“Organised” or “formulaic”, tactics and growth in women’s road racing

by Amy Jones

Words by Amy Jones | Photo by SWpix.com

Women’s cycling is still divergent from men’s in terms of tactics. As the depth within the field grows we might see more ‘organised’ races — but is this a desirable outcome?

When three of the peloton’s best sprinters — Lotte Kopecky, Emma Norsgaard, and Lorena Wiebes — got themselves into a breakaway at Omloop het Hageland (a race that looked very likely to come down to a sprint) those used to men’s tactics might have been scratching their heads. Seeing three of the top sprinters in a breakaway together might seem like confusing tactics but in women’s racing the break has a far better chance of making it all the way on a sprint stage than it would in the equivalent scenario in men’s.

On the same day as Omloop het Hageland, three riders got into the breakaway at Kuurne Bruxelles Kuurne and nearly made it to the line while all of the sprinters sat pretty in the peloton knowing they could rely on the organisation and firepower of the their teams to bring it back. It was touch-and-go but sure enough, ‘normal’ order was restored and the three riders were pulled back in time for a sprint to the line.

Women’s cycling is often described as ‘unpredictable’ usually because the races play out differently to the more structured (sometimes formulaic) men’s. As was the case last season, plenty of women’s races that looked likely to come down to a sprint finish were taken by breakaways.

There are myriad elements that contribute to this unpredictability of women’s racing, however one key factor is the collective depth of the peloton. While the women’s side of the sport is growing exponentially and more teams are able to field stronger rosters, there are still only a handful which are capable of controlling the race. Given that there are few squads that can dictate the race, women’s races are far more aggressive from start to finish as riders try to get into breakaways and teams try to whittle down the bunch.

“I hesitated at a crucial moment. It was a passive race at the start and I missed the fire and fighting that you need in order to get a better result”

Canyon//SRAM’s Kasia Niewiadoma, after Omloop het Nieuwsblad

While many scenarios in women’s racing are dynamic and unpredictable, one element that can be counted on is the consistency of the evergreen Annemiek van Vleuten. The 39-year-old has run — or ridden — rings around her competitors for years on all kinds of terrain but her win at Omloop het Nieuwsblad was impressive even by her standards.

In a two up sprint between van Vleuten and SD Worx’s Demi Vollering the odds would have been stacked against the Movistar rider, but — despite pulling her competitor for the final 15km of the race as she sat on — van Vleuten wore Vollering down to such a degree that the usually punchy younger rider had nothing left in the final few hundred metres. In winning the sprint, van Vleuten defied the odds and asserted her dominance yet again.

The race raised questions about the teamwork of the rest of the riders, with Trek-Segafredo and Canyon//SRAM in particular coming under scrutiny. After the race, the latter team published comments from their riders with Kasia Niewiadoma in particular admitting the tactical failings of herself and her squad:

“I hesitated at a crucial moment. It was a passive race at the start and I missed the fire and fighting that you need in order to get a better result. We’re quite a new group and we have some things to learn together that you can only really do in a race situation. So, it was good we’ve now had two races together, especially before Strade Bianche. It’s the beginning of the season and there are many more chances to come and with every passing week we will be getting better.”

Over winter there was a slew of transfers and there are some teams for whom these early races are an exercise in finding their feet and figuring each other out. Once these new riders gel within their teams we might see a more organised peloton emerge, but the unpredictable race dynamic that is characteristic of the women’s peloton will still reign.

The greater the number of women who are able to make a living from cycling the greater the depth within the women’s peloton will become. Whether that results in a more ‘organised’ peloton, as is the case in the men’s side of the sport, remains to be seen. The question is, however, does women’s cycling want that and does that constitute progress or a step backwards?

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