Words by Amy Jones | Photo by SWpix.com
In 2021 Flanders Classics was taken to task for paying the women’s winner of Het Nieuwsblad just 5% of the men’s. Two years on, this and much else has changed for the better…
Two years ago, in 2021, I wrote about the controversy that ensued after the disparity in prize money between the men’s and women’s winners at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was revealed. At that time, the winner of the men’s race, Davide Ballerini, was awarded €16,000 for his efforts, while Anna van der Breggen received a mere €900 – 5% of the men’s prize.
The stark difference sparked a lively online debate about whether the amounts were fair, and whether prize money was a fight worth having, with many arguing that live TV coverage and equal pay were more important hills to die on.
Flanders Classics CEO Thomas Van den Spiegel, came to his organisation’s defence pointing to their ‘Closing the Gap’ equality initiative and saying he was “quite disappointed” with the backlash after “all the financial investments we have made into women’s cycling for years now.”
In a video explaining the initiative, Van Den Spiegel explained that prize money would become the focus in 2023 but until then there were “other investments to be made, other efforts to be made, and drawing attention to the sport was the first one.”
Fast forward to this year and that same race, Omloop het Nieuwsblad, has not only been added to the Women’s WorldTour but now offers equal prize money to both the men’s and women’s winners alongside all of Flanders Classic’s races (there was, however, only 28km of the race broadcast live.) The move is testament to Flanders Classics and their sustainable growth plans but also to the rapid rise of women’s cycling as a whole in just the two short years since that original outrage began.
Speaking on the eve of the race – which she then proceeded to win in dominant style – SD Worx’s Lotte Kopecky (pictured) had this to say about the prize money: “Well, it’s not always an important thing. But in the end, I mean, if you saw what it was the last years, it was just that in the end as a rider there was almost nothing left.
“I think it’s a very nice gesture from Flanders Classics that they are raising the prize money. Because in the end, although we do less kilometres, I think we still have to work for it as hard as the men and I think it’s a very nice thing that this prize money is the same now.”
Since the inaugural year of the Women’s WorldTour tier in 2020, which introduced minimum salary stipulations amongst other requisite benefits, alongside the introduction of new high-profile races such as Paris Roubaix Femmes and the Tour de France Femmes, the women’s side of the sport has seen exponential growth. For some, however, these developments have moved too quickly, leaving lower-tier teams to play catch up with no additional resources. For Kopecky, though, things are moving at just the right rate.
“I think it’s going at a good speed. Every year there are little adjustments. And I think the evolution we saw in the last years has been very nice evolution. I think we can also see some very nice races and a lot of spectacle. So, yeah, I think we are just moving at the right speed,” she said. “I’m very curious how the level has stepped up again compared to last year… I think it has.”
With the WorldTour level growing there are now more female riders than ever who are able to live off the sport alone without having to take up other jobs on the side. This professionalisation is one of the key reasons that the depth within the women’s peloton has grown as more riders are able to focus their efforts solely on training and racing. For most, this is seen as a positive step in the development of the women’s side of the sport. But for the ever-vocal and controversial team manager Patrick Lefevere, there is an unwelcome side-effect.
Lefevere, who now owns a women’s team in the form of AG Insurance Soudal-Quickstep, told the Krant van West-Vlaanderen: “I certainly believe in the future of women’s cycling. The only problem is that it’s being pushed artificially. Look at the minimum wages, €60,000/year at WT level. I give it to them, but some aren’t worth that.”
He added: “Last year they made the time cut in the Tour easier because half of the peloton would be OTL. Someone who can’t follow doesn’t deserve €60,000/year? The top of women’s cycling is not big enough, yet.”
While his doubts about whether all of the riders currently racing in the WorldTour meet the same level are not entirely wrong, it is the very minimum salary about which he is complaining that will allow them to raise that level. In addition, Lefevere’s maths is somewhat off with regards to the figure; the UCI stipulates a minimum salary of €32,102 for riders who are directly employed and €52,647 for those who are self-employed.
That same weekend, the women’s team that he backs went ahead and dominated the 2.Pro Setmana Ciclista Valenciana with two second places for sprinter Lotta Henttala, a stage win for Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and the GC overall with upcoming Belgian talent Justine Ghekiere.
“I think it was a nice middle finger from them,” Kopecky said of AG Insurance Soudal-Quickstep’s performance. “In the end, these minimum salaries need to be there, because otherwise women’s cycling won’t grow. I mean, if we want more teams to have more [and] better riders, they need to be able to live from cycling and not have to work at the same time, because then this big gap will always remain.
“Of course some riders don’t have the level yet…I know Patrick says [we] earn a lot of money but in the end, it is what’s women’s cycling needs to grow so I am in favour of these minimum salaries and I think that’s only a good thing for women’s cycling.”
There is no doubt that women’s cycling is rapidly on the rise, and whether Lefevere and others like it or not it will continue to grow year-by-year as more exposure, more races, and, yes, more money is introduced. So much has already happened in the two years since 2021 and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad prize money debate, imagine where we might be in another two years’ time. This particular gap has closed, but there’s work still to do.