Enjoy the Flèche Wallonne yesterday? A series of breakaways tried their luck until a small breakaway reached the foot of the Mur where the winner attacked to take an impressive solo win. If this scenario sounds unfamiliar then it’s the story of the Women’s Flèche Wallonne and by all accounts it sounded more exciting than the men’s version, even if both races were essentially repeats with Anna van der Breggen and Alejandro Valverde each winning again and again.
This week is packed with high quality women’s racing thanks to the revived Amstel Gold Race, the established Flèche Wallonne feminine and the newly-created Liège-Bastogne-Liège for women. It’s great to see this growth but the deliberate schedule clash forces the women’s race to compete with the men’s race for media attention and the inevitable outcome is the women’s race barely registers.
Sometimes it feels like a lot of the coverage about women’s cycling is about the coverage of women’s cycling. Rather than discussing the sport we get abstraction about the events and their lack of media attention. It’s frustrating but often for a simple reason: there is little or no coverage of women’s cycling. This blog post will only perpetuate this meta analysis but last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race preview pointed out the clash of the men’s and women’s races and promised to explain why avoiding this would be preferable so here goes…
This week is one of the best of the year for women’s cycling, especially with newly-created Liège-Bastogne-Liège both because it’s the second Monument classic to get a women’s race and also because it hints that race owner ASO is dipping a toe into the waters of women’s sport with a proper competition as opposed to the token La Course criteriums. It’s all welcome, very welcome… but frustrating because these races exist only they’re not on TV and don’t get much coverage, the sports media equivalent of the thought experiment that asks “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Why the reduced coverage? Well history has plenty to account for but one contemporary problem is these new races clash with the men’s races: this week’s Ardennes races all take place on the same day as the men. Just as sport is a winner-takes-all environment where most of the media attention goes to the race winner, when two races are on the same day then the bigger one hogs the limelight. Ditto the women’s Tour of Flanders. Several have asked why there’s no women’s Paris-Roubaix when there’s a junior race? The answer is simply that nobody is organising it. The junior race is staged by the VC Roubaix, a local cycling club, so it’s not part of Paris-Roubaix owner ASO’s empire. But if there was a women’s Paris-Roubaix would it make it on to television? Obvious the junior race doesn’t but with the men’s race getting live coverage all day there’s not much space for the women’s event.
Sometimes it helps to step away from cycling and see what others do. We cycling fans are used to simultaneous races, for example Wednesday saw the two Flèche Wallonne races alongside the Tour of the Alps and the Tour of Croatia. There’s room for races in different regions but two Flèche Wallonne races equals direct competition. Imagine tennis and the final of a women’s grand slam taking place on the same day as the men’s final, timed so that the women’s match ends just as the men near the end of the second set? Even thinking about it feels bizarre, there’s no way they’d schedule this.
Saturday and Sunday
Surely the ideal solution is to have the women’s races on a Saturday and the men’s race on a Sunday; or vice versa (and Tuesday and Wednesday for the Flèche et cetera). A Saturday women’s race is appealing because it offers a big hook for curious fans who might be looking forward to the men’s race and so they can tune on the Saturday to see what the course looks like, imagine a women’s Paris-Roubaix to show us what state the Arenberg Forest is in.
Better still the women’s race can still piggyback the larger media coverage generated by the men’s race rather than compete for attention and benefit from all the media in place for the men’s race. The cycling media pack is not huge: a TV channel, newspaper or website can only send limited staff – typically one reporter – to a bike race so come Sunday they’re got to spend their time on the main men’s race. A women’s race on the previous day would allow more time for the media to cover the women’s race, to have the habitual pre-race interviews, to cover the start and then for the live TV and then for post-race interviews and so on. Of course a weekend means two days of coverage and therefore two days of costs and not all the media would take part but the current system of competing men’s and women’s races just sees the men’s race draining all the focus from the women.
Crucially separate days could allow for greater broadcast coverage. It’s already very expensive but the system uses motorbikes, helicopters and relay aircraft and if you have two races on at the same time then you need two relay aircraft et cetera. Do it on the Saturday and the Sunday and you only need one.
Easier Typed Than Done
Of course there are complications and considerations here. Cycling may get a slot on the TV schedules for Sunday but imagining the scheduling windows on a Saturday too is very hopeful but you imagine some arms could be twisted, for example the public broadcasters in France, Belgian and Holland surely have a certain remit towards equality while the likes of Eurosport will simply be happy to host a well-produced race.
Another practical problem is the established mass participation events. The Tour of Flanders has its own amateur ride, the Amstel has the popular Toerversie and there’s the Paris-Roubaix Challenge too. All these take place on the eve of the men’s race but they could equally be brought forward a week.
Innovation via mobile telecoms allows video to be filmed without all the cost of helicopters, relay aircraft and satellite bandwidth and streaming services can be free rather than all the incumbent costs of a mainstream TV channel. This has its place but it’s the kind of coverage you have to go and find, fine for readers of niche sports blog like this who might enjoy the Periscope broadcast of the finish as better than nothing but yesterday’s coverage on the Mur de Huy had hundreds of viewers for van der Breggen’s win, not hundreds of thousands, let alone the millions who watch the men’s race.
The arrival of more women’s racing is great but scheduling these new events on the same day as the men makes the women’s events compete direct with their older brothers and the result is inevitable: a male monopoly. In others sports where women enjoy more equal terms such as tennis or athletics these schedule clashes don’t exist.
The women’s side is relatively new and growing so perhaps it has to start like this in order benefit from shared road closures, finish infrastructure and other things that only need to be in place for a day rather than a weekend. But it means the resulting media coverage is often segregated and certainly limited. One day it’d be great to see the women’s races as stand alone events in their own right and to create a full weekend of sport with live TV on both Saturday and Sunday. That looks some way away but given the public service remit of broadcasters it could happen faster than we think.