With the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes capturing attention worldwide this year and the announcement of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift in 2022, the last few months have marked a sea-change in women’s cycling. Such huge events have led to an unprecedented growth in interest in the sport from both fans and sponsors alike, and the opportunity for female cyclists to compete in these iconic races is a welcome step towards long overdue parity.
When the announcement of the Tour de France Femmes route was made, though, the stark difference in distance between the men’s and women’s event was highlighted by some who called for complete parity between the two races. While the men’s race will last for 21 days, the women’s race will run for 8. “If you want to make a three week Tour de France, we can do it. It's possible we can do it,” was the response of three-time World Champion Anna van der Breggen when questioned on her view of the Tour de France Femmes at Rouleur Live last weekend.
“But then it's such a big change that you need to focus on just the Tour de France for the second part of the season and that's not how women's cycling is at the moment, our teams are smaller.” The Women’s WorldTour is composed of just 9 teams made up of approximately 15 riders in each, while the Men’s WorldTour features 19 teams, each with much larger rosters.
“If you have one group of six riders, for example, totally focusing on the Tour de France, then you need to do the whole rest of the programme with the other part of the team, and that is not possible,” explained Van der Breggen. “If we do that, it's way too fast. Maybe in the future, when the teams are growing, when there is more money because there are more live broadcasts on television, then it might be possible, but for now, eight days is doable while also doing the other races.”
The 31-year-old, who turned professional in 2012, also noted the importance of remembering how far the organisation of women’s stage races has come in the last couple of years. She referenced the Giro d’Italia Donne, which has been the biggest multi-day race on the women’s calendar since its inception in 1988. “It's a really small race organisation,” said Van der Breggen. “I think the average age of the organisation is around 70. It's not always organised well. Sometimes in the race, they didn't know where the sprints were for the points or they didn't know exactly how long the race would be, so you'll hear it in the communication when you've already started.
“We had one time when we were riding but then it was 20k longer than expected, so everybody was like, where's the finish? The girls who were dropped were lost because they sent them in the wrong direction,” explained the Dutch rider to a shocked crowd, full of many fans who are used to watching men’s stage races with high levels of organisation and professionalism. It’s hard to imagine such fundamental failures wouldn’t have made the mainstream press had they occurred in a men’s Grand Tour.“Those stories, I hope they’re in the past only and it's over now, because the rules are getting more normal. It should be organised well, but to think back on races like this, it's where we came from. And hopefully it's in the past,” said Van der Breggen.
The SD Worx athlete also commented on how the growing calendar could begin to lead to the need for riders to specialise more in particular types of races. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon to see those who were competing for the win in the early season Classics also gunning for the overall at the Giro Donne, a feat that would be largely unprecedented in the men’s peloton.
“For Tour de France next year, you need to be well rested. You cannot do all the races before. For example, you can spend half a month in Spain and do all types of racing but you'll get back pretty tired and you won't win the Tour de France,” explained Van der Breggen. “In men's cycling, they only do the Tour de France, or they only do two big stage races. And for us that's really different. Everybody does Spring [Classics].”
Aside from the race calendar, Van der Breggen also noted how the strength in depth in the women’s peloton has grown since her career began almost a decade ago. The Dutch rider discussed how much more work is required now to remain at the front of races, with a variety of riders fighting for the top step of the podium. “You can see the young girls are really doing well. It's more difficult as you need to focus on going very well, otherwise you just get dropped,” she explained. Van der Breggen experienced the fierce competition that's now rife in the women’s peloton during her own career, especially during her rivalry with compatriot Annemiek van Vlueten. Their iconic battles will go down as some of the most riveting in the history of women’s cycling.
“I think we always made each other better and better,” she explained. “Sometimes it was really close, so that made races really exciting. It was always a big battle in the race. Sometimes the media was pushing the rivalry between us, but in reality we tried to beat each other. Off the bike, you’re both just athletes.”
When both Van der Breggen and Van Vlueten joined up to form part of the Dutch National Team during the World Championships and the Olympics, they were a force to be reckoned with. Dutch dominance became a common occurrence as the likes of Marianne Vos and Ellen van Dijk completed a team from The Netherlands that was often unbeatable. In 2021, though, this wasn’t all plain sailing. The Dutch outfit made headlines for their lack of cooperation during both races.With so many strong riders, the fight for leadership and a lack of communication looked to have caused the team to throw away a potential Olympic gold medal and rainbow jersey. “When I started riding with the National Federation, Vos was always the strongest at that point,” explained Van der Breggen. “I loved being part of the team and being able to ride for her and she won some world titles when I was there which was a great start of my career.
“Then there was a period that I was getting stronger and I could win races myself and later on so could Annemiek van Vleuten. Sometimes we were the riders who had to do it and we made a plan which we agreed on, then it's just seeing who is the strongest in the race,” she explained. “You can have a strong team, but if everybody still wants to win and goes for their own victory, then it's sometimes difficult, which was, I think, the case in the last World Championships in Belgium,” admitted Van der Breggen.
Looking ahead to the future, the Dutch rider will move into a Director Sportif role with SD Worx as an invaluable asset to the team, sharing her wealth of knowledge with up and coming riders. Referencing the Tour de France Femmes in 2022, Van der Breggen is expecting some fiery racing in the upcoming season.
“This is different. This is bigger. And that's something I think women's cycling deserves.”