Emakumeen Bira organisers angered by California date change

Last week’s news about the Tour of California women’s race concentrated only on the fact the race had been cut from four to three days. Apparently no one noticed it had also changed dates, now clashing with Emakumeen XXXI Bira, the Spanish stage race promoted to the Women’s WorldTour for 2018.

While losing race days is not good news, having two overlapping top level women’s races is arguably worse. The Amgen Tour of California Women’s Race empowered by SRAM (to give the race its full, rather unwieldy moniker) is now highly unlikely to live up to its billing “showcasing the world’s best women cyclists” next year.

And neither will Bira.

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervélo-Bigla) attacks during the Stage 3 of the 2017 Emakumeen Bira Photo ©Balint Hamvas/Velofocus

When published some months ago, the UCI’s original Women’s WorldTour calendar showed the Tour of California women’s race would run four stages between May 10th and 13th. Last week ASO – the same people who organise the Tour de France – announced the race would now finish on May 19th. The day Bira begins.

Simultaneous events serve to confuse the WorldTour calendar, creating a situation which cannot be good for teams and sponsors, even riders. And remember, women’s team rosters are small: riding two programmes is nearly impossible.

Indeed, over the years this has been recognised, and the clash will be the first time two events forming part of the UCI’s top women’s race series have overlapped. That includes the World Cup which preceded the Women’s WorldTour between 1998 and 2015.

Spanish organisers are understandably angry, fearing – probably rightly – a reduction in the overall standard of riders at their event. Not only have similar circumstances befallen the race previously, adding insult to injury they had already shifted their start date from Thursday to Saturday to accommodate teams travelling from America.

“Now these plans are not valid. What can we do now?” organisers told me in an email exchange. “The UCI Road department contacted us through our Spanish Federation to consult us, but they have decided [on] this change without our knowledge. We were informed by a friend.

“The UCI don’t respect us, we are very annoyed. There are some teams telling us they will come to our race, but this does not matter, women’s races need better treatment.”

Simply switching dates is not possible for Bira, with domestic Spanish races ruling out a swap to California’s original dates. Running it over the following weekends would adversely impact Lotto Thüringen Ladies Tour, itself re-scheduled for 2018 with the help of UCI to prevent a clash with La Course – another ASO race.

I understand Bira will retain its current dates.

But why the change?

Local organisers in California, AEG sent me the following statement for a piece I was writing for Cycling Weekly.

“We always run the women’s race within the larger window of the men’s race. We determined that the best race and course for the women was a three day event. The UCI was aware of our schedule and it is an approved race as part of the WorldTour.”

Not a whole lot of help. Maybe they feared a reduced field because of the Commonwealth Games? Perhaps running the event concurrently with the men’s event increases the  number of roadside fans and exposure gained.

With Bira apparently the innocent victim, this situation looks bad for the Tour of California and the UCI. The former for being the big organiser who gets their own way, the latter for allowing the change.

Whatever, the clash of races has the potential to damage both races and the UCI’s flagship road series.

Let’s hope not.

NOTE: One week after this blog was published the UCI responded as follows.

“The organisers of the Amgen Tour of California Women’s Race empowered with SRAM always link the women’s race to the men’s race, with both events running concurrently and concluding in Sacramento. The UCI regrets the overlap with Spain’s Emakumeen Bira race, but in the pursuit of the globalization of the UCI Women’s WorldTour it is important to maintain a UWWT stop in the USA. For future seasons, we aim to avoid calendar conflicts of events whenever possible.”

La Course

Below is what this blog is for. Riders often give me so much information at races I have too much for whatever I am writing for other people.

Here I speak to Lizzie Deignan and Tiffany Cromwell about La Course. It’s a long one, but I could have written much more.

There has been much water under the bridge since La Course. There’s even been another WorldTour race. But La Course has huge international reach and it is worth talking about its successes and failures.

Neither Lizzie Deignan (Boels-Dolmans) and Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM) saw it as a total failure, though it is clear the organisation leaves a lot to be desired.

When organisers Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) announced the race’s fourth edition would move from its previous home on the Champs Elysées to the Alps there was much comment about the 67.5km distance. Those criticisms may well have been valid, but if the start and finish were to be the same as the Queen stage of the Tour de France the route was geographically restricted to either 67.5 or 179.5km.

(A point on distances, I have heard or read no criticism of the Prudential Ride London Classique which is 66km on a flat city course. From a sporting angle which is the token gesture?)

In the wake of that criticism from fans, media and who knows perhaps even the UCI, ASO added a second stage to the race. The innovative, experimental format seemed cobbled together, during the press conference launching the race even organisers seemed uncertain it wold work.

In the end what emerged was a curious amalgam of a one day WorldTour event and a non-UCI classified invitational competition all under the banner of a single stage race.

It is fair to say it could have gone better.

“It was a nice event,” Tiff Cromwell said of the race up Col d’Izoard. “Sure it was a short race, but it was raced hard and the atmosphere was really cool. We put on a good display, people saw that, but I think the event still has some work to do. There are some things missing, but it turned out to be a lot better than I was expecting.”

Lizzie Deignan speaking with the press on Col d’Izoard

In my Cycling Weekly piece Lizzie Deignan said, “Racing in Paris felt like the biggest stage in the world, I felt like I was at the Tour de France and the Col d’Izoard felt the same,” adding, “Yes absolutely,” when asked if it worked as a stand alone race.

She was less complimentary about the organisation

“It is unfortunate, you don’t want to be negative about it, because when you [the public] are sat there watching you don’t see the behind the scenes bits.” All participating teams were forced to stay hours away from Briançon, and after the race there was nowhere for riders to take a shower. While other teams stayed in the Alps, Boels-Dolmans travelled to Marseille, having to negotiate road closures in place for the men’s Tour stage, making the drive six hours. Without a shower.

“Perhaps ASO aren’t quite aware of the difference in budgets for women’s teams. Our logistics budget is well thought out and planned in advance because it costs so much. How are our team management supposed to book flights and accommodation for people who may or not need it because we don’t know if they are going to be in the top 20?”

Listen to the Cycling Podcast Féminin and you’ll hear how Canyon-SRAM’s manager Ronny Lauke was booking flights during the mountain stage as it became clear which riders would not be racing in Marseille.

When that stage was announced many riders felt they were being experimented on, like guinea pigs.

“My instinct was to feel quite trivialised by it,” continued Deignan. “I realise it is important to be open minded to a modern approach, the men had the Hammer Series, entertainment type events, and perhaps cycling needs to take an approach like that, but in terms of logistics and organisation, it was nowhere near good enough for what we deserve.

“As a professional athlete there are certain things that you need. Because you want to be well hydrated so you go to the toilet a lot, so I was looking for a toilet and someone from the organisation gave me a ‘she-wee.’”

As for the competition the time gap accrued by Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott) ensured the result was all but a foregone conclusion.

“Annemiek is a time trial and climbing specialist, maybe I am under-estimating my time trial ability, but not to the extent I can close 43 seconds on someone like Annemiek.

“I am open to something like it, but it’s not quite right. Potentially it could work if I were, say, ten seconds behind Annemiek and the idea was that you catch each other and there were tactics involved. But then don’t finish it in a stadium where it is impossible to have a group of women in a sprint.”

“I think the concept was there,” said Cromwell. “But it definitely needs some tweaking. “I watched it and it wasn’t too bad, but I heard it wasn’t on the TV in the stadium, if you’re going to fully embrace it have it on in the stadium.”

That only the final kilometres of Van Vleuten’s success were shown in the very place the event was staged is perhaps an indication ASO were unconvinced by their own idea.

La Course is a huge event for women’s team sponsors, something all riders and managers I speak to acknowledge without reservation. There was more media at both the start and finish of the Col d’Izoard stage than previous La Course editions I have attended. The race therefore has its place.

Innovations which may further commercial success should be accepted and this one might have worked had one rider not been so dominant. However, shoddy, disrespectful administration and organisation which treats competitors like second class citizens undermines the racing.

Rio the inspiration for Van Vleuten’s Giro challenge

Annemiek van Vleuten cut a slightly intimidating figure behind the Giro Rosa podium this year. Each day, before receiving either the points of mountains jersey, she would roll through crowds of hangers-on – none of them accredited, but allowed in nonetheless – before warming down on the rollers.

Though she smiled politely, she wore a look of extreme focus which combined with her wet hair, pulled tight away from her face, to gave her the look of one apart, someone slightly slightly distant.


In Baronissi, after Stage 7 she playfully told me she was feeling rubbish with no chance winning the general classification, before answering more conventionally. Even if my questions were poor the interaction did nothing to change my misconception.

When I saw Van Vleuten waiting for the final podium in Torre del Grecco there was a change. There were no rollers and the distant look was replaced with a huge smile as the Orica-Scott rider chatted animatedly with Cevélo-Bigla’s best young rider, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.

“I am really proud of this Giro,” she told me, not letting her smile slip and with no hint of the contained answers given some days earlier. “I had only one off day. Last year in Rio I was the best climber and I was really strong here too. I couldn’t drop them, but I surprised myself and it is also the first time I have gone for GC, so it was a new experience dealing with the pressure and to focus for ten days.

“There was the mistake on the fourth day and I am sad about that, but I am really happy about two stage wins. This Giro Rosa has inspired me and my team mates to come back even stronger and I will come back next year.”

Finding herself on the wrong side of a split in the peloton during Stage four around Occhiobello arguably cost Van Vleuten overall victory. The 1.59 she lost that day was 20 seconds more than her final deficit, though had she not erred the race would have taken a different complexion. Eventual winner Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) told me she only had to follow through those final stages, such was her advantage.

Giro prologues have previously been a bit of a speciality for the Dutch rider, winning in both 2015 and the previous year, when she bagged another stage and eighth overall, until this year her best GC result.

Traditionally the woman who wins the Giro is a climber, and no one saw Van Vleuten as that. However before her horrific crash on a descent during last year’s Rio Olympic road race, she had been in charge on the climb to Vista Chinesa, attacking with American Mara Abbott towards the top.

“I think that is why I targeted this Giro, Rio inspired me as a climber. Before I always thought I could not go uphill that I was too heavy. I was always suffering on the back, but in Rio I was the strongest, so the my team said I should target the Giro.

“To be honest I was a bit concerned about descending before I came here, but I felt fine and on this Giro I was not scared, I just had to get rid of a little bit of anxiousness.”

Throughout her career Van Vleuten has been seen as an all-rounder, the kind of woman who can do well on all but the hilliest parcours, so what changed to bring about this result?

“I always did gym work and I was told I would not be more heavy from it, but actually I lost a lot of kilos quitting the gym and it helped me riding uphill. I did it in a good way, so I still have my power, but three or four kilos really makes a difference.

“But the biggest thing is that I train fucking, fucking hard. I went to altitude and worked very hard. That is what made the difference.

“I am really proud of what I achieved here and like Rio, it inspired me and I will continue for at least two more years on my bike.”

We will never know whether Van Vleuten would have won this year’s Giro Rosa, but it would have been entertaining had she not lost time.

Whatever, she should be seen as a favourite for this week’s La Course, and we can look forward to her trying to exchange the jerseys she won this year for a pink one during the the next couple of editions.