old adage ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ (along with a side order of poor mental health), when cycling returned, in August of 2020, I stepped up my level of interest from ‘semi-obsessive’ to ‘beyond help.’
I wanted all the cycling. ALL. OF. IT. I got into cyclocross, I devoured mountain biking, and I watched smaller races that I’d never even heard of prior to 2020 except in passing on commentary for bigger races. I also watched quite a bit of women’s racing.
Here comes the confession. Buckle up.
Until this year, I’m embarrassed to say, I had only watched a minimal amount of women’s bike racing. The Olympics. The World Championships. And not a whole lot else.
Why? Well, partially for the same reason as many other men’s cycling fans: access. I didn’t even have GCN prior to 2020, and it didn’t cross my mind to seek it out elsewhere. If I had, I wouldn’t have found much. Coverage of women’s racing has been sketchy at best over the years.
So, it was a whole new world I entered at the beginning of 2021. Getting to know the women’s peloton. The characters. The dynamics. The brilliant but somewhat confusing array of purple jerseys. New races on the calendar both for the riders and for me, as a fan.
When I was able to catch a race, I was instantly drawn in. Here were a bunch of dogged, determined athletes, working their butts off for not all that much money, many of them fitting in their sporting goals around jobs and families. And it was different to men’s racing. I wanted to be IN from day 1. Invested. Take my money, I’m a paid-up, card-carrying member of the women’s cycling supporters club. (Is there one?).
It wasn’t as easy as all that, though. Work, family life, and trying to establish myself as a writer as my various revenue streams changed and shifted meant that when I wrote, I focused on what I did know: men’s racing. But goodness knows, I did my best. And I hereby promise, that 2022 will be the year I become a master of all facets of bike racing. Or at least, work my butt off trying. I’m shedding the ‘L’ plates and becoming a fully licensed fan of ALL cycling.
So, if like me, you are keen to dive into the world of women’s racing, but you’re not sure where to start, allow me in my limited wisdom to give you seven, count them, SEVEN reasons why you absolutely cannot miss the 2022 Women’s World Tour.
1. Bona fide sporting legends
Far from a collection of unknowns trying to find their way on a global stage, women’s cycling is replete with incredibly talented athletes who have achieved a huge amount. However unfamiliar you are with the ins and outs of the women’s side of the sport, you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of some of cycling’s most formidable champions.
Dutch woman Marianne Vos is widely regarded as the GOAT (Greatest of all time) not just in women’s racing, but cycling as a whole. Vos has achieved success across multiple disciplines during her extraordinary long career, including multiple World Championship titles on the track, road and in cyclocross. Alongside her, Annemiek van Vleuten, a highly decorated legend in her own right and absolute machine of a rider. Whilst their compatriot and fellow legend Anna van der Breggen retired this year, the three Dutch queens have inspired a new generation of talent.
And let’s not forget about the queens of the track. German Olympic medallists Lisa Brennauer and Mieke Kröger, Belgian World Champion Lotte Kopecky and all around British track legend Katie Archibald amongst many others all ride on the road too, so you might find there are more familiar faces among the bunch than you expect.
2. Young talent
With the increasing investment in women’s racing, has followed increasing visibility for young, hungry racers with a point to prove. They are ready to take the world by storm and they are going to be with us for years to come, so learn their names.
On the road, a trio of 22-year-old powerhouses, have all been making waves this season: Lorena Wiebes of Team DSM, Chiara Consonni of Valcar-Travel & Service and Emma Norsgaard of Movistar are all names to look out for in 2022.
In cyclocross, Dutch women Fem Van Empel and Puck Pieterse are redefining the discipline, bringing exciting racing every week and beating legends such as Marianne Vos and Lucinda Brand in the process.
Not to be outdone, young Brits Zoe Backstedt and Josie Nelson, and Hungarian Kata Blanka Vas are showing flair and grit both on and off-road, and promise to bring explosive racing in the future to all arenas.
3. Multi disciplinarians
Like their male counterparts, the desire and ability to transcend disciplines is prevalent in the womens’ side of the sport too. Whether it’s a result of improved training and nutrition, or simply a desire to compete all year around and stay fresh, the road/cross combination is working wonders for a great many women in the peloton. It’s arguably even more important on the womens’ side as their calendar presents fewer racing opportunities than the men’s world tour offers, so the women are grasping their chances with both hands.
As a result, the field is packed with talent and they’re evenly matched, leading to exciting racing every week in cyclocross. It’s fair to say that women’s ‘cross is often closer and more and unpredictable than men’s, and is always worth watching. This cross-disciplinary skill improves bike handling, resilience and power over short, hard efforts and adds another dimension to road racing. If you haven’t checked it out yet, now is the time: with 6 races in 8 days over Christmas (covid restrictions permitting) there’s never been a better time to get into ‘cross.
Cycling is unpredictable. Route planning, weather, fitness, nutrition, injuries, crashes, team composition, tactics – myriad reasons why picking a winner to any bike race is a pretty challenging task. In men’s racing though, you generally have a strong sense of who might come out on top in any given scenario.
In the women’s peloton, though, unpredictability is basically a USP. Take this year’s Tokyo Olympic road race as a prime example. Austrian rider Anna Kiesenhofer, not registered to any pro team at the time of the race, took off in the break with three other women, and ended up taking home the greatest prize of all: the gold medal. It was a beautifully calculated ride that, combined with a comedy of errors from the other race favourites, most notably the Dutch team, produced the most unexpected result, and a fairytale story that cycling fans will remember for years to come.
The unpredictability could stem in part from the fact that the sport is growing and with it the desire to stamp a mark on it. This, and the aforementioned fewer opportunities mean that women’s racing is hard-fought and unforgiving. But more than that, women’s physiological differences result in a slightly different style of racing to men. Women think differently and ride differently; the peloton is smaller, teams are smaller, and the distances are less overall. There’s a shedload of attacking, and with no long stage races the women’s peloton just can’t afford boring days. When you’re used to watching men’s racing it’s a refreshing change to see the differences.
5. The Inaugural Tour de France Femmes
If you missed the first ever women’s Paris-Roubaix in October, you missed the women’s world tour peloton making history. It was pure joy to see the faces of the riders on the start line, and at the end as they rode into the famous Roubaix velodrome.
Truth be told, though, we all missed a large proportion of the race, including the decisive move that resulted in Lizzie Deignan’s solo break which eventually brought victory. This is because the broadcasters only saw fit to show the final 50-something kilometres of the race. We are entering a period of increased investment and exposure for the sport and although it’s a start, there’s still a long way to go.
Having said that, in 2022, we will see another first – the inaugural Tour de France Femmes. A proper stage race in France, to replace the annual – and let’s face it, wholly inadequate – La Course by Le Tour one day race. With an interesting and varied parcours the race will form the centre of the women’s calendar and will feature the absolute best riders battling it out for the first ever yellow jersey.
Even better, it occupies its own space on the calendar, following on immediately after the Tour de France (Hommes). So there’s absolutely no excuse not to get involved. It promises to be spectacular, and did I mention it’s the first one EVER. The impact of this cannot be overstated – in years to come when men’s and women’s cycling come closer into line in terms of exposure, this will not seem so out of place. Savour these firsts; remember them. You can tell your kids where you were when [INSERT NAME HERE] won the first Tour de France Femmes ever. That’s no small thing.
6. New sponsors, new teams, new races
The UCI announced on 9th December the expansion of the Women’s World Tour to fourteen teams, almost doubling their current number following the addition or promotion of six teams to World Tour status. Large investors have been attracted to the sport this year as its presence grows and more broadcasters commit to showing women’s races. Big name men’s teams are putting their backing behind women’s teams as well as the established women’s teams continuing to fly the flag for the sport. It can only be a good thing, as the more investment in the sport, the more exposure it will gain and the more traction with broadcasters and events organisers capable of bringing the sport into more homes and to more potential fans.
Questions have been raised over the nature of some of the investors, for example Team UAE Emirates, whose involvement seems in direct conflict with the country’s gender inequalities, and the furore surrounding Deceuninck, their split from QuickStep, and Patrick Lefevre, who has now done an extraordinary u-turn and has committed sponsorship money from a company he co-owns for the NXTG Racing Team.
Is all investment good investment? At this stage, the more talented women who can sustain a living from cycling, and the greater the sport grows, the better. Morally grey sponsors aren’t a new thing to the sport so for now, it will be a case of seeing past the name on the jersey to the riders being afforded a huge opportunity that they might not otherwise have been handed.
Even better news for female riders is the increasing number of race days for the women’s World Tour: from 37 in 2021, to 70 in 2022. This is incredible, exciting growth and while we may see some lag time in the response from broadcasters, it’s fair to say that there will be more women’s cycling available to watch in 2022 than ever before. More of all of this, please!
7. Being a part of somethiing
It’s OK to admit that you don’t know everything about womens’ cycling. Not all that many people do, statistically speaking. Proportionally, for many reasons, there is a wider, more knowledgeable audience for mens’ racing. But that doesn’t make you an outsider. You’re not excluded from the fun. So, do you want in? Because I sure as hell do. Being a part of the growth of a sport is special, and wanting to be involved is enough, for now. So long as we’re willing to admit we don’t know it all, to stay open-minded, and to learn from the experts, it will all lead to a stronger, bigger community of womens’ cycling fans.
Women’s sport is growing and gaining power across the board right now and we are all here for it. So, let’s do what we can: watching. Consuming. Enjoying. Being a part of the conversation. And being a student of bike racing. Isn’t that why we’re all here, after all?
It’s fine not to know your Canyon S/RAMs from your SD Worx for now. You’ll get to know them all in time. You’ll pick a favourite, for completely arbitrary reasons like the colour of their jerseys (er, they’re mostly orangey pink this year), the way they power up a climb, or because one has your Mum’s middle name; whatever reason you have for picking your people. But then you’ll get to know them, the way you know your favourite male riders, and there’s no backing out then: you’re invested.
To return to the opening of this post, you don’ t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. It seems that the phrase ‘use it or lose it’ applies even more in the case of women’s cycling. Broadcasters need to know we want to see these girls race. So don’t miss your opportunity to get involved: switch on, learn about and revel in brilliant sporting endeavour. Now is the time. You’re a part of the future of the sport. And you won’t regret it.