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A Women's Paris-Roubaix: you cannot be serious

Hannah Troop
9 Apr 2018

It’s 2018, we've just had another edition of Paris-Roubaix, and still the Hell of the North is out of bounds for the female peloton

Remember when you were a child and were told that you weren’t allowed to do something but your older sibling or friend could? I’m guessing it made you want to do it even more, right? A scenario of being told you can’t have, or it’s not possible, is regular dialogue the females who make up the Women’s WorldTour peloton have to endure.

Like the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, or in this case the cobblestones in the Hell of the North, it feels more than ever that a women’s race is within reach but at present still remains on the banned list.

Speaking to Iris Slappendel, former pro-cyclist and founder of The Cyclists’ Alliance, Hannah Barnes, Canyon-SRAM rider, and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, former World Champion and teammate of Barnes at Canyon-SRAM, it was more than evident that there is real appetite for a women’s Paris-Roubaix.

It’s the most important Spring Classic on the WorldTour calendar and should be one of the easier races to put on for the women’s peloton.

'In the peloton we have spoken about this for years, we would love to have a Paris-Roubaix,' Slappendel says.

'I would seriously think about a career come-back if Paris-Roubaix would be on the calendar. I keep saying to everyone we shouldn’t copy the men’s cycling and we are a sport all on its own but on the other hand there is the history of cycling which is also beautiful' Slappendel, a renown crusader for the progression of women’s peloton, adds.

As a French rider, Ferrand-Prevot is also a huge advocate for there being a race, even if it’s one that doesn’t necessarily suit her skillset: 'I think it would be great to have, not just because I’m French but because it’s one of the most beautiful races on the calendar.'

For those of you who have ever been inside the Jean Stablinski velodrome on the one day a year it lights up, you’ll be familiar with the 200 bedraggled faces that enter, whites of the eyes piercing through northern France’s grit, mud and dust that plasters them at the end of this race.

It’s a sight to behold, even as a fan you feel the goosebumps dance upon your skin.

'I know there’s so many of the male riders that whether it’s their first or seventh time of riding when they come into the velodrome they get chills,' Barnes says. 'It would be cool for us one day to be able to feel that same amount of emotion.'

So why it can’t happen?

There are always a few classic reasons given as to why races like these can’t be put on. One is that people seem to believe there just isn’t the appetite for it.

This is where data is starting to come to the fore and prove that today as we speak or technically read, this isn’t the case. Here are just two examples of stats from Flemish TV channels of how many viewers the women’s races, Gent-Wevelgem and Driedaagse de Panne attracted to their screens this year.

Daam Van Reeth, who is a sports economics researcher, seems to be on a quest to collect more and more of this data to hit back at the naysayers.

Over the last week I’ve heard these figures quoted on many occasions. It means that the female peloton isn’t just chasing for equality based on an ideology that they should have a race because it’s fair, although this is obviously a valid argument.

But that there’s building evidence that there’s demand; and where there’s demand, supply should follow, and to a certain extent it is, but just as always in cycling it’s slow.

It makes a real difference when fans have the chance to see the women’s race by the road too. Hannah Barnes tries to convey her feelings of racing up the Kemmelberg and what it’s like to have thousands of raucous fans yelling encouragement: 'Last week at Gent-Wevelgem racing up the Kemmelberg just like the guys did, there were so many people cheering us on, the noise was incredible, and so many British flags too which was really, really cool.'

So is it necessary to have the races held on the same day, I ask Barnes.

'Yeah I definitely think it’s really important to have it on the same day, to have atmosphere, to have that many people watching us and cheering us on,' she says.

'You felt it last year in Liege and Amstel [the lack of crowd]. I know it’s really great they put a women’s race on for us but we finished I think over 3 hours before the men and you could definitely feel that going up the climbs, there wasn’t really anyone there cheering us on and the finish was just a bit of a let down.'

On some races TV coverage actually switches over from the men’s to the women’s to show the last 30 or 40km of their race.

When the men’s peloton are racing over 200km this really shouldn’t be seen as an issue. More often than not in the men’s races nothing really starts to happen until the last 100km, Barnes explains: 'I know the men spend about 60km catching up with each other and asking how everyone is.

'I was talking to some of the guys who do Milan-San Remo and I was saying to them, "wow it’s so long 300km?" And they’re like "well yeah but the first 150km is just like a club run, you’re just riding around the peloton seeing everyone, catching up with everyone and then 150km to go is when it really starts".'

So while watching the guys have a good old catch up is perfectly ok(?), surely fans would rather be watching some explosive down to the wire racing, whilst the guys are doing their warm-up?

Pulling rank

Wait, what’s that I hear? Oh yes the Paris-Roubaix Juniors race is held on the same day as the Elite Men’s. Another obstacle.

This is easily rectified, Elite Women’s racers, the ones trying to make what meagre living there is from racing, should far out-rank an amateurs race. Full-stop!

The one positive that can be taken from this though is that a race before the Elite Men’s is already being done, so could easily be swapped.

The Junior race also finishes at 14:30 ahead of the Elite Men’s at 16:30, an Elite Women’s race should not have to finish any longer than an hour and a half ahead of the men’s.

This then gives the opportunity for a double podium ceremony with the men and women. It also means that press are more likely to be able to cover the finish of both races in the velodrome, which is otherwise tough to do if they finish many hours apart.

Coverage is after all, key.

A women’s Paris-Roubaix? You cannot be serious

If there is anyone out there that still thinks that women don’t take racing their bikes seriously, or that a race like Paris-Roubaix is too tough and they won’t put on a good enough show: Let me stop you right there and regale you with an anecdote from last weekend’s Tour of Flanders.

Annemiek van Vleuten snagged herself third place, but only after she had been taken down in a crash, dislocated her shoulder, got back on her bike, popped it back in and then painfully managed to get back to the bunch and sprint for the line.

I’m sure the hardmen of Flanders could do nothing more than salute that act of sheer dogged determination to race a bike.

But if we’re to get really serious, let’s talk about prize purses for the women’s races for a moment. With the Ovo Energy Women’s Tour announcing only a few weeks ago that with the backing of their sponsor Ovo Energy, from this year the prize purse would be equal for both the Women’s Tour and the Tour of Britain.

'It’s just hard because you don’t want to force the organisers to put a race on and you feel sometimes that a lot of race organisers are doing it because they feel they have to.

'You really want someone to do it because they want to and put that effort into making the race feel really good for us and worthwhile,' says Barnes.

'I mean I don’t want to be negative or anything but I just came into my hotel room and yesterday’s race [Dwars Door Vlaanderen] manual was on the bed and the winner of the men’s race got €16,000 and the winner of the women’s got €370. And I was just like what? That is SO different.

'I know people say the men did 60km more but still. We make the same sacrifices as the men,' is what a deflated Barnes adds when the conversation switches to this ever controversial topic.

Even ProcyclingStats this week jumped onto Twittersphere and announced their disgust at the severe disparity in prize money between men and women at the Tour of Flanders.

As this side of the sport continues to grow so does the attitudes of the organisers who run the events. If Ovo Energy can see the benefit in the publicity they receive for acknowledging that both men and women need equally rewarding for the sacrifices they make for their sport, then hopefully others will lift their blinkers off too.

Back to the future

There are many parts of women’s cycling that cause a great deal of frustration, but there are many things that are starting to change and there are people that show a huge amount of passion to facilitate it happening.

Slappendel is one of them, and with The Cyclists’ Alliance she wants to create a movement that liberates and encourages the female peloton to fight for a more equal future.

Even Mark Cavendish recently commended the foundation and the unity it provides.

'I think it’s important that they [the women’s peloton] realise it’s for the next generation and they have to see the bigger picture,' says Slappendel.

'Women’s cycling is changing right now and it’s really moving in a good direction but it’s important that the riders are a part of the change and that we’re sitting with the stakeholders at the table and we’re part of the discussion,' says Slappendel.

The only hope is that this generation get to race their own Paris-Roubaix; as the largest cycle race organiser on the planet, ASO is already magnificently late to the table.

There’s a whole other peloton willing to show that given the opportunity to take on the forbidden they’ll more than reward by putting on a great show.

The Hell of the North won’t know what’s hit it.

Both the UCI and ASO were approached for comment on this subject: the former refused to comment and at the time of publishing the latter had not responded