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News Feature, March 6, 2008
Women's North American racing improves in 2008
North American UCI races are one of the more volatile aspects of the racing calendar; every year some are added and some disappear. UCI races are more complicated to put on and have significantly higher costs due to more regulations, bigger prize lists and a host of other differences. Despite this fact, the 2008 calendar for women is looking healthier than ever. Cyclingnews' North American Editor Mark Zalewski already looked at the gentlemen's side of the 2008 calendar, and now turns equal attention to the ladies.
Women road racers historically have had fewer opportunities for the high caliber racing a UCI event provides than their male counterparts, and recently this has been even more the case on the North American continent. But after several years of stagnation, the 2008 calendar finally shows an increase top notch races on this side of the pond. Joining races such as the Liberty Classic and Le Tour du Grand Montréal in early June is the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic, which upgraded only its pro women category to UCI status. Race director Chad Sperry, who has also successfully directed the other Oregon race, the Cascade Classic. That race ran into problems with the women's category last year when it fell on the same weekend as the U.S. national championships.
Sperry said that he hopes the Mt. Hood upgrade will help promote women's cycling in general, as well as the Oregon races. "Frankly, we'll never be a Tour of California, but the core group here has always wanted to help women's cycling. And there are so few UCI opportunities in the U.S. compared to the men. We had a huge UCI stage race in the women's challenge in Idaho [from 1984-2002 -ed.] and we wanted to get something similar to that. It's been a model for us, except we have kept the pro men's field intact, partly for the media and financial backing."
"We are increasing the prize list by more than double, but the big thing is being on the UCI calendar," said Sperry. "It was a big leap for us." The race is also increasing its potential spectator and viewership, moving two stages to downtown Portland. "The prologue will be right downtown along the Willamette River starting around 4:00 p.m. on the Tuesday," said Tre Hendricks, director of public relations.
"Then we are doing a crit on Wednesday during the day about a mile outside of downtown, about 1.5 miles with a nice little elevation gain in it. It should be a good, fun course. The city of Portland has been hugely supportive of us in this endeavor."
Sperry said that the biggest challenge in upgrading to UCI status would be competing with races in Europe. "The one thing I think we will struggle with in terms of Europe is we are in competition with Tour de l'Aude. So we are probably going to see more Oceania and Canadian teams, and of course all the U.S. teams. I think some European teams will wait to see if they get the invite for Tour de l'Aude."
Nobody puts Baby in the corner
Starting the year off in mid-March is the Sequoia Cycling Classic, which is not going UCI in 2008 but is highlighting the ladies by only being on the National Racing Calendar for women. Race director Sheri Clark said that the impetus behind the decision was a combination of adhering to NRC minimum prize requirements while still offering equal opportunities for women. When the race could not afford to do both, it erred on the side of keeping the women as the featured race in lieu of the usual mentality by promoters to give the men top honors.
"The increase in minimum prize requirements forced us to make a decision," said Clark. "Last year we had equal payout for men and women and we wanted to maintain that equity. The main issue is that we have an early race, so when we put our bid applications in the fall, we have to think about if we can raise the extra funds. And we didn't want to make a commitment that we wouldn't be able to fulfill."
"We want the women to understand that we see them as just as important to cycling in North American as the men. Last year we were well appreciated for having equal prize pay out, and the last thing we wanted to do was the common decision to push the women aside. We will still have pro men, but it will be half the prize list."
The decision by the race is part of a larger plan to bring the race back to the prominence it had in earlier year. "We are still in the rebuilding process - there was a time when it was the premier race. We are increasing the time trial from 30km to 40km; it's the same layout, just a little longer. We will also be having a jumbo screen on sight to hopefully increase the community interest."
A similar situation is occurring down in Oklahoma with the third Tough Ride and Race at the end of May. Spokesperson Chris Zenthoefer said that competition from bigger men's events around that weekend means the race puts the focus on getting smaller men's teams; but since there are fewer women's teams overall the race needs to do things to attract them specifically.
"For the women, in order to draw them, we need the NRC rating," said Zenthoefer. "There are only so many women racers out there, so along with the big prize money we needed to have the rating. We have competition from other men's events such as CSC and Philly, but we focus on getting the smaller teams or riders that aren't on the main squads that weekend - and we still get a full men's field. Last year was the second year, but the first year in the NRC. We do have a pro men's event but the women's race is the only NRC rated event."
Moving on up
Some races are moving their dates, including the Tour de Leelanau in northern Michigan near Traverse City. According to race director Steve Brown, the rationale behind the date change from September to 25 May serves a purpose for both the women and the men. "Last year we got completely squashed by the Tour of Missouri," he said, regarding the other UCI race on the same weekend, which attracted the top domestic teams. "This year the [UCI] calendar said it was Saturday the 24th, but we are going to ask the UCI to move it to Sunday the 25th, because it would conflict with our local marathon. Having the cycling race on Sunday will still be good and will allow us to pair with the runners."
Having the race in late May is also possibly helping the women, since it will flow right into the well-established Montreal World Cup and Le Tour du Grand Montréal. This will help the race find the necessary amount of international teams to meet the UCI guidelines. "My big challenge is to find five international women's teams, so of course I am going to be looking across the border to Canada. We are absolutely looking to the Montreal race; my hope is that the women's teams will look at us as a tune-up for Montreal."
The Montreal World Cup and Tour of Montreal are once again highlights of the season for the women, and like last year, the Tour of Prince Edward Island will be run by the same promoters in the following week. The race won an award from the Canadian Cycling Association and was well received by riders who attended the inaugural event.
However, the race still falls during the UCI rated Liberty Classic, which is part of the well-known Philly week of races. This will cause teams, particularly smaller ones, to choose between the two events. But this can be seen another way, as a good problem to have enough races where they start to push up against one another.
The rest of the calendar looks a lot like previous years, with a lot of criteriums offering both men's and women's categories. The Tour de 'Toona will again be another featured race on the women's calendar, offering equal stage distances as the men and even more prize money comparatively.
A growing trend?
Looking to the future, the possibility of even more women's UCI races is likely, after the successful running of a NRC women's race during the 2008 Tour of California. Andrew Messick, President of AEG Sports, said that there are plans to turn this race into a women's UCI event that will coincide with the Tour of California. "This was the first step," he said regarding the NRC criterium. "It isn't particularly hard, as we have the build-out and heavy lifting for a city to have the race already, it is just a matter of closing the roads a little earlier. In the larger context of what it takes to pull this race off is not much, it is adding on to what is already there. And why shouldn't we do that? We are prepared to provide the leadership and spend the money. It was a great race and the fans loved it. It is good for the women who raced and I'm glad we did it."
The biggest hurdle to making a UCI race happen with the men's Tour of California is that it occurs during the women's world cup in Geelong, Australia. "We don't want to create something that competes with the UCI world cup down in Geelong, so our vision is to try to work the calendar a little so we aren't asking people to choose between our race and Geelong. It would be a pity as there aren't a lot of races out there for women, and to have them all in the same time -- you think that would be something easy to work out. And we will do that within the channels."