What a difference a pandemic makes. It seems last time we saw it, the Women's Tour was going from strength to strength, with the 2019 edition having been a strong race, with it extending by a day for the first time, adding in its first hill top finish, and throwing in the hardest stage the race had had to date with a tough Welsh stage including some climbing that, if not anything that might make it comparable to a Giro or an Emakumeen Bira, was at least long enough to really give everybody a chance. It had arrived in the calendar with huge crowds and strong support, with the support for the race and the quality organisation, prize money and accommodation making it a well-deserved hit with the teams and riders, and the hour-long highlights package light years ahead of what most races were providing at the time. The race's in-competition aspect at the time left a bit to be desired with uninspiring parcours, however, and lagged behind the organisation, with the first few editions settled on bonus seconds alone and unable to deliver the level of spectacle that the race's hype train would have you believe.
Over time, the parcours has ebbed and flowed. The race, while always well-planned from an organisational standpoint, has struggled to provide a point of differentiation to those not in the péloton, where the point of differentiation was the respect with which they were treated and the size of the crowds. On the bike, it's only been in two editions - 2016 and 2019 - that we've really seen a break from the time bonuses being decisive - 2018 for me being particularly disappointing because the preceding two editions had been steps in the right direction, but in 2018 Coryn Rivera managed to win both the intermediate sprints classification and the GC, all without leaving the confines of the péloton. I appreciate - in many ways even support - the desire to honour and return to those areas of the country that helped establish the race, but even taking into account the relatively flat terrain in Eastern and Central England, they are skipping past a lot of the potentially more interesting terrain in the area and always have done. For example, 2019's race had a stage finish in Stowmarket, and did you know there's a climb of 800m at 6% just outside the town that, while not likely to disturb the sprinters, could have added some intrigue and a platform to attack from? Don't worry, neither did the organisers.
Obviously, 2020 changed everything and the Britons were somewhat slow to react when the pandemic began, meaning the chances of opening up enough to hold the race in 2020 were pretty much eliminated, and title sponsors Ovo Energy left the fold as well. The organisers, SweetSpot, decided early on not to bother trying to throw something together in the rapidly congested 2020 season that began later on, feeling they couldn't do their event justice (and depending on when they lost the title sponsor on the way, that may have played a role too). They were far from alone in this and I do not blame them for it. However, I do resent that the punishment meted out to the Giro Donne for failing to provide live coverage in 2020 could so easily have been avoided had they, like the Women's Tour, simply not bothered to run it and kicked the can down the road. The 2020 Giro Donne was thrown together on short notice and it clearly showed, with the race having to be rapidly amended on the fly and changes to the course happening even while the riders were already on the road, but they managed to put on an event and they probably regretted it, seeing as they got their WWT status revoked due to the issues they'd faced.
Now, the Giro Donne's organisation leaves a lot to be desired, and it has done for a long time. That I cannot dispute. However, the Women's Tour - which has always had very professional and slick TV production, but has crucially never had any live coverage - was frequently used as the counterpart to the Giro, and as something that it should aspire to. It does seem - and it is something I am ambivalent about - that the era of the privateer organiser in women's cycling is coming to an end. I'm ambivalent about that because those underfunded volunteer organisations have been the lifeblood of the sport for many years, keeping it alive while the big event organisers had no interest, and I feel a sense of regret that they're being chewed up and spat out by the likes of ASO, who've spent so many years trying their hardest to do as little as possible for women's cycling; but at the same time the more races that take place with top level organisation, with better coverage and better prize money, the stronger the level of professionalism in the women's bunch and the less need there is for the privateer group that cannot secure significant prize money or sponsorships, not through lack of willing but through lack of resource.
However, a lot has changed in the two and a half years since the Women's Tour was last run. The UCI have made live coverage compulsory, and even ASO have acquiesced. Paris-Roubaix has been added, there is talk of a women's Lombardia (long overdue, and for all the criticism ASO take for their token efforts, RCS do even less) and we finally have live coverage at events like La Flèche Wallonne. We've had an Olympics which has given us some major headlines and put women's cycling, albeit briefly and not necessarily for the right reasons, at the forefront of international sports news. We've had a Women's Tour de France announced, and we've had races like the Vuelta Challenge turned from one of those old pseudo-crits into a mountainous stage race, even if only in the short term. And in that time, in Britain, things have stagnated. And now, far from being the ones setting the pace, they're the ones struggling to keep up.
Now, obviously, the change in the calendar to October has not helped. Rather than being a focal point of the season, taking place in May or June, the race is taking place as something of a coda at the end of the season, and with all other conceivable season's targets now passed, it feels like something of an afterthought. That coverage that had been groundbreaking is now decidedly passe, and although some people are unwilling to call them out (Jose Been, for example, has pleaded for understanding with the race, although the fact the Women's Tour gave her one of her first major TV breakthroughs might predispose her to a more sympathetic outlook of course) there have also been a lot of voices calling for the WWT status to be revoked, since the precedent has now been set. Starting just one day's rest after the first ever women's Paris-Roubaix means hardly anybody has been talking about the Women's Tour, and it feels very much like an afterthought after an epic day's racing in the rain and the mud on Saturday. An insipid parcours that has a lot more in common with the early bonus second fiesta editions than the stronger editions in 2016 and 2019 does not help (a certain irony in that those two editions were the ones won by the home star, Lizzie Deignan, so you would have thought that the combination of better quality racing and a marketable winner in the race's home market would have inspired them to follow that formula, but the reverse seems to have been the case) with its only defining feature being a long ITT which, with no hilly stages to counterbalance it, threatens to completely imbalance the GC. This combination has really hurt the star power this year too, with no Jumbo-Visma or Ceratizit, and a huge number of the biggest names still active missing - and not just those that the route doesn't suit, like Niewiadoma or Uttrup, but those that it does, like Vos, Brennauer and Norsgaard, too.
Hopefully this can be a one-year anomaly, but realistically they should earn their WWT status back. The organiser is the same one that produces the men's Tour of Britain, which just had live coverage less than a month ago, and is a race at a considerably lower level relative to the calendar than the Women's Tour is, or at least how it purports to be. Now, not all of this is SweetSpot's fault. Of interest was the discovery that, although they had played nice and explained it was because the idea was that it was a Women's Tour in Britain rather than a Women's Tour of Britain that the race wasn't called Tour of Britain, minimising some of the debate that periodically arises when one of the constituent parts of the UK has been neglected by the race in the men's Tour of Britain for a while, in reality SweetSpot run the men's Tour of Britain in conjunction with British Cycling, whereas British Cycling are not involved in the organisation of the Women's Tour and protected their trademark of the title Tour of Britain, preventing SweetSpot from using it, and it is likely this link to British Cycling and the more marketable names that hold sway in the live coverage debate. And it strikes a worrying note, reminding me of ASO suing the organisers of women's stage races in France if they used the word Tour or had a yellow leader's jersey. Or maybe British Cycling as an entity, that has controlled pretty much all cycling in Britain for decades, is growing a bit concerned about losing some of that stranglehold? Who knows, but the Women's Tour really needs something to inject some momentum back into it, even if it's just a return to its regular calendar spot, because the race has gone from a focal point on the calendar attracting almost all the top stars and receiving praise for its coverage to a late-season afterthought in danger of falling behind the curve very, very quickly.