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What the Omloop neutralisation fiasco says about women's cycling

Poor planning, unfortunate circumstances or disregard for women's cycling? Key figures have their say. Photo: Masselis, Flanders Classics

Laura Laker
6 Mar 2019

This weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad hit headlines in unexpected ways when Nicole Hanselmann, on a solo breakaway in Saturday’s women’s race, caught up a slow moving men’s field after 30km, causing officials to temporarily neutralise the women’s race, until the gap had widened.

Dutch champion Chantal Blaak later put in a powerful, and perfectly-timed attack on the Muur van Geraardsbergen to win the women’s race, and although Hanselmann was philosophical over finishing in 74th place, some questioned the race organisation's decision in that moment, while others called it 'sexist'.

Hanselmann, a Swiss rider who races for Team Bigla, wrote on Instagram:

It was the first Spring Classic in Belgium, and the women’s 123km race had started just 8-10 minutes after the men set off on their 200km course.

The organiser said the small gap was intended 'to keep the numerous fans and the nice atmosphere at the start site' for both elite races.

The Omloop organiser later attributed the eventual five minute long neutralisation as being 'due to a very slow men’s race', which dropped, at times, below 30km/h.

Iris Slappendel, founder and president of the Cyclists' Alliance, which represents professional women cyclists, said while the women she had spoken to from the race understood the decision, the overlap could perhaps have been predicted.

'Women’s racing is a different style of riding to men’s: because it’s shorter women start off full gas, whereas men start slow [because their race is longer],' she told Cyclist.

She hopes it is a 'learning experience' for organisers. 'The women’s race is faster, and gets faster every year, and it’s up to the organisers to take notice of that,' she said.

Although this kind of event isn’t commonplace, last year’s UCI Gran Fondo event, the Tour of Cambridgeshire, descended into chaos when women race participants overtook sportive riders who had started ahead of them.

The ToC organiser said '400 men going at 26 mph' in the sportive had caught up the women’s peloton the previous year although, according to race data, just 35 sportive men had exceeded 26mph.

Molly Weaver, former professional cyclist and women's cycling pundit, said although she felt the Women’s Omloop incident was 'purely an error in forethought and planning', it's 'yet another illustration of a lack of respect for the women's peloton.'

'Although in itself this is an isolated example, I do think it draws attention to a bigger issue of the preconceived (and incorrect) ideas about women's racing,' she said. 'To me it's fairly obvious that the women would race faster over the opening kilometres of a race like this purely due to the shorter race distance, so this is the result of the automatic assumption by organisers that the women would be slower.

'At the very least it's a lack of knowledge of women's racing.' Weaver added that poor organisation risks detracting from the impact of dual race starts.

'The women appear to remain a sideshow or an afterthought a lot of the time. The women's peloton has proved time and time again that it deserves more. What we need is a shift towards true parity, and this begins with the mindset of those with the power to instigate real change.'

Lara Kazakos, Rapha Pro teams marketing, pointed out that while the women’s race winner received €420 (of a total women’s prize pot €2,695), the winner of the men’s race got €16,000 of a total race pot of €40,000, with all male riders placing 10-20th receiving €400.

She said: 'This comes down to which race you give preference, the men’s, or the women's - presumably which race outcome will you impact less, though who knows what criteria they used in the moment.

'In my view, in this scenario, you'd give preference to the women's because of how their race was unfolding.'

Former pro cyclist, activist, author & filmmaker, Kathryn Bertine, told Cyclist the organisers’ decision represented a 'blatant disregard for women'.

She said, 'This is absolutely sexist and shameful. They completely altered the women's race, and this is the story that went missing in the global coverage.'

Bertine would like to see a wider starting gap between men and women in future, or a shorter men’s race so the men ride faster. Bertine also suggests that given the circumstances, the men's race could have been neutralised to allow the women to overtake, as has happened on occassion in the past.

However, Slappendel believes organisers made the only decision they could, in the circumstances. 'Saying the men’s race had to be neutralised makes no sense; it’s impossible,' she said.

'If you want to put the whole caravan on the side of the road, and the whole men’s peloton, you have to neutralise the men’s race for at least 30 mins and then they will catch the women very soon.'

Slappendel praised race organisers for holding women’s and men’s presentation ceremonies together, to boost media attention, and for live streaming the event online, adding, 'I think this organisation are trying to do their best for women’s racing.'

The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad organiser said in a statement: 'For many years now Flanders Classics has strived for equality for all participants.

'In normal conditions, the men ride faster than the women and the gap gradually increases. This year, however, the men were slower than usual in the beginning of the race.

'In the future, the organisation, in consultation with all authorities, will consider letting the women’s race start a few minutes later than this year’s, to avoid any conflict between the men’s and women’s race.

'Flanders Classics remains committed to a joint team presentation and start and to promote women’s cycling in general.'

The UCI said that, 'Race organisations can benefit from using the same course for multiple race categories, allowing them to share the existing course infrastructure. However, if races run the risk of overlapping, a neutralisation may be required to prevent the riders and race convoys to become intermixed.

'The UCI will work with race organisations to limit this type of occurrence in the future.'

In 2009 the elite women’s field caught the men’s race in the Philadelphia International Classic with 21 miles left, after a five minute start deficit. The elite men’s race was temporarily neutralised until the women finished.

In 2016 elite men in the RideLondon event were held up for 22 minutes after a serious crash in the earlier sportive event.

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