Women’s WorldTour calendar 'a mess' and 'a nonsense' says Movistar boss

The UCI must invest in the bottom of the pyramid to ensure the sport’s future says Sebastián Unzué

Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) celebrates overall victory at the 2022 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift
(Image credit: Dario Belingheri/Getty)

The expanded Women’s WorldTour calendar has been branded "a mess" by Movistar women’s team boss, Sebastián Unzué.

The number of top tier race days has increased from 67 last year to 86 in 2023, though that would have been 88 had two Swedish races not been cancelled.

“I think that the way the race programme is structured is a complete mess, it doesn't take into account any of the needs or interests of the teams,” he told Cycling Weekly. 

And despite being a home race for the Spanish squad, the introduction of a seven day Vuelta España this May, a month already with three other stage races, came in for particular criticism from Unzué. 

“I have been a critic since I first found out we are having the Vuelta España at the start of May, it’s a nonsense for me.”

May used to be a month of relative rest for the Women’s WorldTour peloton but has become increasingly busy. This year there are 17 days of racing comprising four stage races - one each week, beginning just eight days after the one day classics season closes at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Under its previous Ceratizit Challenge moniker the women’s Vuelta has grown from a one day criterium around central Madrid in 2015 to three stages in 2020. The following season it moved away from the capital growing to four stages, then five last year.

For 2023 the race is seven days and has followed the example of events like the Women’s Tour and Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, disengaging from the men’s equivalents to allow increased visibility, moving from September to its new May date.

It’s now slated to finish four days before Itzulia Women which is followed by the four stage Vuelta Burgos, after which the peloton heads to the UK for the three day Ride London. The new event has also caused the cancellation of two Spanish one dayers.

Unzué said: “If we continue having all these Spanish races and the British races towards the end of May and the start of June, in my opinion there is no space for it [the Vuelta].

"The teams have 14 or 15 riders and when you come from such an intense period in February, March and April you get to May and you have the Vuelta España when normally you should be giving a five or 10 day rest to the riders. It makes things much more complicated.

“It’s something the UCI needs to work on urgently, it’s clear things will not change for 2023, but for 2024 this is one of the most urgent needs that women’s cycling needs.”

Women’s Vuelta route a mystery

Despite being only three months away the women’s Vuelta route remains unpublished, the event website has not been been updated with the new name, and the race's social media accounts have not mentioned the expansion to seven days. 

Meanwhile, the course of the men’s Vuelta in August and September was announced last month.

Unlike men’s cycling, currently many of the women vying for top spot in the cobbled classics are also those contesting the highest profile stage races. The positive from this is a more coherent through-season narrative. 

Last year Movistar’s own Annemiek van Vleuten won Omloop het Nieuwsblad, placed second at the Tour of Flanders and won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, going on to take overall victory at all of the Giro Donne, Tour de France and the Ceratizit Challenge. 

“It’s one of the things that in my opinion makes women’s cycling so great to watch, you find all the main riders in all the important races,” Unzué points out. "So I would really not like to lose that because this is an extra attraction that we have."

With 2023 her final season before retirement, Van Vleuten is likely to be highly motivated to go out with a bang, but Unzué believes the packed calendar does not help teams’ planning.

“It doesn’t take into account the performance or preparation side, how are riders going to prepare for races when the calendar is so terribly structured throughout the year?” he continued.

Perhaps an obvious resolution would be for teams to recruit more riders. After all the UCI mandate a maximum of 22 women, including two new professionals, on each Women’s WorldTeam, but Unzué insists that is not so simple.

“Probably the biggest issue is that there’s no riders. We’ve already gone too fast, the commitment for top level teams are huge, and the conditions for top level riders are great, everyone can have a competitive salary and this is amazing, where we want it to be. But we have not developed the base of the pyramid. We have too many WorldTour teams and too many races, but we don’t have enough riders. 

“I ask myself what is the UCI doing to change this? I’m not sure if their roadmap is thinking so much about the long term benefits and the long term health of the sport.”

Cycling Weekly understands the UCI had floated the idea of development teams for top tier squads - Canyon-SRAM have their Generation outfit - but Movistar is not the only team to reject the idea.

“I think it's great that they expect that, it’s part of a professionalisation of the sport, but it's also not the right moment,” Unzué insists. “Right now we don't have the resources to do that, it's impossible, I am on the limit a to just do our activity which is racing.

“For me it's really important that the UCI starts working with the base because if not, development is not gonna grow and teams are not gonna grow.” 

Neither the UCI nor Vuelta organiser Unipublic responded to Cycling Weekly's request for comment.

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Owen Rogers is an experienced journalist, covering professional cycling and specialising in women's road racing. He has followed races such as the Women's Tour and Giro d'Italia Donne, live-tweeting from Women's WorldTour events as well as providing race reports, interviews, analysis and news stories. He has also worked for race teams, to provide post race reports and communications.