La Course: A race fit for the best women racers in the world?
When you first heard of the 2017 La Course by Le Tour women’s race on the col d’Izoard, what did you think?
Were you disappointed, excited, nonplussed, never heard of it? If you are tuned into the general cycling news media or connected on Twitter, you probably saw many expressions of disappointment. Wasn’t it supposed to be a three-day stage race? Why has it been moved from the high-visibility of the Champs-Elysées? Isn’t 67 kilometres pathetically short for professionals to race?
All legitimate questions, of course, but the deeper issue stems from a pervasive resentment that women’s cycling gets short shrift in a sport where even the men’s side has trouble making ends meet. Sponsorship, visibility, long-term viability are all issues faced by all professional cycling teams. It just always seems the women have it worse. Everyone agrees that shouldn’t be the case, but no one can decide on what to do about it.
“At the ASO, we are always trying to find new ways to promote women’s cycling, as well as men’s cycling,” Jean-Marc Marino, the race director for La Course, told me after he returned from attending the recent women’s Tour of California. “For us, women and men are the same. They are professionals, they are cycling, and we want to provide them with the best organisation.”
Inevitably, the issue always comes down to money. “The problem is that it is very hard to find money for women’s cycling,” Marino said. Consequently, we continually find that the women’s races are forced to piggy-back onto the men’s events, at least to guarantee there will be spectators on the street and even maybe a few live images broadcasted, even if it is only a fixed camera at the finish line, or a few shots from a pinch point on a climb.
That’s why, from a visibility point of view, having La Course take place on the Champs was perfect, unless of course you happen to be a climber in the women’s peloton. “For us, doing the race on the Champs-Elysées was really nice and everything, but we were thinking that we were just promoting the women sprinters,” Marino explained.
“You know, 70 per cent of the people in France who watch the Tour don’t know about racing. So they will see the women only sprinting on the Champs-Elysées and think, oh, they must not be able to do more. So we want to do something more for them, the women. Okay, it’s the Izoard this year.”
But a niggling question remains why there is the assumption no one will watch women race without being attached to the men’s versions. It’s an issue that the cool and calm Inga Thompson, cycling royalty in America, can get very fiery talking about.
“The complaint you always hear is ‘oh women’s racing is so boring,’ but how can you tell me that the last Olympics was boring or the last La Course finish wasn’t exciting? That was a great race. It’s just about getting more coverage for the women.”
So why does it seem so unrealistic to expect that we could have a Route de France Féminine like Thompson, Longo, Canins and all the great women from the 1980s and 1990s? Marino inevitably brings us back down to earth.
“It would be great to have that. But the ASO is not just cycling, and it’s difficult to tell the boss that we will lose money with an event. We organise events for women’s cycling because we love it, but we also have to show our bosses that we can make money from it, because that is part of the deal too. It would be awesome to have a women’s Tour de France. It would be amazing, and I know my big boss would love it. But the problem is to find the sponsor, the partners, the cities, it would cost a lot, a lot, a lot of money.”
This is an issue with men’s races as well, which manifests itself in losing one or two cherished races every year: the Tour of the Med and the Critérium International are just two recent, painful losses on the men’s side. If beautiful races with deep heritage like that struggle in today’s economic climate, what chance do the women have?
“To be honest I think for the past five years, the women’s cycling has been growing every year. All the teams are better, well organised, they are very professional. We have seen some really beautiful races. You see all the WorldTour races are wonderful to watch. I did the Amgen Tour of California this year, oh, we enjoyed that so much. It was a beautiful race, well organised. Also the teams are more professional, on some points, they are more professional than the men,” Marino said.
“I’ve done four women’s races this year [and they have] good mechanics, good sports directors, physios, just like the men. It might be just a few years, there will be more races, more riders, stronger pelotons. I think women’s cycling will increase, I’m not scared for women’s cycling.”
There is little doubt that watching the race over the Izoard will be spectacular, and it will be a treat to watch. What about to ride?
“It’s nice that they’re introducing Col d’Izoard. I’m really excited and I am looking forward to racing on the mountain,” said Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, racer on Cervélo-Bigla Pro Cycling, and the current leader of the Youth Classification of the Women’s WorldTour.
“It’s rare to have uphill finishing in women’s cycling so this is great. We want to be taken more seriously because there seems to be a very cautious approach to putting on women’s races. Sometimes it seems organisers aren’t sure if we can handle the tough routes and longer distances.”
Well, what about that 67 kilometres that the women will race on July 20th? It’s far less than what the participants of l’Etape de Tour will get to ride the week before. Isn’t that a step backwards in a way?
“I think the La Course will be pretty hard this year. So it’s shorter but really hard,” voice of reason Trixi Worrack from the Canyon-Sram team said before the announcement of the addition of the Marseille pursuit stage that will follow two days after the Izoard stage. “For something like Drenthe, we raced 150km but it was windy and flatter, so I think 150 is okay then. We can handle that easy.”
So if the actual women who will be racing the stage up the Izoard are not unhappy about the course, and even think the length is okay if not amazing, why are the rest of us getting all uppity?
ASO’s Jean-Marc Marino, affable in that essentially French way, and especially enthusiastic about his work, explained that he wasn’t even aware that there were rumours that the 2017 La Course could be a three-stage event. And he even has an undeniably reasonable explanation for the accusation that the women’s race is way too short: “We have to do the race on the same day as the men. It’s too expensive otherwise, and the women wouldn’t have the benefit of the crowds that will already gather. If we run it on a different day, like l’Etape du Tour, then it wouldn’t be public and that wouldn’t really be promoting women’s cycling.”
Promoting women’s cycling and putting on a great show that will fire up the crowds as much as the people watching at home is really what Marino seems to want to accomplish.
Enter the new and potentially amazing stage 2 of La Course, which will take place two days after the Izoard stage with a start and finish in the Orange Velodrome.
“They need to have the same crowds as the men. The Izoard stage will be huge because the finish is something new, and it will be new for the men too,” Marino explained. “And since we also have the the Orange Velodrome in Marseille and we know we will have a big show there, why not do something for the women also during that time trial stage. That’s how we started.”
But where does this funky pursuit-style format come from? “There are fewer people who like to watch time trials on TV, so we wanted to find a new way to promote the women with a new concept,” Marino said. Since things needed to be arranged with the city of Marseille throughout the winter, ASO was able to announce this second leg only this past spring.
The format certainly sounds interesting, with anyone within five minutes of the winner at the top of the Izoard eligible for the Marseille stage two days later, where they will be set off one-by-one spaced by the time differences at the top of the climb. Confused? Well, it is an interesting concept that we will likely be able to rate only after the race is over, similar to the recent Hammer Series for the men, which received warm reviews to many people’s surprise.
The format certainly is throwing a little extra pepper in the salad, and it will be interesting to see how the race unfolds as a result. “The Tour de France is such a big platform, it’s a great opportunity for everyone to showcase their talent. I think it’s good to have the other arrangement this year,” Cervelo-Bigla rider Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig explained. “It’s a pity that so few riders are allowed to ride the pursuit, because there might be really good riders further down on Col d’Izoard that would be suited for the pursuit, but it is great to see them trying different formats. I think it’s good to try something new and it’s nice that it’s not only one stage, because in time we definitely want a stage race, one that will suit all-round riders.”
Marino emphasised this is a sort of exciting experiment: “Maybe we will be wrong. It might not work out well, or it could be amazing, that’s the challenge.”
Indeed, pairing these two events, which likely play to the strengths of different types of riders, will force the teams to rethink their tactics. “The teams could be very clever; if one rider on the team is a good sprinter, but can also climb reasonably well, then the team-mates could work to help her stay close enough on the climb at the finish so that she can race the Marseille event,” said Marino.
“It could be a really cool race to watch. I would love to do it myself!”
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