At 4.05pm on Sunday, Tadej Pogačar powered up the Oude Kwaremont, racing away from his rivals on the fabled cobbled climb near the end of the Tour of Flanders. As he was catching Mads Pedersen and taking the race away from Mathieu van der Poel, the Slovenian was hemmed in by thousands of fans screaming his name, cheering him on, desperate to catch a glimpse - and it was a glimpse, as he flew by - celebrating the biggest Belgian race of the year.
As soon as the 100 or so riders still in the race passed, the crowds surged towards the big screen to watch the denouement of the men's race, which happened at about 4.27pm, to see the UAE Team Emirates rider make history, watch the sprint for third place, and refill their glasses.
Just over half an hour later, at 5.16pm, Lotte Kopecky flew up the same hellish cobbled road, going on to make history as the first ever Belgian to win twice, let alone twice in a row. This time, however, the SD Worx rider was hemmed in by tens, maybe hundreds, not the thousands that had been there for the men's race.
This time, there was no surge towards the big screen, just a dribble. There were less than twenty people watching the sprint for second place in the women's race, despite it being just an hour later. Entertainment seemed to be provided more by the two topless Flemings chugging beers than the elite athletes racing for their lives in front of us.
Safe to say, this was disappointing, and must have been a different experience for the riders.
The CEO of Flanders Classics, the organisers of the Tour of Flanders, Tomas Van Den Spiegel, took to Twitter on Monday morning to boast of the women's race's TV viewing figures - 1,030,099 - a record for De Ronde, which is no doubt impressive, and good for the business side of the sport.
His point was that this has increased massively since the race occurred before the men's race, which one assumes they have tested to ensure the most eyeballs stay on screens for the women. It makes sense - if you are watching the end of the men's race in a bar or at home, why wouldn't you simply carry on watching for the women's race? It's the same thing.
The TV viewing figures might be strong, but the roadside scenes were very depressing. For so-called cycling fans, some of whom had been on the Kwaremont for hours, the exodus that followed the men's race was baffling.
Tour of Flanders women's race TV viewership higher than ever - great - but let me tell you, it was so depressing to see the crowd empty out on the kwaremont for the women. They only came last like half an hour later? And 95% of people had gone to, idk, drink in Oudenaarde https://t.co/m0f2zuqDDw pic.twitter.com/vGxQRkrRk3April 4, 2023
The women might not quite be at the same level of fame as the men, but they are just as impressive, and the spectacle is more or less exactly the same, just with different team colours and more hair.
What could possibly be more important than sticking around for 45 minutes to show support for some of the best cyclists in the world? Desperately needing to get to the Europop party in Oudenaarde is not going to cut it as an excuse, I'm afraid.
It was the same at the women's presentation in Oudenaarde, when FDJ Suez were on stage and the men's race whizzed past, and everyone surged to catch a one-second glimpse of their favourite male rider rather than paying attention to the just-as-important event happening behind them. The fact the two races are effectively in competition with each other seems odd.
Women's cycling is often more dynamic and exciting that men's racing, in my opinon, as it follows less of a formulaic approach and there is a bigger pool of potential winners for any race, so why wouldn't people want to watch it? Beyond hegemonic patriarchy reasons, of course. Sure, SD Worx might have dominated the cobbled Classics this year, but so has Jumbo-Visma on the men's side.
I appreciate that telling people off for not watching is not a productive approach, but it does anger me that so-called cycling fans can be so dismissive or ignorant of women's racing in 2023. It could be so much better.
As far as I can see, there are three options open to the Tour of Flanders, all of which have their advantages and disadvantages:
- The women's race goes up the Kwaremont and finishes before the men do it for a final time, ensuring that the crowds are already there, and will not be going anywhere. However, this would mean less people watched it on television, and the crowds might still be more interested in getting tanked up than watching the exciting sport happening.
- The women's race goes up after the men's race, as is now. The crowds are - in theory - already there, and TV coverage can switch straight over, which is good for figures. However, it is clear a culture change would need to happen for this to properly be effective.
- The women's race happens on a separate day, potentially the Saturday to the men's on Sunday, as will happen at Paris-Roubaix this weekend. This does mean that the two races are not in competition with each other, and that both can be fully focussed on. However, there would likely be less viewers on TV and in person for the women's race, as it is a less popular event. However, it would allow it to grow on its own. Another point is that the Flanders sportive is on the Saturday, so there might be more than a few logistical issues.
I don't have the answer, but I continue to be frustrated at the lack of interest in women's cycling, when it's basically the same product, just with different faces and tactics. It's often more interesting too.
Perhaps this should be aimed at the people at Flanders, who were apparently more interested in wrestling in the mud rather than watching the women's race, but we all need to make a concerted effort to support women's cycling, which is still basically in its infancy. The women's Tour of Flanders has only existed for twenty years, compared to the men's 110. We need to make the change.
Of course, some of that change comes from people like us in the cycling media, but it is incumbent on all of us to make people pay attention to people like Kopecky.
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