Almost as fast. So what?

Words and photo: Saúl Miguel

Social media after the fifth stage of the Giro Rosa, won by Annemiek van Vleuten after climbing Torri di Fraele almost 3 minutes faster than her closest rival, left me once again with the strong impression that the way most people tend to talk about women’s cycling has little to do with the way they do with men’s cycling. And not in a good way.

One could argue that the important thing is that they talk about you, and in the case of women’s cycling, clearly on the rise but still pretty much hidden under the shadow of their male counterparts, maybe it’s good that some big discussion arises instead of the typical, underground, short-range ramblings of the usual die-hard fans. But, even if sometimes it’s done with the best of intentions, it’s still a wrong approach.

Inevitably, in this age of Strava, numbers, FTP’s, VAM’s and whatever else you can think of, the comparisons with the men appeared. Could Annemiek van Vleuten compete against the male pro’s? Is she better than some domestiques in the World Tour? Would she win races in Continental level?

Hey, I love numbers myself. And we are all curious. You can even say that, unintentionally, she feeds those discussions herself with her training rides with men and her open approach of sharing everything on Strava and some numbers such as FTP in interviews, as in March this year on Belgian press.

But it’s still wrong. Or perhaps the word would be nonsensical. Personally I find it rather frustrating to see so many people focusing on that after an stage that offered such an impressive attack. How many times have you witnessed such a sustained, commited and overall memorable acceleration up a mountain, from the very bottom of it? That’s the show, that’s what matters, and what deserves praise and analysis. The excitement, the remarkable performance of a sportsperson, which is one of the reasons why we watch cycling in the end, isn’t it?

The point is: there is absolutely no need to compare with the men to give it additional value. Road cycling is about physical performances compared to the other contenders (in the same races & categories), about tactics, about attacks, about so many things that can happen along the route, which makes it such a rich and enjoyable sport. That happens in cycling regardless it’s a men’s or a women’s race, and that’s why I enjoy watching both of them. If going very fast is what ultimately counts to you, it doesn’t matter how fast Van Vleuten and her fellow female top riders are – the best male riders are always going to be a bit faster, because that’s the way human bodies are built.

I find it also a bit disrespectful for her rivals, who are magnificient athletes as well. Did you see the way Kasia Niewiadoma beat her this year in Amstel Gold Race? How Anna van der Breggen challenged her 12 months ago in La Course? Have you ever noticed Amanda Spratt’s amazing tactical skills? Ever heard of young phenomenons Lorena Wiebes or Chloe Dygert? Just a few examples. I’m asking these questions because I have the feeling that most of those who tend to compare with the men are not big connoisseurs of the women’s peloton. Believe me, it’s worth getting some knowledge about.

There are so many reasons to fall in love with women’s cycling that comparing the best female riders with the male pros should be the last of your concerns. Speaking of Annemiek van Vleuten, I would praise her hard work ethics. Her perseverance and ability to learn from her own mistakes. The way she faces and defeats setbacks. Her attacking, exciting way to ride. Her honest, refreshing interviews. Her role model attitude off the bike. The way she speaks out about the things that can be improved in her sport. How much she respects her rivals even if she’s, arguably, the best rider overall at the moment.

Who cares whether she can ride almost as fast as some riders who compete in a different category, who will never be her rivals for obvious reasons?

PS: something I noticed in this Giro. For some reason, the race’s jury decided to cut the time limit in the 5th stage from 50% to 20% only hours before the competition. Being a short stage starting with a big climb, the risk of crossing the finish outside the time limit was apparently big. However, even though it was a hard and selective one, not a single rider finished outside the limit. This also shows how much the depth and overall level of the peloton has improved, and would’ve been probably impossible a few years ago.

Just go, watch and demand some more women’s cycling. You won’t regret it. It’s full of stars, and Annemiek van Vleuten is only one of them.

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