Women’s professional cycling has flourished in recent years, as has Annemiek van Vleuten who just keeps adding the most prestigious of victories to the list of results that she has accumulated over 16 years of professional racing.
The news that RCS Sport will take over the Giro d’Italia Donne and that it also plans to bring back a women’s version of Milan-San Remo and launch a women’s Il Lombardia, is welcomed by the World Champion.
Van Vleuten couldn’t be more pleased with the growth in the sport, but even though they may be wins she will never gets to chase, given her own career is winding down toward retirement at the end of this year, is advocating for more.
Speaking to Cyclingnews, Van Vleuten gave her views on RCS Sport’s new focus on women’s cycling and what a women’s Milan-San Remo should look like.
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Change on the horizon for Annemiek van Vleuten
“The main thing is that RCS, at first, was not interested in women’s cycling, apparently, and Strade Bianche was the only thing they organised. Now, it’s super nice to see that there are developments in women’s cycling and that more organisers are getting interested,” Van Vleuten told Cyclingnews.
“When you come from a situation where we had to beg, sometimes, for organisers to put on women’s races for us or to put our races in prime time, and now it’s a different situation, where organisers are now interested, and one or two are fighting with all organisations to take over a race. I think, yeah, that’s good.”
Although there was speculation it could happen this year, Paolo Bellino, CEO of RCS Sport, has told Bici Pro that relaunching a women’s version of Milan-San Remo is a significant project for the company and could take place in 2024.
“We’re working on it and hope to include it in next year’s calendar. That’s our goal,” Bellino said. “We imagine it’ll be held on the same day [as the men’s race] but on a different route, probably from Arenzano to San Remo. I think it’d be a great race.”
It should be crazy long, like the same as the men’s race is long, and the same final
The distance between Arenzano and San Remo along the Ligurian Sea is roughly 120km. No route details have been released, and it was unclear if the women’s route would cover the decisive late-race climbs over the Cipressa and Poggio, but Bellino noted that it would include the Tre Capi.
Van Vleuten stressed that she would like to see a women’s version of Milan-San Remo going beyond the stipulated 170km limit set by the UCI. She would like the race to be 200km to 250km and to include the showcase ascents.
“A women’s Milan-San Remo, for sure, we need this race, which should be the longest one-day race ever for women’s cycling. It should be a real challenge with the distance and the same final with Poggio and Cipressa. It should be crazy long, like the same as the men’s race is long, and the same final.” Van Vleuten said.
The Dutch rider isn’t asking for an immediate leap to the same distance as the men’s race, with this year’s route from Abbiategrasso to San Remo at 294km.
“It should be the longest one-day event for women, and they can build from that and make it a little bit longer each year. There’s no reason why women, why we, could not do a 200km or 250km race. Let’s start with 200km, which would be something new for a one-day race for women cycling. That would make it interesting.”
A women’s version of Milan-San Remo, the Primavera Rosa was held from 1999 to 2005, and Trixi Worrack won the last edition which followed the final 118km of the men’s race, also including the Cipressa and Poggio.
Van Vleuten isn’t the only rider who has called for a return of the women’s Milan-San Remo. Lizzie Deignan and Marta Cavalli also expressed hope for the return of the famed one-day race for women. However, the women’s international calendar has been called into question due to the number of races that either overlap or are held during in a disproportionately busy part of the season. In contrast, other times of the year have fewer races, creating an imbalance. The men’s Milan-San Remo is on March 18, the same weekend as the long-standing women’s race Trofeo Alfredo Binda, on March 19.
Van Vleuten believes there is space for all the big races, but newer events, such as a women’s Milan-San Remo, should not try to bump a historical event like Trofeo Alfredo Binda out of its current spot.
“That’s a hard one. First, we need to respect many of our organisers that had put on races for women before other organisers became interested from a commercial point of view. Races like Ronde van Drenthe and Trofeo Binda put a lot of effort into making their races happen, even 10 or 20 years ago. We cannot pass over them. [RCS] shouldn’t organise it on the same day as Trofeo Binda,” Van Vleuten said.
“There’s a big challenge to make a balanced women’s calendar for the future. At the moment, it’s not a balanced calendar. It would be good, after this year, to discuss the calendar, so that everyone’s happy. For example, there’s a big gap after World Championship this year. So, there are a lot of opportunities to spread out the calendar.”
Bellino said while he would like to see the Milan San Remo events held on the same day, the challenge, however, doesn’t stop at the busy calendar but also how to manage the racing routes along the popular tourist coastline.
“There is also an important technical aspect to consider, we have to structure the race on different roads, and understand how to manage their closure. It will certainly not be the same roads as the men. What is certain is that with patience and professionalism, the Milan-San Remo for women will soon be done,” he said.
The women’s Giro d’Italia must be related to the men’s race
The Italian Cycling Federation assigned the organisation of the Giro d’Italia Donne to RCS Sport from 2024 through 2027. It will take over from PMG Sport/Starlight which has run the women’s stage race since it shifted from the hands of long-time organiser Giuseppe Rivolta. While PMG Sport/Starlight has made significant improvements to the race, Rivolta believes RCS Sport will allow the event to stand on its own two feet.
RCS Sport already organises the men’s Giro d’Italia, Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, Il Lombardia and several other smaller races, creating a near monopoly on racing in Italy. However, their interest in women’s racing has previously been limited to Strade Bianche.
RCS Sport’s move toward organising more women’s races comes off the back of ASO’s successful rebirth of the women’s Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift last year and also takes cues from other prominent organisers in women’s racing, such as Flanders Classics, which has a plan – Closing the Gap – to create equality across all six women’s and men’s Spring Classics.
It is all in line with the progress and professionalisation of women’s cycling in recent years, which includes the introduction of the Women’s WorldTour, a two-tier team structure, minimum salaries and live broadcasting, all of which have allowed the sport to grow.
“We have a good flow. And I only notice that everyone wants to be part of this good flow,” Van Vleuten said.
The Giro d’Italia Donne remains one of the most historic races on the women’s calendar, celebrating its 34th edition in 2023. It is the only race that offers ten days of racing along with iconic mountain passes such as the Stelvio, Zoncolan, Gavia, and Mortirolo.
Van Vleuten believes RCS Sport has the expertise and clout to bring the Giro d’Italia up a notch. However, she hopes to see more alignment.
“It would be nice if the women’s race were somehow related to the men’s race or the men’s race was related to the women’s race. I mean, for example, that they visit the same places, some of the same finishes and climbs. That can be good,” Van Vleuten said.
Another option is that RCS Sport could adopt ASO’s strategy of hosting the women’s stage race directly following the men’s race. Last year, the Tour de France Femmes began when the men’s Tour de France concluded in Paris.
“We could start on the last day of the men’s race or finish on the first day of the men’s race,” said Van Vleuten. “If the events are at different times, they may be close to each other on the calendar. Or if they are far apart on the calendar, maybe they have the same courses, regions and climbs – somehow, it needs to be related to the men’s event.”
Five Monuments for women, too
Women’s cycling currently enjoys three of cycling’s five Monuments; Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. RCS Sport could change that for women’s cycling by re-launching a women’s Milan-San Remo and introducing a women’s Il Lombardia.
Bellino has suggested that RCS Sport will prioritise a women’s Milan-San Remo and then move ahead with plans to create a women’s Il Lombardia in the future.
“In this case, we will have to wait longer. I’m not saying that the project is in a drawer. We are evaluating it, but as mentioned, we must proceed step by step and based on the resources available and the feasible ideas,” Bellino said. The men’s Il Lombardia will be on October 7, and last year’s 253km route was held from Bergamo to Como.
“It’s a complicated matter; you must think of a point-to-point route with starting and finishing locations. We can’t do everything; we must build a working route.”
Van Vleuten said that it is crucial to her to see these two races added to the calendar so that the five Monuments of cycling become a reality for the women’s peloton, too.
“It’s nice if you have the five Monuments, that’s always been what I said, the five Monuments for the guys, which are also organised for the women, then I would be happy. I don’t want to see a complete copy of the men’s calendar. But for the five Monuments, I’m super keen to have them organised for women.”