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Coronavirus: Counting the cost on the Women's WorldTour

Women's peloton
Women's peloton (Image credit: Getty Images)

This was the year where things seemed to be falling into place for women's road racing with new team classifications that ushered in the long awaited introduction of a minimum wage, improved live coverage of races and the extra profile boost for women's cycling that always seems to come with an Olympics. 

It felt like those final few hard pedal strokes to the peak of the mountain had been made and we were now looking forward to a nice flowing descent where ever building momentum signalled an easy ride ahead.

Then Covid-19 coronavirus emerged.

The implications are broad-ranging and the focus, of course, needs to be on health first but there is no doubt the pandemic is also a significant bump in the road for top-tier women's cycling.

A number of events have been cancelled or postponed and teams have hit pause on their race schedules. Now the key questions are what happens next and how long will this last?

No one is completely sure and that uncertainty itself takes a toll.

A toll for the athletes trying to fine tune their form for the Olympics or show they merit selection on a national team by performing well at races selectors have earmarked as key target events.

A toll on the race organisers, wondering whether all their plans will be for nothing, on the towns who aren't sure whether to expect an influx of race goers or not, on the sponsors who can't be sure that their investment in the sport will lead to the exposure they hoped for and the list goes on and on. Ultimately what it all adds up to is the potential for a substantial impact on the overall health of the sport.

That holds just as true for the men's racing as well, but the difference is that for the women's professional peloton it also comes at a time where some long-awaited developments in the top-tier of the sport are at a crucial stage and require an influx of money and support if they are to play out as planned.

On top of that, the sparser schedule of the Women's WorldTour racing amplifies the impact of any cancellations and any disruptions to Olympic preparation seem to cut just that bit deeper. The women's peloton doesn't have an event like the Tour de France where the whole world is watching every year, which sharpens the focus on that one event every four years where it is.  

It is never a good time for the emergence of a virus like Covid-19 full stop, but in some ways it seems hard to pick a moment that could be much worse for top-tier women's cycling.

A sparse Women's WorldTour

When the Women's WorldTour schedule for 2020 was announced in June last year there were 22 races on the list, already one less than in 2019. Even before Covid-19 emerged that had dropped to 21 with the cancellation of the Tour of California. 

In January, when coronavirus concern was largely focussed on China, May’s Tour of Chongming was postponed. Then as Covid-19 spread the entire March calendar of the Women’s World Tour disappeared and the gap in racing since the February season opener in Australia continued to stretch. 

First Italy’s Strade Bianche was cancelled and Trofeo Alfredo Binda was postponed. Then came the news that Ronde van Drenthe wouldn’t run as the Dutch cancelled all events with more than 100 people in attendance. Next it was the Belgian AG Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem along with a handful of other Belgian UCI ranked races outside the WWT. 

There is undoubtedly concern that there will be even more cancellations ahead, but even if — and that is a big if — April racing went on as scheduled the Women’s WorldTour would still be heading toward another sparse patch straight after. There is no WWT racing at all in May either, as after the Tour of California folded the now postponed Tour of Chongming Island was all that remained.

Breaking the Women’s WorldTour racing drought after the May hiatus now falls to the postponed Trofeo Alfredo Binda, which is now scheduled for June 2. Then it was meant to be onto The Women’s Tour in the UK from June 8 to 13, which is looking for a new sponsor for the popular crowd-friendly tour. 

However, it has just been announced that this event too will be cancelled, with hopes that it can be run later this year if conditions permit.

"The decision has been taken early in light of the worsening global situation, following discussions with event stakeholders and partners, in order to provide certainty to the many parties involved in the planning and organisation of the event, including local authorities, police and health services in the UK," said The Women’s Tour in a statement.

"As a part of the UCI Women’s WorldTour, the Women’s Tour attracts a significant international presence from teams, riders, officials, staff, media and spectators, and it is felt that the risk of increased restrictions on international travel would be detrimental to the future of the race should an early, and conclusive, decision not be made.”

Beyond The Women’s Tour, the constantly evolving situation means it is too soon to know whether coronavirus will lead to any impact on the racing at the Giro Rosa, La Course or even the Olympics.

What is certain is that the necessary precautions and uncertainty caused by its spread will create additional challenges for the organisers, teams, riders, towns and businesses relying on the events.

Money matters

Women's cycling has long been well behind when it comes to wages, conditions and prize money but this year real change was introduced to try and reduce the disparity. Women's WorldTour teams, of which there are eight, must pay a minimum wage of €15,000 in 2020, rising to €20,000 in 2021 and €27,500 in 2022. Other benefits such as sick leave, holidays and maternity cover have also been introduced. 

Prize money is also on the rise and there are now firm expectations that Women's WorldTour events must provide race coverage to enable greater exposure. These are all crucial and positive steps, but they do come at a cost. A cost that means growing the pool of money available becomes ever-more important.

It also makes it ever-more crucial to show existing and prospective sponsors that an investment in women's cycling is a savvy choice that yields value for money. That becomes a more difficult task when there is the possibility of events being called off and teams not getting out to show their sponsored kit and equipment off in the racing. 

But not impossible, with a little creative thinking.

Mitchelton-Scott could easily have disappeared off the radar while their women's and men's teams took a coronavirus related racing break. Yet when the official announcement of the cancellation of the Strade Bianche came, Mitchelton-Scott launched the "Bike Exchange - Where the World Rides Series".

It engaged fans, with 1,300 taking part in the first Zwift ride, and kept the sponsors names out there circulating publicly even when the team wasn't racing. 

A problem turned into an opportunity. Now the Australian-based team has added 16 more virtual rides to the series.

Though, it is hard to see any easy options to mitigate the impact for the race regions or organisers. 

When speaking about the possibility of cancellations with VTM earlier this week the CEO of Flanders Classics said that "economically, that would have major consequences."

Furthermore, the economic damage from coronavirus is clearly way more than just a cycling problem.

Supply chains are strained, tourism is grinding to a halt and companies around the world are warning of serious hits to profits. Sharemarkets have plunged, heading into bear market territory, and governments are scrambling to not only find a way to deal with a pandemic, but also what looks set to be the huge economic fallout as well. 

The UN trade agency said this week that Covid-19 will likely cost the global economy $1 trillion during 2020, and the worst case scenario would involve a $2 trillion hit.

Regardless of which scenario we end up with its fair to say tough economic times appear to be on the way. When that happens companies so often try to offset slowing growth by turning to cost cutting and costs include sponsorship. It is likely to be a difficult economic environment in which to be trying to draw in extra investment for the growth and development of women's cycling.

However, women's cycling has never been faced with a particularly easy road, and that hasn't stopped it yet. 

Original 2020 UCI Women's WorldTour Calendar*:

  • February 1: Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race - Elite Women's Race (Australia)
  • March 7: Strade Bianche (Italy) - Cancelled because of Covid-19
  • March 15: Ronde van Drenthe – UCI Women's WorldTour (the Netherlands) - Cancelled because of Covid-19
  • March 22: Trofeo Alfredo Binda – Comune di Cittiglio (Italy) - Postponed until June 2 because of Covid-19
  • March 26: AG Driedaagse Brugge – De Panne (Belgium) - Cancelled because of Covid-19
  • March 29: Gent – Wevelgem in Flanders Fields (Belgium) - Cancelled because of Covid-19
  • April 5: Ronde van Vlaanderen / Tour des Flandres (Belgium)
  • April 19: Amstel Gold Race Ladies (the Netherlands)
  • April 22: La Flèche Wallonne Féminine (Belgium)
  • April 26: Liège – Bastogne – Liège Femmes (Belgium)
  • May 7-9: Tour of Chongming Island UCI Women's World Tour (China) - Postponed because of Covid-19
  • May 14-16: Amgen Tour of California Women's Race empowered with SRAM (United States) - Cancelled last year
  • June 8-13: The Women's Tour (Great Britain) - Postponed because of Covid-19
  • June 26 – July 5: Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile (Italy)
  • July 19: La Course by Le Tour de France (France)
  • August 8: Postnord UCI WWT Vårgårda West Sweden TTT (Sweden)
  • August 9: Postnord UCI WWT Vårgårda West Sweden RR (Sweden)
  • August 13-16: Ladies Tour of Norway (Norway)
  • August 22: GP de Plouay – Lorient Agglomération Trophée WNT (France)
  • August 25-30: Boels Ladies Tour (the Netherlands)
  • September 5-6: Ceratizit Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta (Spain)
  • October 20: Tour of Guangxi – UCI Women's WorldTour (China)

Calendar from June UCI release*