Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
The chaotic scenes that characterised the Tour Féminin des Pyrénées summed up the growing dilemma facing the rapidly-growing women’s scene and highlighted the increasing need for funding to match rider expectations
In the aftermath of the rebirth of the women’s Tour de France, enthusiasm for women’s cycling is on a high. There are more races and more teams, there is more TV coverage and far greater recognition, finally, of the quality and excitement of the women’s scene. But the level of funding, both in the riders themselves and in the infrastructure of their leading races, remains woefully inadequate.
Nowhere has this dilemma been more manifested than in last weekend’s highly-awaited Tour Féminin des Pyrénées, which fell apart on Sunday morning after riders and race organisers angrily rounded on each other. The tensions around the opening stage, and particularly the absurdly dangerous final kilometres into central Lourdes, exploded on Saturday’s stage to Hautacam, when angry riders called a halt after yet another near-miss with oncoming traffic.
After a lengthy debate, that second stage did reach an eventual conclusion, with Marta Cavalli taking the stage win, but by the next morning, nerves were so frayed that Sunday’s third stage didn’t even get out of the car park. Bad feeling grew through Saturday night and into Sunday morning, when the tensions in the convoy erupted and several key teams, most notably, Jumbo-Visma, voted with their feet.
As others joined them, citing safety concerns, it became clear that the race was on the verge of collapsing. When other teams, including Israel-Premier Tech, also left the race, cancellation became inevitable. Finally, late on Sunday morning, the UCI tweeted: “To maintain the safety of the riders, the UCI has taken the decision to stop the Tour des Pyrénées.”
Cancelling races is not a decision that anyone involved takes lightly, least of all the organisers.
The months of preparation, the painstaking route planning, the negotiated media rights, the fees paid by local authorities, the funding of race sponsors, all are instantly tossed away. The task of going back to those investors and asking for money for next year’s race — if it happens — has now been made doubly hard.
It’s also a disaster for the riders and teams. Their preparation for bigger races — the Giro Donne, the Tour de France Femmes — is hugely disrupted and they quickly have to re-jig their programmes. After Sunday’s cancellation, some teams took to the roads around their hotels to train, but that’s no substitute for clocking up racing miles in the mountains, in the peak of the summer.
But with safety lapses so severe that they threatened not just the riders, but also race marshals, motorbike outriders, police officers and members of the public too, cancellation was the only option. The catastrophic consequences of inadequate rolling road closures are well-documented and have in the past, been fatal. The bottom line is that if you can’t guarantee the safety of the convoy, then don’t put on the race.
In the aftermath of the cancellation, some should have been shepherded away from the media. Unfortunately race co-director Pascal Baudron was one of those who was too quick to voice his opinion, saying: “…the girls have demands that are not in line with their level. They think they’re in the Tour de France and that all the roads have to be closed, that everything has to be locked down. “
He continued: “The day there are no more races, they’ll be able to cry and that’s what’s going to happen. Quite honestly, I don’t think it’s worth organising a race to see all those months of effort ruined for the whims of spoilt children.”
Speaking in the cold light of Monday morning, after the emotion of the weekend’s chaos had dissipated, one well-known member of the women’s peloton summed up her feelings. “They’re trying to run before they can walk,” she said of the race organisers.
She also spoke of the conflicts that many in the peloton felt, even as they criticised the organisers. “I know they’re not totally responsible, they trusted people that didn’t do what they were supposed to do. But we had a good consensus among the women, that despite how hard a decision it was, it was too dangerous to go on.”
Rolling road closures, as opposed to the total road closure imposed on Grand Tours, rely on a heavy presence of marshals and motorbike outriders, speeding back and forth between road junctions, basically directing traffic to wait until the race convoy has passed. It a familiar strategy that has been in use for many years, but one that becomes stretched when gaps appear and the riders are spread out.
It relies too on the goodwill of the public and an understanding that they will stay put until the last riders have passed. But anyone who’s covered races in Europe will know that in practice this is sometimes difficult to enforce. According to CPA President Adam Hansen, however, it’s a strategy that is under review and that will be improved by 2024. “There’s no reason why this race can’t happen next year, with this new structure put in at a safer level,” he told the RadioCycling podcast.
Ultimately, though, it’s all about money. The women’s scene needs the funding to match the potential. Many have remarked on this imbalance, of investment versus expectations, including French national champion Audrey Cordon Ragot (pictured), who welcomes the explosion of interest, but worries that at times the calendar is growing too quickly.
“To me, things are going a little bit too fast,” she told me in May.
It’s likely that Pascal Baudron will regret his tactless words and his description of elite athletes as “spoilt children.” The events of the weekend were a hammer blow for the race organisers, who will now be faced with months of re-building for 2024. But they appear to have an old-school mentality, better suited to the mid-1980s than 2023. They need to wise up, even if we shouldn’t doubt how devastating this cancellation will have been.
A long time ago, I remember sitting with American legend Andy Hampsten in a hotel restaurant on a snowy March night during one of the last Paris-Nice rides of his illustrious career. That day’s stage to Chalvignac had been abandoned after a stop-start stage was disrupted by high winds and snow drifts, even though the sun had been shining for much of the afternoon.
The veteran of the legendary Gavia snowstorm stage in the 1988 Giro d’Italia was less than impressed by the reluctance of the peloton to race on. “I mean, come on,” he said, rolling his eyes, “to say you’re stopping because there’s melted snow on the road….”
Even now, I think Hampsten was right. They could have carried on. It was, after all, the first Paris-Nice stage ever to be cancelled. Yes, it was windy, ice-cold, but the sky was blue and the sun was out. When I arrived in the press room that afternoon, race organiser Josette Leuillot, realising the financial crisis it would create for her already struggling company, was in tears.
But those were different times, long before the Extreme Weather Protocol and long before Europe’s roads became so busy .
We now have more cars on the road, while in France, cycling remains much-loved, but not as intensely as it was 30 years ago. There are more races too, some very well-organised ones and some lesser and more dangerous ones. Maybe we have too many of the less well-organised races on the calendar. And perhaps too, races that can’t secure the convoy and whose organisers think that athletes who want to avoid dicing with death, are “spoilt children,” really don’t deserve to exist anyway.