Size Matters: Should women’s race lengths match the men’s?

by Amy Jones

Words by Amy Jones | Photo by

Last month, some of the biggest names in running spoke out in opposition to a move by UK Athletics — after pressure from the Run Equal campaign — that sought to make women’s cross country events equal in length to the the men’s.

Paula Radcliffe, Joyce Smith, Laura Muir, Mara Yamanuchi and many other influential figures in women’s running signed a letter to UK Athletics opposing the move. In the letter they claimed that, rather than simply unilaterally equalising distances between men’s and women’s races, “it is a question of what specifications suit men and women, and what makes for meaningful and exciting competition.”

It is an argument that has been ongoing in cycling, too. Must women’s races emulate the men’s with upwards of 180km stages and 200km+ one-day races in order to be seen as valid?

Anyone who has sat through a flat 200km grand tour stage that will inevitably produce a doomed breakaway and culminate in a bunch sprint finish will be aware that longer doesn’t always equal better.

The runners who wrote to UKA warned of the dangers of equating greater race distances with credibility. They argue that the shorter distances don’t diminish the quality of the event and that, in fact, shorter distances attract a wider range of athletes, making them even more competitive.

The same could be argued in cycling — the current UCI caps for women’s race lengths are 160km for one day and 140km average across a stage race — the shorter distances covered often allow for aggressive, action-packed racing that is exciting from start to finish (when it’s available to watch).

“…finally, we’re being taken seriously, and they don’t think our uteruses will fall out if we ride long stages.”

Cecillie Uttrup Ludwig, after winning 180km stage of the gira rosa

Others, though, feel that avoiding longer and harder parcours is an insult to the increasing depth of the women’s peloton. Last year’s 10-day Giro Rosa included a stage that totalled 180km with the addition of the neutral section and Cecillie Uttrup Ludwig of FDJ Nouvelle aquitaine Futuroscope celebrated the 170km stage saying, “finally, we’re being taken seriously, and they don’t think our uteruses will fall out if we ride long stages.”

For Uttrup Ludwig and many others in the upper echelons of the peloton this is true. While the women’s peloton has become increasingly professionalised and competitive in recent years — 2015 World Championship race winner, Lizzie Deignan (pictured, in action at the 2020 GP de Plouay), recently said that such was the increase in depth that racing in the women’s pro peloton felt like “a different sport,” — there is still a long way to go and Continental teams may well fall behind.

Even those who are able to be competitive over longer distances aren’t necessarily calling for them to be a regular addition. Lizzy Banks went on to win the divisive 170 km stage while riding for Equipe Paule Ka and yet said afterwards, “I don’t want to ride 180km, I want exciting races, I’m pretty sure in the bunch today it was quite boring.”

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio agreed, telling CyclingNews, “there’s always the danger that the longer the races become the less exciting it becomes, and I think that is one of the key factors of women’s cycling, is that it is exciting, more aggressive and less predictable than men’s cycling,”

When the best women’s races in the world are battling to be showcased over a mere one hour or less of live television coverage, surely a shorter, more aggressive race is a better advert for the women’s side of the sport than a long, predictable and formulaic version?

If you enjoyed reading this, why not take a look at our review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, available to buy here.

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