Scanning through the UCI website, it would be fair to look at the 2022 calendar for the women’s peloton and see it as a true breakthrough. The Giro Donne is scheduled to take place in August, closely followed by the inaugural Tour de France Femmes and then the Certazit Challenge by La Vuelta a few months later. Though much shorter than the men’s equivalents, these races are a step towards parity in race calendars, with three flagship events for women that have the name and history to attract a huge audience.
However, speaking at the press conference of the FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope team, general manager Stephen Delcourt made it clear that the true picture is not so rosy, and outlined how much work is still to be done to achieve complete equality. “Now we can talk about three Grand Tours with the Tour de France, Giro Donne and the Vuelta. But first, it's important to note that we are not like men’s cycling now,” he explained.
“We know all the details of the stages of the Tour de France and we can prepare for the Tour de France. But on the other hand, we don't know all the details of the Giro, and it's not professional. For the Vuelta: nothing.”
It’s worth noting that the men's 2022 Giro d’Italia route was released in November last year, and the announcement of the 2022 Vuelta a España route swiftly followed in December, giving both riders and team managers well over 6 months to build and prepare their respective squads for the races. With only a date in the calendar for the women’s events – no stage profiles or distances – it’s near impossible for team managers to ascertain which riders should go to each event based on the nature of the parcours.
“We want to prepare well for the season like the men and the women work a lot for that. But we really need for the race organisations to respect us, to anticipate and to prepare the women's race like the men's race,” Delcourt continued.
He went on to explain that FDJ’s leading riders for 2022 would be Cecile Uttrup Ludwig, Grace Brown, Marta Cavalli and Évita Muzic. Despite no route being announced yet for the Giro, Delcourt confirmed that his riders will attempt both the Giro Donne and the Tour de France Femmes, despite there being only 14 days between the two stage races. Uttrup Ludwig, who finished second in La Course by Le Tour de France last year, was quick to silence any doubts regarding if she, or her teammates, would be capable of tackling both demanding races in quick succession.
“The men can handle three weeks of racing,” she explained. The Giro Donne will span 10 days in 2022 while the Tour de France Femmes will run for 8. “We have a little break in between [both races]. We haven't tried this before but I think it is possible. If you have the right planning going into it, knowing that you'll have a rest period before and in between, then I think it's something that's manageable.”
The Danish talent has her sights set on winning that first, elusive yellow jersey in the Tour de France Femmes and has the full support of her team around her to achieve this goal. Though she also has the capability to target specific stage wins, Ludwig will only be gunning for the overall GC, and expects it to be a fierce battle.
Taking on this leadership role doesn’t come without its pressures, however. “I’m on a French team, we're in France, we're at the biggest cycling race in the cycling world. So of course, it's just going to be a huge circus,” she said.
The 26-year-old doesn’t shy away from the challenge, though, feeling confident that she will be well supported by the team’s strengthened roster in 2022, which includes new signings such as Grace Brown and Vittoria Guazzini. Both riders had exceptional 2021 race campaigns, with Brown securing two wins in the Women’s WorldTour and Guazzini becoming under-23 European Road Race Champion. “I think we'll have more cards and hopefully we are also going to be able to counter attack and play that game, which is fun to do,” Ludwig explained.
With Grace Brown opening her 2022 season in Australia with a win in her National Time Trial Championships and a second place in the Road Race, it's clear she is in fantastic form ahead of beginning her European campaign. The duo of Brown and Ludwig will likely be a force to be reckoned with in the women's peloton this year, especially in the Tour de France Femmes. Speaking at the press conference, Brown admitted she was satisfied with her recent results Down Under but was quick to explain that the level in Europe would be different to that in Australia. “It doesn't guarantee anything, but it gives a bit of confidence,” she said.
Riding for FDJ will be a big change for Brown who has spent the past three years on Team BikeExchange – a squad registered in her home country – but she looks forward to the shift in dynamic. “I think the team culture is going to be a really big change. I see the FDJ girls always having a lot of fun and always celebrating each other's success, which I think will be a really nice thing to be part of,” she explained.
Team manager Delcourt is also relishing the opportunity to have Brown as part of the team for the season ahead. “Grace is one of the best riders in the world in every race,” he said. “We are very happy to have a rider like her, she rides with instinct.”
Despite the stress of patchy information about important races, FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope look ahead to the season with positivity and optimism. With a strong team that appears to be bonding well and a range of options when it comes to leadership roles, it's likely that we could see the team’s win tally grow exponentially in 2022, as they hope to rival the likes of SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo.
Teams such as FDJ, who ensure professionalism and have high expectations of their riders, are contributing to the ever-increasing strength and depth of the women’s peloton. It seems like a crucial next step to continue the growth of the sport is for the race organisers to show the same commitment as the teams and riders who work so hard to reach the top step of the podium in their events.