Opinion: As the highest level of racing, UCI and ASO must be held accountable for change

A wet and muddy first edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes in 2021
A wet and muddy first edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes in 2021 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Céline Oberholzer is an aspiring professional cyclist. She is passionate about empowering women and advocating for gender equality in a male-dominated sport. She is currently spending the winter living and training at The HomeStretch Foundation in Tucson, AZ.

On October 2, I awoke to the sound of my alarm trilling. I wasted no time and tuned in to catch the start of the Paris-Roubaix Femmes live broadcast on Peacock TV. As an aspiring professional cyclist in the US, I was especially excited for this momentous day in the history of women’s cycling. Yet, within a matter of minutes, the broadcast experience was dampened. The livestream began more than halfway through the race, with less than 55 kilometers to go. Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) was off the front with a well-established two-minute gap, but it took me a second to process what had already happened in the unseen first half of the race. I was never able to fully immerse myself in the rest of the broadcast, in spite of the compelling narrative unfolding for the next ninety minutes. 

In addition to the insufficient air time, my awareness of the gaping prize purse disparity between the men’s and women’s fields made it difficult to celebrate Deignan’s efforts, knowing she was racing toward a reward far less than what she deserved. For the rest of the day, I struggled to process the inequity of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. To find clarity, I turned to research.

I was relieved to find several existing solutions to each of the issues raised by Paris-Roubaix Femmes. For example, while prize purse imbalances have been a regular part of UCI road racing, the UCI has measures in place to regulate and ensure prize purse equality in BMX racing. The US gravel and criterium racing scenes both successfully navigate equality for male and female participants regarding prize money, race distance, technicality, and duration, and media broadcasting. The UCI needs to apply these equitable models to road racing.

The highly-anticipated first edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes was a mammoth step in the right direction for parity in cycling. After 117 years of the Paris-Roubaix, the women’s peloton finally received their own race. This alone is worth celebrating. The mere existence of Paris-Roubaix Femmes is a remarkable milestone for equality in the world of cycling -- as well as the world of sports.  There is no denying this race is a beacon of hope for the future of women’s cycling. Unfortunately, several glaring inequities obstructed its light.  

First, the prize purse -- €91K for men, €7K for women -- was 13 times smaller for women. The women’s course was less than half the distance of the men’s course and missed several significant cobblestone sectors. Finally, while the media broadcasted the entirety of the men’s race, they only streamed the last 55 kilometers of the women’s. The intention in pointing out these significant disparities is not to undermine the groundbreaking success of Paris-Roubaix Femmes and what it means for the sport but, instead, to help raise awareness and galvanize resolutions for the future.

The most astonishing of the aforementioned disparities was the prize purse discrepancy. The top-20 women’s prize purse totalled €7,005, which is 13 times smaller than the top-20 men’s prize purse of €91,000. Pause briefly to let that sink in. Even more staggering was the prize purse imbalance between race winners. Deignan, hands blistered and bloodied, face contorted in pain and concentration, stormed to victory after nearly 85 kilometers solo. For her superhuman effort, she won €1,535 -- nearly 20 times less money than Sonny Colbrelli, who won €30,000 at the men’s race the following day. 

The prevailing excuse for these inequities is that the women raced for a shorter distance and duration compared to the men, thus making it unfair to pay them equally for “doing less work.” Let’s entertain this argument and analyze the prize purses compared to the kilometers raced. Deignan won €1,535 over 116.5 kilometers, earning roughly €13 per kilometer. This is nine times less than what Colbrelli earned, which was €116 per kilometer (€30,000 over 258 kilometers). While factoring in kilometers raced does slightly diminish the disparity between the money won, it hardly produces an equitable result. 

Cycling company titan, Trek Bicycles, proved this year that sponsors are willing and able to provide the women’s peloton with a prize purse that equals the men’s by compensating their Trek-Segafredo riders for payout differences throughout the season. Unfortunately, the rest of the women’s peloton suffered from the blatant financial imbalances. Furthermore, corporate bailouts are a Band-Aid, not a solution. Race directors need to build equity into their prize purse from the start.

There is simply no excuse for a 20-fold disparity in race-day prize money when there is a clear example of a sponsor ready to close the gap. As the regulatory body for professional cycling, UCI needs to establish an equitable prize payout minimum and implement rules that eliminate any pay disparities. In fact, these rules have already been established for UCI BMX racing,

“The total amount of the prize money must respect the minimum laid down in the UCI financial obligations. Any increase in the amount of prize money given over the minimum amount shall apply equally to both male and female categories at the same level” - UCI Cycling Regulations, Part VI, P.34. 

These same regulations need to be applied across all UCI disciplines. Otherwise, road race owners and/or sports businesses like Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) will continue to have free rein on continuing such inequity. Sponsors must also continue to demonstrate their willingness to step up and invest in women’s cycling. 

But why the discrepancy in race distance?  Physiological, psychological, and anatomical studies already prove women are more suited toward endurance events compared to men. Yet, the 116.5-kilometer Paris Roubaix Femmes course was less than half the distance of the men’s 258-kilometer course. Additionally, there were several famous sectors of the Paris-Roubaix course absent from the women’s. This is not the standard for other disciplines of UCI events. For the past few years, men and women have competed for equal durations and on identical courses in UCI Cross Country and Short Track mountain biking events. Additionally, BMX News recently published a story on how, for the first time, UCI and IOC implemented changes for gender equality at the Olympics for BMX racing -- they designed a track intended for equality. Women have time and again shown they are equipped to race the same long, arduous races that men do. Changes are happening in other UCI disciplines. So why are women’s road cycling courses consistently and significantly reduced in distance and technical features? Because of tradition. Women race shorter races because that is the way it has always been. It is time to change this archaic thinking. 

Eliminating the outdated notion that women require shorter, less technical races is a necessary step toward parity. Viewers watch women’s cycling because these athletes demonstrate world-class skill, power, and physical and mental fortitude -- pure grit. Cycling governing bodies must eliminate the antiquated distance restrictions placed on the women’s peloton and allow them to showcase their hard-earned and long cultivated talents. 

Broadcasting is another major source of inequity. Regardless of the shorter distance for Paris-Roubaix Femmes, media outlets in the United States only broadcasted the last 2 hours and 10 minutes of the women’s 3-hour race. Meanwhile, the same broadcasting stations covered the entirety of the men’s race -- 6 hours and 45 minutes -- the following day. Rather than just establishing broadcast minimums for Women’s WorldTour races, mandating and regulating equal broadcast rights for the men’s and women’s World Tour races is something UCI could require of their sanctioned events. In the absence of these mandates, companies like ASO continue to perpetuate the sexism and tradition that only men’s races are valuable.  

Viewers expect any television show, movie, or sports event to have a complete narrative --  a beginning, middle, and end. Starting the Paris Roubaix Femmes broadcast after the race-deciding moments have long passed is comparable to starting a three-hour film with only two hours left. Viewers are robbed of key elements, such as an introduction to the main characters and their development, as well as critical plot points. In terms of establishing a long-lasting fan-base for women’s cycling, an incomplete broadcast is detrimental. Moreover, fans want to watch women’s cycling. 

Statistician Daam Van Reeth confirms proof of growth in viewership of women’s professional cycling: “When broadcast on the same major channel, audiences for the women’s race were 40-60% of those for the men’s race, which is good for a Saturday.” To quote Deignan in her post-race interview: “There is an appetite for women’s cycling.” However, it is incredibly difficult for fans to support women’s racing if the broadcast coverage is not there.

It may have taken 117 years, but the first Paris-Roubaix Femmes did happen and will continue to happen. Countless individuals have fought for races like this one to come to fruition for the women’s peloton. If fans, riders, teams, and sponsors continue to apply pressure on the governing bodies to support women’s cycling, and media outlets to broadcast it, equity is attainable. The existence of the Paris-Roubaix Femmes is a testament to that unwavering work and investment in women’s professional cycling. The women’s peloton not only deserves the same races as the men, but also equal prize money, race duration, course technicality, and media exposure. 

As a first-year domestic elite cyclist in the United States who has spent countless hours working toward a career racing in Europe, I find this ongoing inequality particularly disturbing. One week before the debut of Paris-Roubaix Femmes, I raced USA Crits Finals, a professional criterium race in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, the pro men’s and women’s fields both raced for 75 minutes. All four races were live streamed from start to finish. The men’s and women’s pelotons saw equal prize purses: a total of $16,000 each over the course of the weekend. This means the women’s prize purse for the Winston-Salem weekend was 230% higher than what the best women in the Women’s WorldTour earned the following weekend at UCI and ASO’s Paris Roubaix Femmes. The best female racers in the world -- attending arguably the most difficult road race in the world -- earned less money than domestic elite and professional criterium racers in the United States. This must change, and fortunately, it can. 

While racing on the professional criterium circuit in the United States this past season, I saw first hand that equal support for the women’s pro peloton is possible. In addition to multiple equitable criterium races - such as Tour of America’s Dairyland and Intelligentsia Cup - a number of ever-growing gravel events have also demonstrated the feasibility for equality in cycling. As an aspiring professional female cyclist, I am drawn to and prioritize the events where I feel valued. The magnitude and continued success of these events indicates other women share my sentiments. Criterium and gravel racing, while wildly different in many respects, both present prosperous business models which are not remotely diminished by the women’s peloton receiving identical prize purses to the men, or by all racers competing on the same exact course for approximately the same time. In fact, the opposite is happening: events offering nondiscriminatory opportunities find substantial financial growth and success. 

When UCI implements the necessary regulations regarding equal pay, equal race duration and course features, and equal media coverage, the entire sport will see financial gains. As the highest level of racing, UCI and ASO must be held accountable for change.  Not just for the current athletes, but for future generations of athletes, fans, and investors. Enacting these changes does more than achieve equity. It inspires and enables the next generation to dream that much bigger. I am part of that generation. It is my greatest hope that someday when I stand on the start line of Paris Roubaix Femmes, the women’s peloton will be valued equally to the men. Together we can make this happen. 


The Cyclists Alliance

Bike Chart: https://www.bikechart.cc/ 

Daam Van Reeth: https://twitter.com/vrdaam/status/1445359045506961420 

UCI Rule Book: https://archive.uci.org/docs/default-source/rules-and-regulations/part-vi--bmx.pdf

BMX News: https://www.bmxnews.com/2021/07/19/bmx-racing-shifts-into-controversy-at-tokyo-games/

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