It’s December. After the off-season, the road riders have been back to the training sessions with their views focused on the upcoming cycling season. It’s not only time to regain fitness after some well deserved rest, but also to set goals, to target the races they want to win. You’ll hear the sprinters mention De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem. The cobbled classics specialists may talk about Drenthe, De Ronde and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The strongest all-rounders set their views on the Ardennes and the Giro. Some will look ahead too, to the World Championships.
Yet, you won’t hear anyone mentioning La Course. It’s a bit odd for a race created by the biggest organiser in cycling, ASO, as a sort of a starting point for eventually developing it into a women’s version of the Tour de France – or that’s what some of us would like to think, and what was supposed to happen.
Why hasn’t La Course found its place in the calendar, despite consistently showing good racing since its birth in 2014, including some absolutely memorable editions such as 2018? There are many factors, mostly derived from the impression that it’s a half-hearted effort by ASO. Good TV coverage and exposure to the Tour de France crowds have been unquestionably positive aspects since the first edition, but not good enough if you take the lack of promotion and development of the race into consideration.
Let’s assume that La Course has to stay as a one day race, as logistics would make a women’s Tour de France run in parallel to the men’s Tour impossible. ASO’s words, not mine – I still believe in the saying “when there’s a will, there’s a way”, but that’s another story, as is the convenience or not of having both races simultaneously. Surprisingly, and this is something worth celebrating, ASO seem to be waking up and, if recent reports are true, they are willing to organise a big stage race for the women on a different date. We’ll see how it goes – more than worth keeping an eye on that.
Even if that new big stage race eventually happens, I see no reason why La Course shouldn’t go on as a one day race. But the problem is, apparently ASO is lacking any sort of strategy to make it thrive and consolidate as an important competition. To put it simple: La Course lacks identity. ASO seem to put it every year in the place they find less bothersome when it comes to logistics. Sometimes it’s flat, then it’s high mountains, then it’s hilly. Sometimes it’s way too close to the finish of the Giro Rosa and sometimes there’s some reasonable space between both of them.
Whenever one thinks about any other big one day race in the cycling calendar, there’s something specific, a number of iconic feautures that make them stand out among the rest. And you instantly know which type of riders they favour. Strade Bianche: gravel, uphill roads. Drenthe: cobbled sections through the forests and VAMberg. De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem: sprint fest unless the wind enters the scene. De Ronde: cobbled ‘bergs’. Amstel: short, sharp hills and narrow roads. Fleche: Huy. Vargarda: gravel sections and circuit with gentle slopes. These are only a few examples.
What’s the iconic feature of La Course? Nothing. That’s why it’s impossible for the riders to target it in advance. No one knows how it’s going to be next time. And no, there’s no fun in that. Every single other race in the world (except for the Continental and World championships, which are ridden with national selections and are completely different from anything else in the calendar) has an unique style that gives it identity.
The solution to this looks so blatantly obvious that it shouldn’t need any explanation, but there you go. In many aspects in life, how would you stand out? By doing something interesting, and good, that no one else does… and that can be done.
How does this apply when it comes to the women’s cycling calendar? Make La Course the one day climbers’ race. There is nothing like that anywhere else. There are races for the sprinters. Races for the cobbles specialists. Races for the puncheurs who thrive in short, explosive hills. But there isn’t a single one day mountain race, at least in the highest level of the sport. Because no, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is not a mountain race, and neither is Fleche Wallonne. Huy, La Redoute and la Roche-aux-Faucons are not mountains. 3-5 minutes climbing efforts are very different from 40 minutes climbing efforts. Performances at 300 metres altitude are not comparable to performances at 2000 metres altitude.
France and ASO have the mountains close at hand. They even had the momentum to keep it going, after 2017 and especially 2018, seen by many as the most exciting race of the year, women or men. Place La Course something like 5 to 10 days after the Giro Rosa finishes, normally during the third week of the Tour de France. Make it consistently mountainous and there you get the solid narrative: the one day climbers’ classic right after the big stage race for the climbers. Perfectly placed in the calendar and unlike anything else.
And please don’t tell me that mountains make women’s cycling predictable – which, frankly, it’s one of the most inconsistent arguments I’ve ever heard, and oddly enough I’ve heard it quite often. In 2019 there have been 5 mountain stages in the World Tour, each with a different winner. 2nd stage in California (Hall), 3rd stage in Bira (Wiles), 4th stage in Bira (Longo Borghini), 5th stage in Giro (Van Vleuten), 9th stage in Giro (Van der Breggen). Each winner competed in 3, 4 or even 5 out of those 5 races, so they were present in most of them, but the variation was still there.
Compare that with the results of other type of races in the World Tour. The two sprinters-friendly one day races (De Panne and Wevelgem) saw Kirsten Wild and Lorena Wiebes finish 1st and 2nd. Then Wiebes won the three stages and GC of the Tour of Chongming Island. Every technical finish since June that was somehow tricky or uphill, in races that were moderately hilly, has been dominated by Marianne Vos. Yet, these are the sort of races that people tend to describe as ‘open’. Now what’s open and what’s predictable?
Of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a rider dominating some specific type of competition. Quite the opposite – let’s celebrate their excellence! Wild, Wiebes and Vos are awesome. And it would be totally fine if a rider or two won every mountain stage in the calendar, but the thing is, that’s not even true, and that’s not debatable, it’s a matter of stats.
The important thing here is to have a balanced calendar, in which all good riders have their chance at a roughly even number of races regardless of their skills. The women’s calendar is still massively shifted towards the sprinter and puncheur type, and the climbers have just a few chances per year, which is not only unfair, but probably bad for the sport as well. As a cycling commentator, one of the questions I’m asked more often is “Why are there so few mountains in the women’s calendar?”. Audience loves mountains, and it doesn’t matter it’s men or women’s cycling – it’s still cycling, and the epic scenery that only mountains offer should be a part of the show.
After this year’s Giro, I was browsing in awe the magnificient galleries from the race of Velofocus and Tornanti, thinking with frustration that we would need to wait almost a year to see mountains in a women’s race again. Speaking of Velofocus, this is what they thought about the last edition of La Course:
Just my guess. The last few years, when the race has finished I’ve been on a high thinking ‘that was incredible’! This year, it felt like any other race on the calendar (with a few more fans at the roadside)
— Vélofocus (@velofocus) July 22, 2019
That conveys well my own thoughts about it. Don’t get me wrong: it was a thrilling race, with some drama, an interesting parcous, and a great winner. But there’s a million other hilly races like that in the calendar, and there are also crit-like city circuits such as London and Madrid, which would make going back to Paris redundant. With a La Course consistently becoming the big one day race for the climbers, it would offer the best of both worlds: an unique identity, and getting to add a bit of balance to a calendar that desperately needs mountains.