Every one of the last 900 metres between the final bend and the finish line of Saturday’s Women’s Tour stage was lined with people.
The sea of humanity on the North Sea coast was breathtaking. The sun shining on Felixstowe, on the Women’s Tour and the crowd, perhaps the biggest crowds seen at any standalone Women’s WorldTour race anywhere.
With excellent attendances all week and entertaining racing, on the ground at least, the event could only be described as a success. But behind the scenes, online and on social media questions are being asked about the race’s future at the top table of professional cycling.
One of the conditions for races to be part of the WorldTour is that they provide live coverage, whether by livestream or on television, and so far this year the Women’s Tour is the only race not to achieve this.
In 2020 the Giro Rosa – as it was then – had no live coverage, and this year the rebranded Giro Donne was a ProSeries event, despite a livestream. Could that happen to the Women’s Tour?
Should it happen to the Women’s Tour?
And how did we come to this?
Earlier this year it seemed the race would be shown live, organisers Sweetspot announcing a deal with Eurosport/GCN. However, in the days before the event they released a statement: “As a result of these commercial realities, we will not be able to expand the coverage of the Women’s Tour in 2021 to include a live broadcast.”
In response, some have pointed to Sweetspot’s other international race, the Tour of Britain which was shown live in it entirety. So why not the Women’s Tour?
“The simple answer is that we were contracted to do that with ITV4,” race director Mick Bennett told Cycling Weekly.
“But it’s just commercial reality that they don’t get the return that they would like from the Women’s Tour, and there’s no way around that.”
Essentially if the broadcaster does not want to pay for the coverage then organisers must, and the costs are eye-watering.
While the differential between showing some of a stage and all of it is relatively low, organisers told Cycling Weekly that to put on an identical production to that of the Tour of Britain would cost a minimum of £400,000. While they intend to show the race live in 2022, this year that is money they don’t have.
The sum would be greatly reduced using 4G technology as some other European races do. However, while the quality is generally sufficient to hit the UCI’s broadcast requirements, UK network coverage is patchy. For instance, we tried sending a photo from the Felixstowe finish line and failed.
There are other expenses UK races face that some in Europe don’t. Policing for instance this year cost more than £200,000 and that’s before accommodation which nearly doubled as Covid protocols required single rooms. And without that there is no race.
Since its inception in 2014 the Women’s Tour has provided a comprehensive highlights package broadcast in the UK on national terrestrial TV channel, ITV4. In 2019 this was watched by an average of 218,000 people per day, and the same package is distributed internationally.
There is no doubt of the value of live coverage, and it must be the way forward, but with the current highlights achieving such figures it could be argued the highlights have greater reach.
GCN/Eurosport will not provide viewing figures for their live broadcasts, so any comparison to, say, the Simac Ladies Tour, a six-day Dutch race, is impossible.
Despite courses that sometimes don’t challenge some of the world’s highest-profile racers, over its seven editions the Women’s Tour has been regarded as the gold standard, with prestige to match.
“It has developed from my first year to now,” says Canadian, Leah Kirchmann (DSM) who is one of only two riders to have raced each edition.
“The race has put a lot of effort into developing each year, from offering more challenging stages, travelling to different locations of the country and really promoting us through the media and offering coverage.”
Certainly the race’s social media coverage is class-leading, with more Twitter and Instagram followers than any other standalone women’s race, but that is not a requirement of being a WorldTour event.
“There are rules and we have to follow and that is what organisers need to do,” SDWorx team manager Danny Stam told us. “If we don’t follow the rules then we all are not going to be a WorldTour team, so I think if you cannot have live coverage then you don’t deserve to be WorldTour race.”
But Stam was a lone voice among those we spoke with, whether on or off the record all told us the race deserves to be cut some slack.
“Obviously the ideal is for live TV, but one thing you know about this race is that if they’re going to do something they’re going to do it well,” said Rachel Hedderman, DS at American team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank.
“I’m definitely for progress and requiring this but I think a race that is able to put on a highlights package like they have been able to do is better than a poorly produced live stream. They highlight the race, they highlight the areas, they promote and do a really good job of showing what a good spectacle it is.
“And for me there have to be some considerations to the pandemic and the situation that we’re in right now. There are all sorts of rules that have had to be modified and the entire world has been turned upside down, so the fact they’re able to put on a race of this calibre should be commended not penalised.”
The UCI will make decisions about the race’s future in line with their strategies for promoting the women’s sport and live coverage is and must be part of that. But unlike the Giro Donne, which was never on the 2021 WorldTour calendar, the Women’s Tour is on the published calendar as a top-tier event, making any relegation a bigger deal.