Five years on – is the Women’s World Tour working?
Five years on, what impact has the introduction of the Women’s World Tour had?
First introduced in 2016, the Women’s WorldTour (WWT) replaced the existing Women’s World Cup series that ran from 1998 and was capped at 10 one-day races. The new and improved WWT would, the UCI said, offer more than 30 days of competition, along with other changes designed to enhance the plight of the pro women.
Initially, the changes were centred around races. As part of the new system, WWT races would be required to provide live coverage and the maximum distances of top-tier women’s events were increased from 130km to 140km for one-day races and an average of 120km in stage races — up from 100km.
On the teams front, things remained relatively unchanged between 2016 and 2019. All women’s teams were organised on a single-tier system and entry to WWT events was achieved via world ranking points wherein the top fifteen squads were automatically invited — although not obligated — to race. Although it may now seem like it has always existed, the current two-tier system only came into place at the beginning of the 2020 season.
Photo credit: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com
Arguably, it is the two-tiered system which has created the biggest changes for the highest level of the women’s peloton and contributed to the professionalisation of women’s cycling thanks to the set of minimum requirements that WWT teams must meet.
In order to obtain a WWT license, teams must provide a four-year sponsorship guarantee (the number-one world-ranked team in 2019, Boels Dolmans, were unable to secure a WWT license for 2020 as they couldn’t offer the same), pay a minimum salary of €20,000 for an employee or €32,800 self-employed (rising to €27,000 and €45,100 in 2022), as well as provide insurance and rights such as maternity leave.
While minimum salaries and race TV coverage are the eye-catching elements, there are also organisational and financial standards that teams must meet, such as bank guarantees. Teams must also provide health insurance and, from 2022, a pension plan “In the event a rider is not a beneficiary of a legal social security system.”
Essentially, WWT teams must treat their riders as employees and as such extend basic working rights to them. By providing these rights, WWT teams offer a level of job security and financial stability that riders previously may not have had. While, of course, the teams joining the WWT were likely to be those with the biggest budgets and the best conditions to begin with, the two-tier system made it official for WWT teams to have to treat riders with professionalism.
At the time the two-tier system was announced, there was speculation around whether it was financially viable for teams to meet the requirements by providing the (often costly) mandatory benefits to riders. Just over one year into the new system, however, and not only have all of the original squads weathered the financial uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the number of WWT teams has grown — albeit by just one— and many of the women’s squads affiliated to men’s teams have increased riders’ salaries in line with the men’s.
Women’s cycling has always been thrilling to watch, but in the past twelve to eighteen months the rising standard of racing has reflected the rising standards of rider wellbeing. More WWT squads than ever are racing as a cohesive unit, with rosters packed full of riders who are all individually capable of achieving top results. Naturally, if a rider is being paid a living wage to do their job, without the constant strain of trying to supplement their income through part-time work on the side, then they are able to dedicate themselves fully to cycling. The results follow.
In the case of races, the UCI has recently proven to be good on its word when it comes to policing the implementation of the requirements when — albeit after much public pressure — the Giro Rosa was stripped of its WWT status after failing to offer any live coverage in 2020.
Anna van der Breggen greets International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and UCI President David Lappartient at the 2020 World Championships in Imola, Italy. Photo Credit Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com
The future of the WWT, according to the UCI's regulations, involves scaling up the numbers on the current conditions: increasing salaries in line with men’s ProTeams from 2023, requiring teams to hire a minimum of two full-time DS and five additional staff members — including team coaches and doctors — from 2022 as well as increasing the minimum number of riders to 10.
It’s no coincidence that the increasing interest in women’s cycling that has been heralded over the past few years has coincided with the expanding number of races being shown live. More races being broadcast is finally contributing to the end of the perpetual chicken-and-egg situation that women’s cycling faces with regards to visibility and investment.
But while those women experiencing the zenith of their cycling career can expect a better quality of life within the bifurcation of the women’s peloton, the situation for Continental riders remains largely unchanged. There is still very little protection and financial reward at that level and the situation for those in small Continental squads who receive little to no compensation can have serious consequences on rider wellbeing.
A lower-tier is vital to the ecosystem of rider development and without good Continental teams, the WorldTour will run out of new talent. However, as long as the focus remains on the first tier with no requirements in place for the second, the imbalance between the WWT teams and their Continental counterparts will only continue to grow. Perhaps the UCI is hoping that a rising tide might lift all boats — and to an extent this is true in the short-term — but they would do well to turn their attention to making sure the skiffs don’t capsize while they focus on the yachts.