Does the women’s peloton need – or want –180 kilometre road stages?

Stage four of Tour de France Femmes was the longest in women’s WorldTour history. Did it make the racing any better?

“It was the longest ride I’ve ever done. If I had to do that in training, it would just be boring,” Yara Kastelijn said with a wry giggle in her post-race press conference after she won stage four of the Tour de France Femmes. At 177.1km not including the neutral zone, the Dutch rider had just taken victory in the longest Women’s WorldTour race ever, trumping last year’s fifth stage of the Tour de France Femmes which spanned 175.6km.

Longer race distances for the women’s peloton can, on the one hand, be seen as a step towards parity between men’s and women’s racing. In the men’s Tour de France, the peloton regularly races over 200km stages over the three-week race. On the other hand, some riders argue that women’s cycling needs to be able to shape its own race calendar and style, rather than mirroring the exact structure of men’s WorldTour races. There are plenty of downsides to men’s professional cycling and since women’s cycling is a young sport, it has the opportunity to develop without making the same mistakes.

Some riders argue that shorter races invite a more attacking style of racing, believing that a long distance deters people from riding aggressively as for fear of not being able to sustain their efforts until the end of the race. Speaking after the the longest stage of the Tour de France Femmes this year, Kasia Niewiadoma of Canyon//SRAM commented: “It was such a long stage, it’s so boring in the beginning, I feel like any time we race shorter it’s a bit more aggressive and entertaining for the public.”

Évita Muzic, a promising young climber of FDJ-Suez, shared a similar sentiment to her colleague: “I think, for sure, when it is very long it is more boring at the beginning and a breakaway goes and takes many minutes. It led to more poker with the other teams,” she explained.

Muzic was quick to note, however, that a longer stage also allows riders who are better suited a longer distance to have a stage which favours them, just like the sprinters or the climbers do throughout the race. “I think one stage is ok during a stage race but maybe 160km is enough. It’s also good that some riders also have less power at the end and it’s good to be complete,” she said.

There is also the argument that such a long race distance allows more complex race scenarios to establish themselves. We saw that in stage four of the Tour de France Femmes when the breakaway was given a gap of over ten minutes, leading to complicated politics in the peloton about whose responsibility it was to chase. We saw the likes of SD Worx trying interesting strategies like sending Lotte Kopecky up the road as a satellite rider for Demi Vollering so she could help her teammate on the later climbs, for example, something that may not have happened in a short, explosive stage. In some ways, stage four of the Tour felt like a real, vintage stage, whereby there was the fight for the yellow jersey in one group and a battle for the stage win in the other

“I think shorter stages suit some riders, longer stages suit some riders, hilly stages suit some riders, it’s part of cycling, we’re all different. I personally really like long stages, I’m sort of a diesel, so for me, it was the perfect stage,” Audrey Cordon-Ragot of Human Powered Health commented after spending a day in the breakaway herself. “You need stages for everyone and it’s really good that everyone in the field can express themselves. Some people are scared of it so would normally be in the breakaway but see the distance and think they can’t do it, but from my side I really like it.”

The overall feeling in the peloton was that long races like we saw on stage four are welcome in stage races, but they aren’t something riders wish to see implemented across the whole calendar. “I like long races like this, you can just see that we race a bit differently,” yellow jersey holder, Lotte Kopecky, commented. “The break will develop a bigger advantage, I think it’s ok in stage races but you don’t need to have it every race.” 

Alison Jackson of EF Education-Tibco-SVB also noted that such long distances impact each rider differently, which could lead to surprise performances in the following stages. “We won’t know how that long stage has impacted the racing until the end of the Tour, we might see surprise performances from the people that can manage long distances well,” she said. “It’s new for us to try and manage that distance. Stage four was such a dynamic race which was great, but I’m not sure if that was the distance or elements of the parcours that added to that. I don’t think we need to have days and days of that, just one-long day in stage races is good, you have a climber day or a classics day or a sprinter day, it suits a different characteristic of a rider. A lot of times in women’s racing, everyone just wants to make it to the finish but in this race there was a lot of time to let the break go so far.”

General manager of FDJ-Suez, Stephen Delcourt, argued that it should be the decision of the riders whether they race such long distances or stick to the shorter routes that have been more common in Women’s WorldTour races in the past.

“The best opinion is the rider’s opinion. I think they are physically powerful enough to do that and I think for the viewer on the TV it’s the same. The most important thing is to respect the riders and if they have a good feeling about the distances we need to respect that,” Delcourt said. “I think the organisers need to have a conclusion after the final of the Tour de France then all the riders need to have an opinion. The distance of stage four allowed us to play a lot, but we can’t make a conclusion straight after the race.”

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