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Preview: Women’s cycling’s biggest year ever

  • By Christina Bonnington
  • Published Mar. 2, 2016
  • Updated Apr. 27, 2016 at 10:04 AM EDT
Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com (File).

Heading into 2015, Marianne Vos was the public face of professional women’s cycling — a five-time winner of the UCI Women’s Road World Cup, three-time winner of the Giro Rosa, three-time UCI Road World champion, and 2012 Olympic gold medalist. And that’s just a small sampling of her road victories. She also had six world championships in cyclocross and two on the track, and could even hold her own on a mountain bike. She’s been described, accurately, as the greatest ever.

But in late 2014, Vos’s nonstop training regimen caught up to her. A hamstring injury lingered into the 2015 road season, and then she broke a rib in a mountain biking crash. After that, lung problems cropped up, forcing the biggest name in women’s cycling to take the rest of the season to recover.

Vos brought a level of star power to women’s races that no other name had yet achieved; you heard about the races she won. Without our generation’s Eddy Merckx, would women’s cycling languish? Would the quality of racing be somehow diminished?

Hardly.

Vos’ Rabobank – Liv teammate Pauline Ferrand-Prévot turned out to be just as much of a multidisciplinary wunderkind, becoming the first person ever to hold the rainbow stripes of world champion in road, cyclocross, and mountain biking simultaneously. A thrilling rivalry emerged between Rabo – Liv and Boels – Dolmans, and Lizzie Armitstead (Boels – Dolmans) capped a meteoric season with victory at the 2015 UCI World Road Championships. Emerging American names like Evelyn Stevens and Megan Guarnier (both Boels) stamped their mark on major single-day and stage races, as did Wiggle High5’s Jolien D’Hoore and Rabo-Liv’s Anna van der Breggen.

“I think the depth of our field is at an all-time high and that adding Marianne back into the mix will only make the racing better and more exciting,” says American pro Taylor Wiles (Orica – AIS).

Now, Vos returns to the road not as the face of women’s cycling, but as one of many legitimate stars in a sport embarking on one of its biggest seasons ever, built around a new, more professional Women’s WorldTour system and bolstered by the Olympics. As Lizzie Armitstead said in the press conference following her triumphant ride at worlds in September, when the questions inevitably turned to a rider who wasn’t in the race: “No disrespect to Marianne Vos; she’s the greatest cyclist of our time. But maybe the media needs to catch up a little bit. It wasn’t just about Marianne Vos being missing today. The rest of women’s cycling has made huge improvements.

“Maybe some research needs to be done on my other rivals. There’s more than just Marianne to beat.”

Female riders don’t enjoy the same clear and established path to the pro ranks as their male counterparts, who have robust junior and U23 programs. “On the men’s side, you have several layers of development — your elite amateur squads, division 3 teams, division 2 teams, and division 1 teams,” says Ed Beamon, general manager for UCI women’s team Tibco – SVB. “It’s pretty infrequent that you have a division 1 against a division 3 team. The women’s field is definitely more compact and less elaborate. You’re more inclined to see that full gamut, from elite amateurs to professionals ending up in the same bunch.”

Without the strong developmental programs — and budgets — that prepare young male racers for careers in cycling (particularly in Europe), women have a tougher time getting into the highest levels of the sport. Some, like Vos, do start young, eventually landing professional gigs after placing well at junior or U23 championship events. But historically there have been very few such events for women. Instead, many discover cycling in their 20s, following years dedicated to another sport such as triathlon, swimming, or crew. (American Evelyn Stevens, a former collegiate tennis player, is one of the most notable examples who’ve followed this path.)

However, while lack of professional development is a serious issue, it’s just one of many problems that cycling authorities and veterans of the women’s peloton are taking steps to address.

“It’s an entire ecosystem that grows the sport, and all elements of that need to grow,” says USA Cycling CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall. “You need star, charismatic athletes and great results, but you also need more ways for people to get out on the bike — grassroots development programs, ways to identify athletes, a domestic scene. If there’s a gap in any one of those elements, the sport suffers.”

At the professional level, funding is a major issue. Teams and riders need sponsors in order to finance their pursuits, but sponsors need eyes in order to make their investments worthwhile. Riders, teams, and sponsors alike want people not just to be aware of women’s cycling but to become fans. Almost anyone on the street has heard of the Tour de France, and could probably list a winner or two. But what about its single-day women’s companion, La Course, or one of the largest women’s UCI stage races, the Giro Rosa?

Cycling’s governing body, the Union Cyclist Internationale (UCI), is finally stepping in to help address funding and exposure.

“Women’s cycling needs to be more robust financially,” UCI president Brian Cookson says. “We’re working with teams to address the existing gap between top and bottom teams. We’re upgrading teams’ structure (governance, sponsoring, and training) with the aim of boosting the overall professionalism of the sport.” In 2015, the UCI also established a Women’s Teams Working Group to help set standards for women’s teams.

And, of course, there’s the new Women’s WorldTour. The UCI notably upped the requirements for media coverage of these events, a 35-day calendar of races including Saturday’s Strade Bianche, the Aviva Women’s Tour of Britain, and La Course. At least eight events will include live television coverage, and all events require a same day post-race highlights package. This should help the women’s peloton reach a wider audience and give those fans a deeper understanding of the teams and characters in each race.

“It’s no fun watching a sport if all you know is sunglasses and helmets,” Armitstead says. “If you take an interest in the riders and team dynamics it becomes a whole lot more entertaining.”

There are still problems with the WorldTour, though. Robin Farina, president of the Women’s Cycling Association, an organization that promotes and lobbies for equal rights for female cyclists, thinks that while the WorldTour is a positive boost, it arrives lacking some fundamentals. For example, the series will include the world’s top 20 female cycling teams. But, as of now, there are still no minimum wage requirements for professional women cyclists and no minimum team budgets to guarantee basic standards for riders on those teams.

Of course, discussions of pro races and team budgets are moot without ways to get more women riding bikes. To address that, Vos recently partnered with former Dutch racer Marit Huisman on a project called Strongher, a platform that launched in October with the goal of encouraging more women’s participation in cycling. Through the Strongher app, women can chat with other riders in their area, check out upcoming events, and get inspired by professional athletes who serve as Strongher ambassadors, such as the British racer Hannah Barnes (Canyon – SRAM), Australia’s Gracie Elvin (Orica – AIS), and American veteran Ally Stacher.

“We want to give amateur women the confidence they need to start racing, developing events and other grassroots initiatives, inspiring women to take up cycling for the first time,” Vos said at Strongher’s launch.

Last season proved that there is genuine, organic interest in women’s cycling, fueled by big personalities and compelling stories. As good as Vos had been for the sport, Ferrand-Prévot and Armitstead were just as dominant and media-friendly. And the emerging rivalries that dominated 2015 — especially given the names involved — are generating more interest than any UCI marketing efforts or machine-like dominance by one rider could ever achieve. In the wake of Ferrand-Prévot’s unprecedented triple world championship achievement, the French newspaper l’Equipe named her its “Champion of Champions” of all French female athletes for 2015, and VeloNews named her “International Cyclist of the Year” — male or female.

Meanwhile, Rabo-Liv’s Anna van der Breggen experienced an especially successful season that included victories at La Course and Flèche Wallonne and the overall of the Giro Rosa; Wiggle – High5’s Jolien D’Hoore took honors as the most successful rider in 2015, with 13 total wins; and Armitstead claimed both the World Cup season title and the rainbow stripes. Armitstead’s American teammate Megan Guarnier also had a breakout season with six wins, and numerous podiums, including third at worlds.

“That’s one of the reasons why the sport is becoming so exciting and dynamic,” Beamon says. “There is no predictability to it. Every race is an exciting battle, and wide open.”

Now, of course, Vos is back. While her WorldTour aspirations may be minimal (“My first priority is to be fit,” she says), the Cannibal will definitely be taking aim at the Olympics. “Rio’s on my mind,” she says. “I’d love to qualify and go there and defend my title.”

Her team will have to balance the Olympic aspirations held by Vos, Ferrand-Prévot (who will be returning to the road following a knee injury during her cyclocross season), and other team members. “The atmosphere in our team is good and the main focus is on the team result,” Vos says of Liv’s open approach to racing. “This makes us want to work for each other and see who’s in the best position for the win.”

But it’s going to be tough as external goals —  especially Olympic qualification — add potentially conflicting individual motivations. Armitstead, van der Breggen, and Megan Guarnier all sit comfortably, thanks to the spots secured by medaling at the 2015 World Championships. But Stevens, Ferrand-Prévot, D’Hoore, and a host of other big names will be duking it out for points this spring.

Top teams will also be going after each other at unprecedented levels. Rabo – Liv and the talent-packed Boels – Dolmans were the bosses of 2015, but Wiggle – High5 (formerly Wiggle – Honda), Canyon – SRAM (formerly Velocio – SRAM), and Orica – AIS are poised with powerhouse racers of their own.

“A lot of the big talent has spread throughout different teams for 2016 so that each of the main five or six UCI women’s teams has a great deal of strength,” says Orica’s Wiles. “And it’s less lopsided than with one or two teams being the strongest. The racing this year should be absolutely phenomenal.”

Fans can expect an exciting season from the get-go, starting with Italy’s Strade Bianche on March 3. From there, the women head to Belgium and the Netherlands for the classics, like La Flèche Wallonne Féminine. Farina, who tried to secure a 2012 Olympic position following her U.S. national championship win in 2011, remembers those races in an Olympic year as “like going to battle.”

The momentum will continue through late June, including the American UCI events (Philly Cycling Classic and Amgen Tour of California) before final Rio team rosters are announced. July’s Giro Rosa and La Course will likely be important fitness and training milestones leading up to August, when the world’s best cyclists toe the line in Brazil.

“Fifteen, 20 years ago, it was less interesting,” Vos says of women’s cycling. “When the best riders of the field attacked, they got away with a small group that stayed away until the finish. Now you can’t get away with making any mistakes, and that makes [the sport] way better to follow.”

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