Unless you’re living on the moon, you’ve probably noticed that the Spring Classics are underway. These are one-day races that take place mostly in northern Europe and are renowned for being especially brutal. Some of them date back to the first decade of cycle racing, but what progress have they made in representing women? As part of my research for a new book, I’ve been exploring the status of women’s road racing. In this post, I share some of my findings on the key Spring Classics.
The Strade Bianche became a professional race in 2007. It instantly became a classic because, in part, a third of the course is on unpaved roads, and it precedes the Tirreno-Adriatico and the start of the Cobbled Classics. There has been a women’s event since 2015.
At 298 kilometres Milan—San Remo is the longest one-day professional race in modern cycling. Not only is it the longest race, but it is also the first major classic of the season and one of the five Monuments (the five most prestigious and revered classics). There is no women’s event, but from 1999-2005 a women’s edition ran called the Primavera Rosa.
E3 Harelbeke (E3 BinckBank)
The E3 Harelbeke is the final rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders, which is one of the five Monuments. There is no women’s event and to make matters worse, the organiser has found itself in trouble (not for the first time) with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) for sexist advertising with the 2019 edition showing two body-painted naked women posing as a frog.
Gent – Wevelgem
Gent-Wevelgem is a spring classic that has searched for a unique identity. It’s known as The Wind Classic and often referred to as a sprinters’ classic, although the men’s course takes in some of the hills of northern France. There has been a women’s event since 2012, and Lizzie Armistead (GBR) won that inaugural event.
Tour of Flanders
The Tour of Flanders is another of the five Monuments and combines strategy, cobbles, vicious gradients, and often foul weather. As Sean Kelly put it, “Flanders was one of the most horrible races to ride but one of the greatest to win.” There has been a women’s event since 2004.
Known as The Hell of the North, this race, with its cobbles and bike-breaking terrain, is renowned as one of the most testing one-day cycle races in the world. This is the third of the Monuments that takes place during spring. It has no women’s race, but UCI president David Lappartient has said that Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) is working on adding an event as early as 2020.
Amstel Gold Race
This race is one of the most important classics. Not only is it punishing and named after a beer*, but it also marks the change from the Cobbled Classics to climbing. There has been a women’s event since 2001.
* the race is named after the beer (a sponsor) and not the river Amstel
La Flèche Wallonne
The Flèche Wallonne is the first of the Ardennes Classics* and features the notorious Mur de Huy climb with gradients of up to 26 percent. The progressive Walloons have held a women’s event since 1998.
* Ardennes is a region in southern Belgium that encroaches on parts of France and Luxembourg
First run in 1892, this race is known as La Doyenne (the old lady) and is the final of the Five Monuments to take place during spring. For such an old race, it may come as a surprise that there’s only been a women’s event since 2017.
The Big Question:
The UCI talks of being, “a huge advocate of women’s cycling”. If we consider there were virtually no women’s Spring Classics twenty years ago, should we congratulate them on their progress? Or, should we call on them to stop playing with ‘carrot’ tactics and instead pull out the ‘stick’? And, should we call on the UCI to insist that race organisers hold both men’s and women’s events if they want inclusion on the UCI calendars? Remember that the Classics are commercial events where organisers make profits and sponsors reap the rewards of publicity. So, should we continue to give our support to organisers and sponsors that promote events that exclude half the planet? What are your thoughts?
Photo: centre stage Anna van der Breggen, one of the greatest women’s classic riders of all time. Photo courtesy of George Deswijzen.