Why is the 2017 such an unusual year for women’s road cycling? Part 2 – more unique circumstances

I’m currently writing a mini-series about why 2017 is such an unusual year for women’s road cycling, and why it’s the first year of a new chapter for the sport – whether that turns out to be be positive or negative.  Yesterday I talked about how the 2017 Classics season is really different to 2016 and the previous years.  And I also talked about how calendar has changed, including the increase in race distances, and in Classics races, and how we’ve gone from just four World Cup Classics in eight weeks, two years ago, to eight in eight weeks.

But while the 2017 Classics have been less…. attacking… than in previous years, with surprise wins by sprinters, and a lack of early attacks in some of the races we’d expect to see more early action, it’s not as simple as saying it’s because of the longer races, and more full calendar (though I’m sure that is making a difference), because there are a few more unique circumstances that are impacting on 2017, and I want to talk about some of those.

The weather


It’s been beautiful bike racing weather this Spring – mostly sunny, warm days that making cycling a delight.  This is very different to the terrible rain, howling winds and even snow of previous springs.  We talk about the 2013 spring, which included riders suffering from Frozen Eyeballs, and the Novilon Eurocup being cancelled due to snow, but even without that outlier, we’re used to watching highlights of the Classics with pouring rain, and the wind ripping apart the peloton.  But this year it’s been short sleeves, sunshine, and the occasional light breeze..

This means that in general, the racing this year has been easier – the Classics are attritional anyway, but when it’s bad weather, only the toughest can make it to the end.  And the lack of winds in races like the Ronde van Drenthe means we didn’t get the echelon action it’s famous for, with only the Healthy Ageing Tour showing off true “Dutch style racing”, and even then, it was much less windy than previous years, and Amstel Gold giving us wind in the Classics.

This means that it’s hard to judge whether the longer races and expanded season has impacted on the racing in the ways that some commentators have suggested.  We’d definitely have expected more attacking in races like Drenthe and Gent-Wevelgem, and it’s been surprising that both the Trofeo Binda and the Ronde van Vlaanderen were won by a rider we think of as a sprinter – but part of that is because on the warm, dry, calm days, the Classics riders who’d relish nasty conditions didn’t have their usual advantages.  I think we need to wait until next year before we can judge whether the new calendar formats are changing women’s racing, or if this spring is just an anomaly.

Good and bad luck

Last season Boels-Dolmans had 40 UCI wins, which was incredible.  It was because they had a great line-up racing beautifully, great tactics, but also great luck, with most of their riders feeling good and on form.  This year they say luck’s gone against them, until the last week or so – Anna van der Breggen started the season sick; Lizzie Deignan had to miss Gent Wevelgem through illness; Megan Guarnier had a head injury and had to miss most of the Classics; Kasia Pawlowska has only just come back from injury etc….  but that’s bike racing, it goes around and comes around.

So we can’t write off Boels-Dolmans just yet – and of course, now that they had a fantastic Amstel Gold, with Van der Breggen and Deignan finishing first and second, they can count the Classics as a success, and that’s before we sees what happens in the two other Ardennes.

The post-Olympic effect

While in men’s cycling the Olympic and World Championships aren’t so important, and they work on a yearly cycle that revolves around the Tour de France, and to a lesser extent, the Classics season and other Grand Tours, the impact of the Olympics on the women’s side of the sport is completely out of proportion to the men.  The sport really does work on a four-year cycle, and that is especially important in the post-Olympic year.

As there hasn’t been much women’s racing shown live up to now, the Olympics have been the guaranteed opportunity to be shown all over the world.  Olympic champions in countries like the Netherlands, USA, Italy and Australia are superstars, and sponsors on the women’s side really value the huge audience they get, as there’s always an increase in mainstream attention in the pre-Olympic and Olympic year.  This brings both positive and less-positive aspects to the sport.

The downside of the way sponsorship deals for teams and races run around the Olympic cycle is that some sponsors are less interested in the two years after each Olympics.  The biggest example of this is how Rabobank’s sponsorship of the team Marianne Vos owns, Rabo-liv, ran out at the end of 2016, and the team has been open about how they’ve struggled to find alternative sponsors, with the new iteration, WM3, being a much smaller/weaker team this year.

Races struggle in the post-Olympic year, and traditionally this is the year that we lose races in.  We’ve already seen some important ones disappear this season:  the Tour of Qatar, Route de France and WorldTour Philadelphia Classic, and this is a common pattern, as there’s a better case in the year before and year of the Games.

Finally, a lot of riders base careers around Olympic cycles, with big names choosing to retire after the Games.  At the end of 2016 it was Emma Johansson, former Giro winner Mara Abbott, fan favourite Evelyn Stevens retire, and Olympic ITT Champion Kristin Armstrong retire in a post-Olympic year for an amazing third time.  Women are more likely than men to choose to retire post-Olympic year, as they don’t have the draw of one more TdF – and if they want to have children, they need to take time away from the sport (we’ve seen Olympic and Paralympic champions Kristin Armstrong, Sarah Storey, and this year, Laura Kenny, plan to have children in the post-Olympic year, so if they can have maternity leave and come back with time to plan an Olympic campaign)

Then, some Olympic riders can just struggle in the the post-Olympic year, as they’ve built the previous three years around a campaign that may or may not have been successful – and it is also exhausting.  For riders who put everything to one side for that elusive gold, it can be hard to keep up the effort for races they’ve ridden so many times before, and they can struggle with motivation.  This year’s first ever Ardennes Week has helped with that, to some extent, as they offered a new challenge to the  climbers who targeted Rio – but it could be why some of the big ‘names’ had a less successful time in the first month and a half of the Classics.

The post-Olympic benefits

The Olympics haven’t just brought negatives – far from it! There have also been huge positives.  The Games always bring a wave of new fans, eager to see more racing, because the women’s peloton always step up to their big opportunity.  This year we’ve already had a major increase in live race coverage, which I’m sure is helped by the Olympic boost, as TV stations have seen there’s an audience for women’s cycling, while speaking personally, new-fan energy helps re-envigorate me when it comes to things like the #WeWantRVVLive campaigning, which had a real, positive impact.

For the first time we’ve had live coverage of Strade Bianche, to go with the WorldTour Ronde van Drenthe livestream and the increased Trofeo Alfredo Binda coverage, and for the first time the last hour of the Ronde van Vlaanderen was free-to-view, with English commentary, and the last half an hour or so of Amstel Gold was also live, giving us livestreams from five of the first six WorldTours.  On top of this, the Omloop van het Hageland, and the entire Healthy Ageing Tour stage race were also streamed live, and this can only help the sport – and, ironically, reduce the Olympic effect.  The amount of live women’s race coverage has been slowly increasing over the last few years, but I feel comfortable citing the Olympics for the sudden jump.

For riders who do well at the Games, it can reinvigorate them too.    Elisa Longo Borghini, for example, a rider famous for doubting herself, seems to be racing on a high from her Olympic bronze.    And it’s not even doing well – it’s rumoured Annemiek van Vleuten was planning to retire after Rio, but she’s said that after seeing how well she did, before that terrible crash on the Vista Chinesa descent, has made her wonder what else she can do.

With contracts often ending after the Olympic year, we also get a lot of movement within teams, and a lot of exciting new combinations.  Ellen van Dijk didn’t have the 2016 she’d dreamed of, coming off the Rio ITT course, and having a disappointing Worlds ITT, though she was key to the Dutch road races – and it seems as though she’s loving her new team, Sunweb, as she’s been a Queen-maker in both Lucinda Brand’s win in Het Nieuwsblad, and Coryn Rivera in Binda and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, before having the team work for her Healthy Ageing Tour win.

With some of the big teams shrinking a little – WM3 from budget and Wiggle High5 with key riders retiring – the talent has been spread more evenly around the peloton, which has lead to exciting results.  Undoubtedly, Boels-Dolmans are the super-team of 2017, in terms of stars on their roster, but even they have messed up, as in the controversial Ronde van Vlaanderen tactics, while other teams taking steps up has shown in the results

The post-Olympic Road World Championships, too, offered opportunities for new riders to have chances, as 2016 a very long season, especially for riders with dual track and road ambitions – and we saw 20 year old Amalie Dideriksen take her opportunity to beat firm favourite Kirsten Wild in Doha 2016, with Lotta Lepistö, who was riding Rio for the experience, coming in third in Doha.  Both Dideriksen and Lepistö have gone on to win rounds of the 2017 WorldTour – Dideriksen honouring that rainbow jersey, and Lepistö proving she’s very definitely a contender, and the confidence boost from Worlds will have helped them this year for sure.

With some of the long-established riders gone, there’s room for the up-and-coming riders to make their marks.  The sprinters, especially, all seem enthused by the news the 2020 Tokyo Games will be a sprinters course, and the podiums are skewing to the younger and development riders.

Then, riders like Jolien D’hoore and Annette Edmondson (and Dideriksen too, but Dideriksen was more of an outsider for the Games), focused on the track for Rio but now can give their full attention to the Classics season – with Edmondson taking her biggest road win at the Pajot Hills Classic.  With Track World Champs getting later and later in recent years, and being especially late this year, it’s been harder for riders to combine road and track than it was 5 years ago – but it was great seeing D’hoore take on the cobbles in her home area.

So while the Olympic effect is often seen as negative, there are a lot of impacts that have changed the dynamic of 2017 so far, and may continue to do so.

***

So that’s why I think 2017 is an unusual year – and tomorrow, I’ll be talking about what impact all these changes could have, going forward, and how changes like an increased number of races, and increased TV coverage, could have impacts the UCI needs to worry about, as well as celebrate.  This is the year that women’s cycling will change forever, but whether that’s for better or worse will depend on how the UCI responds.

If you have any questions, comments, or have spotted holes in my maths, please do leave me a comment below, or talk to me about it on twitter.

I’ve been writing about the changes to the women’s cycling calendar, on and off, for the last 6 years:

As always, I’d love to talk to you about all of this, so do leave me a comment below, or on twitter.  I’m funded to spend time doing this kind of thing by my wonderful Patreon supporters.  If you want to join them, for as little as $/£/€ 2 a month, I’d be very grateful – all the information about that is over here.

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