A Sport transformed? Curtain rises on new era in women's racing

On 1 February, at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Australia, the curtain rose on a new era for the highest level of women’s professional road-racing.

This season the UCI has launched a two-tiered team system, with eight squads racing as UCI Women's WorldTeams and a further 45 at UCI Women's Continental Teams level. The UCI Women’s WorldTeams this season are: Alé BTC Ljubljana (ITA), Canyon //Sram Racing (GER), CCC-Liv (POL), FDJ Nouvelle - Aquitaine Futuroscope (FRA), Mitchelton Scott (AUS), Movistar Team Women (ESP), Team Sunweb (GER) and Trek-Segafredo (USA).

New mandatory live TV coverage of all UCI Women’s WorldTour events will ensure the women’s cycling fanbase worldwide has greater access to races, and will also considerably heighten commercial opportunities. Simultaneously, the introduction of multiple new measures and regulations for the UCI Women’s WorldTeams  - such as a minimum wage, maternity leave, compulsory social insurance,  a mandatory minimum length of sponsorship for the team equal to the number of licence years, increased investment in the fight against doping, and other ethical and financial standards - looks set to contribute to intensifying and safeguarding the transformation of the upper echelons of the sport. Yet more far-reaching measures (such as the progressive increase of the minimum salary and the implementation of the organisational audit) are due to be introduced  by 2023 to reinforce those already coming into effect in 2020.

While some of the consequences of these sweeping changes in women’s professional road racing are already being seen as the 2020 season gets underway, others will only be fully noticeable in the months and years to come.

However, on the purely sporting side, the continuing dominance of one nation - the Netherlands - looks set, at least in the short-term, to remain firmly in place. And one team, Boels Dolmans Cycling Team, could well remain a leading force - although by no means the only one - in the battle for supremacy between different squads. This sporting stability at the top of women’s road racing is in marked contrast to men’s road racing, where a new generation from several different, often previously unheralded, countries began challenging the better-known stars in 2019, and surely will continue to do so in 2020.

Although the Netherlands started the year with a clear lead in the nations’ UCI World Ranking, it would be wrong to see the Dutch as the only major power in women’s cycling by a long chalk. Despite their collective fire-power, Italian Marta Bastianelli (Alé BTC Ljubljana) managed to make things difficult for the Dutch last year, winning the Women’s WorldTour Ronde van Drenthe and the Ronde van Vlaanderen / Tour des Flandres and finishing in the top ten in no less than 12 straight races in the first half of the season. Fourth in the individual UCI World Ranking, the former UCI Road World Champion also claimed the Postnord UCI WWT Vårgårda WestSweden road race and the Italian National Championships. There is every chance she could keep that winning streak going in 2020.

Others who could also break the Dutch domination include Mitchelton Scott’s Amanda Spratt (AUS). Already National Champion in 2020 and a multiple winner of the Santos Tour Down Under - she finished third this year - Spratt’s ability to hit the ground running year after year makes her a serious candidate for victories from the word go. As for another non-Dutch star name, Luxembourg’s Christine Majerus (Boels Dolmans CyclingTeam) claimed one of the toughest and longest stage races on the 2019 calendar, the Boels Ladies Tour. Meanwhile Poland’s Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon // SRAM Racing) has been able to break the Dutch domination in at least one UCI Women’s WorldTour race each season since 2017: last year she was able to do so on the Dutch riders’ home soil, the ‘prime turf’ of the Amstel Gold Race Ladies Edition! Furthermore, it has escaped nobody’s attention that Briton Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo), a former rainbow jersey-holder, is currently firmly on the comeback trail in stage races like the OVO Energy Women’s Tour (Great Britain).

As for whether the Boels Dolmans CyclingTeam can be ousted from its leading position in the teams’ rankings in 2020, riders from the team’s home country will doubtless play a vital role in both maintaining the Dutch squad’s superiority - but also, trying to end it. While Anna van der Breggen is a lynchpin of Boels Dolmans’  success, other top Dutch riders like  Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton Scott), Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv), Lorena Wiebes (ParkHotel Valkenburg), Ellen van Dijk and Lucinda Brand (both Trek-Segafredo) as well as Kirsten Wild (Ceratizit-WNT ProCycling Team) are all hard-fighting members of other, rival, teams. It’s worth remembering that ‘only’ four of the 23 UCI Women’s WorldTour victories went to Boels Dolmans CyclingTeam in 2019, although they did take the Teams Classification victory with 4045 points: a considerable margin of over 1000 points on second-placed Team Sunweb. So, while a clear pre-season favourite, that particular battle for supremacy is by no means settled.

Yet another key sporting question for 2020 will be how the balance of power develops between the UCI Women’s WorldTeams and the UCI Women’s Continental Teams. Nearly all the eight UCI Women’s WorldTeams have strengthened their line-ups, but whether it will be enough to keep the 45 UCI Women’s Continental Teams at bay throughout the year will form a fascinating narrative. What is highly encouraging, in any case, is that the number of teams, globally, continues to increase and so, too, do the numbers of riders in the women's professional peloton - up from 580 in 2019 to 630 in 2020. In Belgium, for example, traditionally considered one of the powerhouses of the sport, the number of women's Continental teams has now risen from three to six;  in Australia there is a new Continental squad, Roxsolt Attaquer and in Bahrain, a women's team, VIB – Natural Greatness is registering  for the first time in the UCI Women’s Continental Team category.

The effects of the UCI’s changes in the overall structure of the sport and its ongoing efforts to develop women’s road racing in general will also be keenly followed by fans. One change that is widely viewed as very important for increased media awareness of women’s road racing is the introduction of the UCI ProSeries, a new category fitting in between the UCI Women’s WorldTour and the Class 1 and 2 events.

Comprising ten races of the 113 UCI-classed events on the 2020 International Women’s Calendar, some of the UCI ProSeries events can be classified as historic, like the Internationale Lotto Thüringen Ladies Tour in Germany in May, which has been running since 1988. Other UCI ProSeries events have a shorter history but are equally well-established like the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under in Australia in January (won by Trek-Segafredo’s Ruth Winder). Yet others, like the Donostia San Sebastian Emakumeen Klasikoa, only started last season and, have already reached this category.  But no matter their past, in the present, the UCI ProSeries races, like those in the UCI Women’s WorldTour, all have one thing in common: as a race in one of the two highest competitive leagues they are both required, as of this year, to respect improved organisational standards, and, equally critically, to guarantee significant improvements in television production of their events.

Numerically, the field of battle in the UCI Women’s WorldTour itself has altered, but only slightly, given that the number of events has dropped from 23 to 21. But there will be some notable absences from the 2020 schedule. The cancellation of the Amgen Tour of California Women’s Race empowered with SRAM removes the one North American UCI Women’s WorldTour event from the international calendar. Meanwhile, the WWT Emakumeen XXXII.Bira in Spain, formerly the oldest stage race in women’s cycling, is also regrettably no longer taking place. Furthermore, the Prudential RideLondon Classique is registered as UCI ProSeries this season. On the plus side, the total of 21 races in this leading series remains both relatively steady, and certainly higher than when the UCI Women's WorldTour was launched with 17 events back in 2016. Furthermore, the ‘promotion’ of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race to Women’s UCI WorldTour status introduces a first Oceania-based event on that calendar.  It also means the series starts in February, considerably earlier than in previous years, again, likely prolonging the interest of media and fans.

Nor is it all bad news out of the Americas for women's cycling despite the loss of the Amgen Tour of California Women's Race empowered with SRAM. Four USA and two new Canadian UCI Women's Continental Teams have registered for 2020, and when combined with teams from Mexico,  Brazil and the UCI Women’s WorldTeam Trek-Segafredo, brings the new total of squads in the Americas to nine - a fifth of the total number of UCI Women’s Teams registered with the UCI.,

At the same time road racing is on the rise in other parts of the world, most notably with the return of stage racing to the Middle East thanks to the new Dubai Women’s Tour, a four-day event in February. The steady increase of parallel races in women’s cycling alongside equivalent men’s events shows no sign of slowing down, either. Just one example is the Donostia San Sebastian Emakumeen Klasikoa. The first edition of the women’s race preceded the 39th version of the men’s Klasikoa last year and that is set to take place in 2020 as part of the UCI ProSeries.

As for who could dominate these races, while the Dutch riders are widely tipped as the leading contenders across the board it has to be remembered their high-performing status in women’s cycling is anything but new. As the most prolifically successful racer of her era – including winning the UCI WWT general classification in 2019 -, Marianne Vos’ pre-2020 total tally of 228 victories began way back in stage five of the Gracia-Orlová race in 2006. Vos’ total far outstrips that of second-placed Kirsten Wild with 109 victories, Annemiek van Vleuten with 67, former time trial UCI World Champion Ellen van Dijk (with 54) and Anna van der Breggen (44).

Even by their own impressively high standards, 2019 was a vintage year for the Netherlands’ racers, with 13 of the 23 UCI Women’s WorldTour races won by their riders. The second most successful nation was Italy, with a comparatively low (but still impressive) four victories, while no other country captured more than one win.

Meanwhile, the biggest individual breakout name is from the Netherlands. Dutchwoman Lorena Wiebes (ParkHotel Valkenburg) may be only 20 but she is already racking up one bunch sprint win after another.  Wiebes got the victory ball rolling in 2019 with the Danilth Nokere Koerse WE ( 1.Pro classed event in 2020) last March, then at UCI Women’s WorldTour level she claimed three stages and the overall of the Tour of Chongming Island UCI Women’s WorldTour, the Prudential RideLondon Classique, the opening stage of the Ladies Tour of Norway  and the first two stages of the Boels Ladies Tour. Other highlights amongst her whopping total of 15 victories in 2019 included the Dutch national road race title and road race victory at the European Games. She also, unsurprisingly, was the winner of the UCI Women's WorldTour Best Young Rider Classification.

Whether Wiebes’ high-speed campaign to become her sport’s top sprinter will continue in such brilliant fashion will surely be one major story of women’s cycling in 2020. But the battles for victory in the General Classification of hillier stage races and tougher one-day races, where Wiebes has yet to make a breakthrough, look equally certain to remain dominated, although by no means totally controlled, by other Dutch riders.

Annemiek van Vleuten’s commanding solo performance in the 2019 UCI Road World Championships, with a lone break of more than 100 kilometres, was a devastating testament to her ongoing ability, at 37, to crush her rivals in the hilly one-day events. It also showed that any concerns about Van Vleuten’s bad knee injury caused by a crash in the 2018 UCI Road World Championships, which saw her in a leg-brace for the whole of October that year, are definitively behind her. Van Vleuten’s ability to win - in 2019 alone -  on terrain as tough and varied as the dusty tracks of the Strade Bianche in Tuscany (Italy),  the punishing climbs of  Liège-Bastogne-Liège in Belgium in April or the uphill time trial to Teglio in the ten-day Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile in July, makes it clear time and again that the Mitchelton Scott racer is no way losing her versatility when it comes to going for victories.

Interestingly Van Vleuten’s biggest goals in 2020 will be as much inside the UCI Women’s WorldTour as outside it. There is not only an appealingly hilly UCI Road World Championships for her to tackle to try to repeat her rainbow jersey title in September, but she also has considerable unfinished business at the Olympic Games road race, an event in which she crashed badly in 2016 in Rio (Brazil).

However, with such a wealth of talent in the Netherlands’ squad, establishing who will lead the Dutch team in Tokyo can only be decided by Van Vleuten and her compatriots when they do battle in top-level races like the Spring Classics and the Giro Rosa. All of which, of course, makes for yet another fascinating strand in the multiple narratives of women’s professional road racing this season, particularly when two of the other main competitors for leadership in the Dutch squad, Vos and Van der Breggen, already have Olympic road race gold medals in their palmares.

Meanwhile, Boels Dolmans CyclingTeam looks set to remain one of the dominating forces of women’s cycling. In 2019, victories in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (this year won by Mitchelton-Scott’s Van Vleuten), La Flèche Wallonne Féminine, the Amgen Tour of California and GP de Plouay as well as stages of the WWT Emakumeen XXXII.Bira, OVO Energy Women’s Tour and the Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile combined to maintain the squad in the lead of the UCI World Ranking for a fourth consecutive season and to finish the best team of the 2019 UCI Women’s WorldTour. The team have retained this title since the creation of the series in 2016. Thus although Boels Dolman’s total number of victories may have dropped, from 38 in 2016 to 18 in 2019, the calibre of these triumphs last season cannot be overlooked.

In the team’s history, Boels Dolmans has now taken 30 UCI Women’s WorldTour wins, 20 more than their closest rival, Mitchelton Scott.  So there surely is a good chance that - now with renewed sponsorship and set to become SD Worx Cycling Team from next January - the squad, currently ranked a UCI Women’s Continental team, will be among those teams looking to obtain UCI Women’s WorldTeam status in 2021.

However, that question is one for the following season. Meanwhile in 2020, women’s professional cycling is moving into a new era, one designed to continue improving racers’ working conditions and the competitions themselves at the highest level. On the sporting front, the competition between both Dutch riders themselves and those from further afield will be as intriguing, unpredictable and hard-fought as ever before. In fact, 2020 has all the ingredients for being a landmark year for professional women’s cycling - and there is every chance of this being a landmark decade for women’s cycling as well.