Comment: variety is the only ingredient missing from wonderful Women’s Tour
Five stages, five bunch sprints. The Women’s Tour needs a little more variety to go from being a very good race to a great one
In many regards, the Women’s Tour is becoming the exemplar for how a women’s cycling race should be run, organised and promoted.
Spectators came out to roadsides and town centres in their droves, the race was impeccably organised, daily highlights were shown on television and it seemed to create a buzz in the national and social media.
They had special UCI dispensation to have two stages well over the regulation 100-kilometre mark. Stars like Lizzie Armitstead, Emma Johansson and Giorgia Bronzini were racing, allaying any fears that the European Games in Baku might pull rank. The sun even shone most of the time.
The Women’s Tour has done so much well. In my opinion, there is only one significant factor missing: variety.
This year’s edition saw five stages, all of which concluded in bunch sprints. Therefore, the overall competition was decided on nip-and-tuck bonus seconds, with intermediate sprints also coming into play. Last year, it was a similar story.
Hannah Barnes sprints to victory in the race's final stage in Hemel Hempstead.
In 2015, race designers had hoped, in vain, that stage three’s hilly route through Northamptonshire would result in a small group getting to the end, or that the climb of Tom’s Hill, ten kilometres from the finish in Hemel Hempstead, would be prove a thrilling, race-winning launchpad.
Some will have liked the fact that there were five different stage winners and three race leaders. My view is that a five-day stage race should offer something broader, if possible, to climbers, puncheurs and rouleurs, as well as sprinters. There’s a danger that five bunch sprints will appear repetitive to mainstream fans too, no matter how aggressive the racing is.
And, rest assured, it was very hard-fought. There were breakaway attempts galore, as teams fought to win stages or put pressure on rivals to chase. Every day, the escape was only brought back late on: indeed, two breakaways made it to the final hundred metres before being caught. The bunch sprints aren’t surprising. If you give the world’s best teams a flattish parcours, of course they will bring strong sprinters and attempt to set it up for them.
You had to feel for strong attackers like Sharon Laws (Bigla Pro Cycling) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-Honda), who did her damndest to stay off the front on the race’s final two days, to no avail.
“For my skills, I’d like a harder Women’s Tour, to be honest,” Tour of Flanders winner Longo told me. “But it’s been hard racing in many cases; we went quite fast in the two longer stages. Maybe I’d rather some longer climbs but here in Britain, it’s all up-and-down, it’s good preparation.”
Fortune didn't smile on breakaways at the Women's Tour, but Sharon Laws (Bigla Pro Cycling, centre) was staying optimistic.
Variety is the spice of a bike race, as well as life. What could be done in the future to give the Women’s Tour a little bit extra?
“Because it always turns out with the bunch coming together to the finish, maybe a time-trial or team time-trial would be nice,” said Velocio-SRAM’s veteran Trixi Worrack.
“I think it'd be more exciting to make it more like the men's Tour of Britain, where they go into Yorkshire,” said former British champion Sharon Laws (Bigla Pro Cycling). “But you also have to start somewhere. Last year demonstrated that: I think there were quite a few people who thought it wasn't going to work at all, and it blew everybody's expectations away.”
While you can’t move mountains – and you’re never going to find Alpe d’Huez in the Home Counties, let alone elsewhere in Britain - one can shift the race around the country. That is exactly what the Women's Tour plans to do, according to race controller Guy Elliott.
“We want to make the race harder,” he told me after the penultimate stage. “With the first edition [in 2014], we set out to base it around East Anglia, Northamptonshire and that area. We said we'd do that for two years, then begin to creep westwards and northwards to make the racing tougher and more rewarding. It could go to the Cotswolds, Dartmoor, Wales, the Lake District. It's not decided yet.”
It’s not as simple as picking a certain area of the country and going there. The race is bound to certain locations, due to existing contracts signed with town councils. “The majority of the existing councils want us to stay, so it's like fitting a jigsaw puzzle,” he said, of course design.
An Optum rider attempts to escape on the opening day of the 2015 Women's Tour.
As for the future inclusion of a time-trial? “It’s very unlikely. For six days, it's good to have road stages. That's because the town councils pay a lot of money to host a stage start or finish; a time-trial is not as attractive to them,” Elliott said.
It would also create bigger gaps in the general classification, which could be detrimental to interest. “We like close racing,” he added. “We designed the race for TV, so we are pleased to have 10 riders within 30 seconds.”
In a sense, it is a triumph to even raise the question of variety in the Women's Tour so early. Twelve months ago, the debut Women's Tour was as much about proving that an event of this kind could work in Britain. It has shown that, and delivered so much more besides. The race is already a calendar highlight for the peloton.
“In year three, we want to make it the best stage race in the world,” Elliott said. If they can build on this successful, well-organised, popular platform by adding a little more variety, the Women’s Tour can fulfill that ambition.
Of course, not everyone shares my opinion; just ask race winner Lisa Brennauer (Velocio-SRAM). “I'm not complaining,” she said after stage 4. “I think [the course] really gives opportunities to all kind of rider. It's right just the way it is.”