Men and women will race on the same dirt roads of Tuscany during Strade Bianche but their prize money remains significantly different, with race director Mauro Vegni and 2018 winner Anna van der Breggen believing the size of the prize pot is the lesser of evils when it comes to the stark inequality that remains between men's and women's cycling.
The winner of the men's Strade Bianche will share €16,000 with his teammates, with a total prize pot of €40,000. The winner of the women's race takes home just €2,256, with a total prize pot of €10,260.
Some women's races, including the Women's Tour in Britain, the Tour Down Under and the UCI World Championships offer equal prize money but Vegni believes he is awarding as much as is possible.
"It's true the Strade Bianche prize money is still very different but it's a lot better than it was. We've doubled the women's prize money this year, offering the amount the UCI had also indicated," Vegni told Cyclingnews.
"We've also significantly increased the expenses we pay the women's teams and they'll increase year on year until 2021 when it'll be the same as the men's Professional Continental teams."
Vegni has to juggle tight budgets and margins when organising the smaller races in RCS Sport's portfolio, sometimes using income from the Giro d'Italia to make up for shortfalls elsewhere. He has gradually raised the profile and value of the Giro d'Italia and Strade Bianche through hard work and knowhow and believes that women's cycling needs similar, carefully planned organic development before the races can secure equal prize money.
"It'll be right to have equal prize money when women's racing generates an equal level of income, when it has the same commercial value, the same television rights. Women's cycling has grown since the time when I organised the Primavera Rosa (a women's version of Milan-San Remo) but unfortunately the women's sport is much smaller than the already small men's sport," he argued.
Vegni does not seem in favour of cutting revenue from men's races to boost women's racing and work towards full equality. He believes women's cycling can find its own way forward with careful planning and a clear strategy. Vegni is often at loggerheads with the UCI regarding men's racing and called on the UCI to do more to help develop women's racing.
"We can only hope there is good organic growth that lifts up women's cycling. Most women's teams are backed by brands from the sport or smaller companies but the potential to include specific women's commercial brands is surely enormous. But I don't see that happening in women's cycling yet," he pointed out.
"We can all do more and we try to do as much is commercially possible but it has to become a priority for everyone, not just something done occasionally or just for window dressing. We need time and a serious plan otherwise development just won't happen.
"I believe that every part, every stakeholder in the sport has to work together for the wider good of the sport, both the men's and women's sport, but that doesn't happen if one side makes the orders and another has to just suffer under them. It'll never work like that," Vegni said.
First well-organised races, then better prize money will follow
Anne van der Breggen is well aware of the discrepancy in prize money between men and women but she also sees a bigger, more complex picture. She considers good race organisation a higher priority than equal prize money.
"I do some mountain bike races and there the prize money is totally equal and that feels nice when you do the same sport. That's the point we want to get to," she told Cyclingnews.
"If you look specifically at this race, the prize money is different but many things are already equal, which is really good for women's cycling. Maybe the prize money is the last thing that needs to be equal.
"The most important thing is that the race is well organised and we're happy with this race because it is well organised. There's also live television now, too. The sport's growing and so all the things are all mixed together. If there's a lot of attention for this race and so more interest from fans and sponsors, then the prize money will follow. I just hope it doesn't take too long."
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