“People say that I can win three grand tours, but if you look at the course you can conclude that the Vuelta is not yet ready to call itself a grand tour. It's a five-day stage race that I'm really looking forward to, but with an average of 96 kilometres per day, I hope the organisation wakes up and sees why the Giro and Tour can be called a Grand Tour, but theirs not.”
These were the unusually public, scathing words of the world champion, Annemiek van Vleuten, ahead of this year’s edition of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta. Leading up to the race, all talk was about if the Dutch star would be able to do the ‘triple’. She’d already won the Giro d’Italia Donne and the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, and to finish it off with victory in the Vuelta would be a feat unheard of in both women’s and men’s cycling. In the end, it was a feat she impressively completed, eventually, winning the Vuelta dominantly. But among all the excitement, Van Vleuten made a very fair point: with its length, difficulty and parcours, the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta was no grand tour.
It seems that organisers of the event, Spanish company Unipublic, (quite rightly) took Van Vleuten’s criticisms seriously. Last week, it was announced that in 2023 Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta would be rebranded as La Vuelta a España Femenina (with headline sponsorship from supermarket chain Carrefour) and the race is set to expand from five to seven stages. This makes it the third longest race on the Women’s WorldTour calendar behind the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift and the Giro d’Italia Donne. Grand tour status? It’s getting there.
The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift was a breakthrough moment for women's cycling (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
There’s no denying that having more races on the calendar which carry the same name as the men’s equivalent has many positive effects for the women’s peloton. The incredible hype around this season’s inaugural Tour de France Femmes proved that. Viewing figures were at an all time high, media interest piqued, the riders could scarcely believe the number of fans by the side of the road. “They came for the Tour,” were the words of French champion Audrey Cordon-Ragot, and she was right. The fact that the race carried the name of the Tour de France did big things for women’s cycling and got more eyes watching female racing for the first time.
The level of coverage and global interest that the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift received can be attributed to its position in the calendar, too. It kicked off on the same day the men’s Tour finished, leveraging all the excitement and fans from the men’s event, as well as filling the void that many people feel once three weeks of grand tour racing comes to an abrupt end.
As the Vuelta a España has rebranded the women’s race, though, it has not followed the example of the Tour de France and put the race on after the men’s event. Instead, it has given the Vuelta a España Femenina an entirely new position on the calendar. In 2023, the race will take place in May rather than in its usual September slot. It’s likely this is in order to accommodate the world championships in Glasgow at the beginning of August and remains unclear if this will be a permanent change to the race’s position on the calendar.
This placement on the calendar means that all of the three ‘grand tours’ for the women’s peloton are now sandwiched together in relatively quick succession in 2023. The Vuelta ends on the 5th May, the Giro starts on the 30th June and the Tour de France starts on the 23rd July. This is all with a host of other women’s WorldTour stage races in between, including some big name events like RideLondon, the Tour de Suisse and the duo of Spanish stage races, Itzulia Women and the Vuelta a Burgos.
It’s worth bearing in mind the peloton size in women’s cycling compared to the men’s and the number of team staff and riders that each team has to choose from. While having the choice of so many races can be seen as a positive thing for the women’s peloton, it seems like having all three grand tours so close together is a slightly wasted opportunity for fans to see the top riders fighting it out at three events in the season. It’s likely that many will have to make decisions about which races they do, or certainly which races they decide to peak for. Without a doubt, the racing will still be exciting, but we won’t be able to see the top names in the peloton battle it out at all three grand tours.
Annemiek Van Vleuten winning stage two of the Ceratizit Challenge By La Vuelta 2022 (Image: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
All of this perhaps leads to the bigger question of whether we necessarily need to try to mimic the men’s calendar in women’s racing at all. Sure, the success of the Tour de France Femmes makes a good case for it, but the Giro d’Italia Donne has never been able to get the same amount of hype, despite having carried the Giro d’Italia name like men’s race since its inception in 1988. It’s important we don’t lose sight of the fact that women’s cycling is its own sport, and remember that the men’s cycling calendar is far from perfect. Since we have the opportunity to not make the same mistakes on the women’s side of the sport, we should be careful not to.
The introduction of the Vuelta a España Femenina should be seen, overall, as a good thing. If it can lead to more live streaming of women’s racing and give the female peloton another chance to compete in a long stage race that heads into the high mountains, then this is a positive step. But it’s important to make these steps with thought and consideration about the speed of development of the sport. We don’t want to continue just ticking off each men’s race that decides to hold a women’s equivalent for the sake of having one. Women’s cycling is great in its own right, and should also be given the chance to build its own narrative. There’s an interesting few years ahead for the women’s WorldTour calendar to sort itself out and see what works and what doesn’t, but we should do so while remaining wary of the fact that this is a sport with its own story to tell.
Speaking to Rouleur earlier this year, two-time world champion and Olympic gold medallist Anna van der Breggen put it eloquently: "I feel we are in the middle of something now which is really making big changes. But I’m also worried, because it’s going so fast and we need to do it in the right way," she said.
"Now we have a Tour de France Femmes, the 2022 calendar is full, with a lot of races, and many changes in the rules for teams. I’m already wondering how it will be in a year’s time? How will next year go? I hope we can manage! We totally love to have the Tour, you can feel it’s making a big difference, but we should not forget the organisers that have been there already. I hope we won’t forget those races and totally disappear to this new cycling."
Cover image: Getty