Iris Slappendel, retired professional cyclist and co-founder of The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA), experienced the first-ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes from a media motorcycle that followed Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Sgafredo) as she went on an 82km solo raid to take the historic victory at the velodrome in Roubaix.
In an interview with Cyclingnews, Slappendel said that while the experience brought a rush of emotion, she noted several areas that could be addressed to improve the progress of women’s cycling, especially at big ASO-run events like Paris-Roubaix.
The two key points that she made were placing a higher priority on televising the whole women’s race, and more symbolically, finding a solution to close the massive discrepancy between the men’s and women’s prize payouts.
“The live coverage was the most important part, more so than the prize money,” Slappendel told Cyclingnews. “It was a bummer that the broadcast started so late. That was the biggest disappointment. It was a big opportunity.”
The live broadcast of the women’s event started with roughly 55km to go in the women’s 116km race that began in Denain and included 17 sectors of pavé before finishing at the velodrome in Roubaix. Deignan attacked early, just ahead of the first cobblestone sector, Hornaing à Wandignies at 31.1km into the race. For the fans watching at home, the winning move was not televised, nor any other aspect of the beginning of the event.
"Every team had a camera [crew], something special, documentaries going on, and everyone was making a moment out of it. The focus should be put more on the coverage to improve it. I hope the ASO sees what this race has done to accelerate women's cycling with all the media attention, and I hope they understand that there is so much value in their women's race. I hope that it showed in Paris-Roubaix."
The gap between the men's and women's prize payouts also made the headlines ahead of and following Paris-Roubaix weekend. Deignan's prize at €1,535 was just a fraction of the €30,000 that Sonny Colbrelli earned for winning the men's race, though her Trek-Segafredo team stepped in to make up the difference.
The sport governing body, UCI, sets the prize money schedule for each category competing at their classified events. Although Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Roubaix Femmes are both WorldTour-registered races, the prize money schedule is unequal.
The total prize money for a Women's WorldTour one-day race is currently set by the UCI at €7,005, with €1,535 awarded to the winner. In comparison, the total prize money for a men's WorldTour (group 1) one-day race is currently set by the UCI at €50,000, with €20,000 awarded to the winner. However, organisers of Paris-Roubaix, ASO, opted to increase the total prize money for the men's race to €91,000, with the winner being awarded an increased amount of €30,000.
Slappendel believes that rather than simply forcing organisers to strain financially to increase the women's prize purse, the UCI could try and create solutions in its mandated pay schedule.
"For the prize money, we also need to look to the UCI. Personally, I don't think we need to make everything equal to the men, for example, I liked that the women's race happened on a different day [Saturday] but on the same weekend, it was a good concept. The length of the race was good, it could have been slightly longer but it was racing straight from the gun with no boring first part of the race," Slappendel said.
"Speaking to other race organisers, it would make more sense to lower the men's prize money and make them equal, instead of just raising the women's. I can imagine that race organisers are investing in women's cycling, and perhaps it's not fair to [immediately] ask for the same prize money.
"We should [consider] if men's cycling benefits from this prize money, I think the women would benefit more from it at this moment, so it would make more sense to take the same total amount but split it, so it's still equal, but that means that it would [decrease] for the men.
"That would be a more reasonable solution than raising the women's prize money to meet the men's right now. We need to be realistic. Most of all, the prize money is more about the signal [message] organisers send out with it, so if it's only a 20th of the men's, that's a wrong signal."
Paris-Roubaix Femmes was a huge moment
The UCI and ASO's decision to add the event to the calendar last year was a historic moment for women's cycling, as Paris-Roubaix is one of the world's most iconic Spring Classics. After two postponements, Deignan won the inaugural edition on October 2, and it will be a day written into the history books of cycling.
Slappendel said watching Deignan solo to victory, from the back of a media moto while working for Eurosport and GCN, was 'surreal'.
"It was fun. It was a little bit scary because it was slippery. It was a good opportunity to speak to some riders beforehand and see them race from close up; it was quite cool. I'm a bit of a fan-girl now, of course, and it was exciting to be there for the race," she said.
"I think seeing the riders race, and for me personally, riding behind Lizzie, I found it really … I had goosebumps all over because she was so strong, and at the same time she's such a tiny rider. This part of France is so empty, its old houses and cobbles, and then you see this one tiny rider just flying over the cobbles, really composed and focused, and the motorbikes and the cars behind her. It was like a movie. It was surreal. For me, there was a moment that I was like, 'wow, it's happening, and we are doing this.' It was a huge moment."
Slappendel raced professionally for 13 years (2004-2016), and she said that she always dreamed of competing in Paris-Roubaix, but that opportunity was not open to women during her career. She said that to be a part of the first-ever women's Hell of the North was an emotional experience.
"I was overall really excited. I was excited to be at the race and that it was finally happening. For me, as a rider, I always dreamed of racing Paris-Roubaix. I think it would have been a race that suited me well. It's also a race that we've talked a lot about when I was still racing, and we used to call Ronde van Drenthe our Paris-Roubaix, but of course, it was not Paris-Roubaix. I always wished that I could have raced Paris-Roubaix," she said.
"I wasn't crying, but I was excited by the fact that it was happening. I think Lizzie said it perfectly herself after the race, what it meant for women's cycling, and it was what we felt all around, from the riders, teams, sponsors, and the media. I had friends coming to the race that were so happy to see the women race on the cobbles."
When Deignan crossed the finish line after winning Paris-Roubaix she told the media: "Women's cycling is at this turning point, and you saw it today, this is part of history. I am proud to be part of a team that also makes history. We are so grateful to everybody behind the scenes, all the viewers watching, because every fan who's watching this is also making history. It is proving that there is appetite for women's cycling and that the athletes here can do one of the hardest races in the world, and I am so proud that I can say that I am the first-ever winner."
The 128 other riders who took to the start in Denain have also gone down in history as being part of the peloton that raced the first Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Slappendel said it was a statement that women can compete over the famed cobbles of the most challenging one-day race in the world.
"It's a race that you can't compare with any other race, and that's what makes it so special. It's also a race that is so tough, even more than the Tour de France, but women can race such a tough course. When I was at the Women's WorldTour and Road Commissions at the UCI in 2015, this was a top discussion. So often, you would hear, 'it's too complicated to organise' or 'it's too hard of a race' or 'it's too tough for the women', I mean, we all knew that it was bullshit.
"It's really good that it happened and that it was the full experience of the race. I appreciated that the organisation allowed the riders, even those who finished out of the time limit, the opportunity to finish on the velodrome. It felt like an important part of that race and their achievements."
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.
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