Michael Pavitt ©ITG

This week in London, the world’s top track cyclists will be hoping to land a double blow to their rivals at the Lee Valley Velopark. A total of 19 titles are due to be decided at the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) annual Track World Cycling Championships across the duration of the five-day event.

With the Championships being the last major gathering on the track ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics, it will also offer the victors a significant psychological edge heading into the final months of preparations.

However, the roads of Italy this Saturday might be the location for one of the most significant moments in cycling throughout the year and perhaps in the sport’s future.

The second staging of the Strade Bianche women’s race, which will take in the scenery of Tuscany, will officially launch the inaugural season of the UCI’s Women’s WorldTour, which has become the highest tier series for professional road cycling.

UCI President Brian Cookson is hopeful the WorldTour will be a key step forward for women’s cycling, as the Briton aims to fulfil one his major pledges during his election campaign back in 2013. The 64-year-old had stated he would make it “my priority to create new opportunities for women’s cycling in all disciplines” and believes the new series is an important moment for the sport.

“I think we are going to look back on this in five years’ time and say that this is when we really made women’s road cycling happen, when we took it into the big time,"  he told insidethegames

"I think it is a real positive step forward.

“What we have tried to do is to invest, develop and to work in partnership with the teams, riders and event organisers, particularly to find a system and a structure that is going to work to take women’s cycling forward.

“Both from the opportunity and spectator points of view, participation and from an economic point of view, so we can get women’s sport at the same situation as men’s sport.

“Where it is capable of offering a career to the women who put in so much time and effort, as much time and effort as the men do.”

Developing women's cycling was one of the key pledges in Brian Cookson's manifesto when seeking the UCI Presidency
Developing women's cycling was one of the key pledges in Brian Cookson's manifesto when seeking the UCI Presidency ©Getty Images

The UCI stated, when announcing the Women’s WorldTour in September, that they had spent a full year consulting with event organisers, teams, rider representatives, media and sponsors before establishing the series.

Among the key voices in the process were the UCI’s Women’s Commission, which was established after Cookson’s election in 2013 and is spearheaded by the governing body’s first female vice-president Tracey Gaudry.

One of the key aims of the series has been to significantly boost the number of racing days for elite female cyclists compared to the previous top tier, the Women’s Road World Cup.

Running from 1998 until the close of 2015, the World Cup saw the peloton compete in several one-day races throughout the course of the year. Throughout its existence, the highest number of racing days came in 2006, with 12 events being held. In half of the 18-years of the World Cup, just nine races took place per year as part of the elite competition.

By contrast, its replacement will have 35 racing days throughout its first year. A total of 18 events are scheduled to be held, with nine of the 10 World Cup races from 2015 remaining at the top level of the sport.

However, multiple races are due to appear at the highest tier of women’s road racing for the first time, including Strade Bianche, which was rated as a category one race last year. The early season will continue to see the spring classics held, with the famous Belgian one-day races Gent-Wevelgem, The Tour of Flanders and Flèche Wallonne Féminine taking place in March and April.

One major development will be the introduction of five stage races, including the Amgen Tour of California in May. It will be the second edition of the event, which last year incorporated a time trial but will feature a team time trial in the 2016 race. The following month will see Britain’s premier road event the Women’s Tour take place, before the sole Grand Tour of the year, the Giro Rosa, is held during July. Featuring eight days of stage racing, the 27th edition of the event will be one of the main races to look out for on the calendar. A three-day Tour of Poland and Tour of ChongMing Island in China have also been included.

The mix of one-day and stage racing will provide stiffer competition for the top spot in the UCI Women’s WorldTour rankings by the close of the season, it is hoped, which runs from March through until September and takes in three different continents. Both the under-23 riders and the 20 registered UCI Women’s Teams, who are to be invited to each race by its organisers, will also have a leaderboard throughout the year.

La Course benefits from the coverage centred on the Tour de France
La Course benefits from the coverage centred on the Tour de France ©Getty Images

While the boost in the number of events and the addition of stage racing to the highest tier will provide great optimism, a key measure of the WorldTour’s success will be the preservation of the races over the next few years. If they are able to maintain the schedule and it continues to grow over the next couple of years, the UCI will certainly feel they have made major steps in taking women’s road racing forwards.

A big obstacle could prove to be the economic aspect of the sport. Currently there is a double edged sword. Teams, similarly to the men’s, are reliant on receiving backing from sponsors to be able to function and pay their riders. In turn the sponsors, seeking to get the maximum out of their investment, will be looking for their cyclists to be as visible as possible to promote their brand. If no-one is going to see their moving billboard, there is little incentive for them to invest.

Understandably, increasing the visibility of women’s road cycling is viewed as a vital aspect of its future. Arguably the spring classics and races like the Tour of California, La Course and La Madrid Challenge could be viewed as having the benefits of television cameras and the media present to cover the more established men’s events they run alongside, with the latter two taking place at the close of the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, respectively.

An alternative argument would be that the presence of the men’s races could draw attention away from the women’s, with events such as the Women’s Tour in Britain showing that stand-alone races can also prove successful.

The UCI have aimed to boost the coverage further by stating that eight races will be broadcast live, while ensuring that organisers will provide a news clip which will be distributed to international broadcasters following the races.

“Obviously it is a key part of the equation, I am very pleased we are seeing more and more live and recorded coverage of women’s cycling,” Cookson said.

“It is not all going to change overnight, we are not going to see every event broadcast live on free to air or anything like that.

“In everything that we do now, we don’t just think about men’s cycling, we think about the opportunities for women as well.

“We talk to potential races organisers or sponsors about the opportunities not just for men but about women as well, I think that is an integral part of what we are trying to achieve.

“The media has got an important part to play here as well, we are coming from a long way back here on media coverage of all women’s sports and the more that we can get women’s sport into the media, the better it will be for everyone and the quicker it will be for us to develop women’s sport.”

Nicole Cooke is one of several women who have called for a minimum wage to be introduced
Nicole Cooke is one of several women who have called for a minimum wage to be introduced ©Getty Images

Boosting women’s cycling from an economic standpoint is viewed as key to implementing one of Cookson’s major aims during his campaign, introducing a women's minimum wage. Currently, the minimum for a men’s cyclist on a WorldTour team is €36,300 (£28,600/$39,700) or €29,370 (£23,100/$32,100) for a new professional, but there is no female equivalent. 

The Briton is hopeful of establishing a similar measure on the women’s side of the sport, with Beijing 2008 Olympic gold medallist Nicole Cooke, who has now retired, among those to have called for it.

However, putting a rule into place was put on hold on the advice of women within the UCI, according to Cookson, with the suggestion that professional teams could be forced to fold or would turn amateur if such a measure was enacted.

With the introduction of the WorldTour, Cookson believes the economic side of women’s professional road racing could improve to the extent in which a minimum wage could at some stage be introduced.

“People making women’s cycling happen told me that it would be damaging at the present moment, what we needed to do was to strengthen the economy and move it forward, broaden it and make it more sustainable,” said Cookson.

“This women’s WorldTour is an absolutely brilliant step forward on that road, I think there will be a time when that is the right thing to do and hope it is not too far away.

“I’ll take the advice of the Women’s Commission and women involved in running the sport, as when it is the right time to do that."

Away from the road, Cookson claimed the UCI are “almost there” in terms of offering equal prize money at events organised by the governing body, with the men’s World Championship team time trial one event yet to be brought into line. Although, he stresses the prize pool for the winners of the event is largely funded by the men’s WorldTour teams themselves.

Australia's Annette Edmondson called for a women's madison to be introduced last year
Australia's Annette Edmondson called for a women's madison to be introduced last year ©Getty Images

Last month also saw the first staging of the women’s under-23 cyclo-cross World Championship race, albeit one that was overshadowed by the first "technological fraud" case.

The addition of the competition continued the push for gender equality in the sport, with perhaps the best example coming with the changes to the track cycling programme at the London 2012 Olympics, which saw men and women compete in an equal number of disciplines.

The move, though, saw the loss of the individual pursuit, points and men’s madison race, with Cookson stating he is hopeful of pushing for further disciplines at future Games.

The latter discipline, the madison, is due to be the only event held at this week’s Track Cycling World Championships which will be solely for men. At the close of 2015, Australia’s Annette Edmondson tweeted her support for the idea of a women’s version being introduced at the World Championships. The reigning team pursuit and omnium world champion’s suggestion, Cookson believes, is one that could be investigated in the future.

“I like the idea of that,” he said. “I have even thought of the possibility from time to time of a mixed gender madison, one man and one woman, but that would be problematic to run in terms of making sure there was a quality of competitiveness.

“I see no reason why we couldn’t have a women’s madison going forward, I would like to see it practiced more frequently.

“I would like to see us try it first, maybe some enterprising promoter could include it in one of the six days or revolution series.

“Perhaps that is something we can look at for our future plans to review the structure of track cycling, which we are working on at the moment.”

Whether or not the move comes to pass, it seems clear that women’s cycling has enjoyed a momentum shift in its favour in recent years.

While much progress needs to be made in boosting the economic situation of riders and teams over the coming years, with sponsorship a key factor, moves like the WorldTour appear to be moves in the right direction. Perhaps, as Cookson hopes, we could be looking back at when the WorldTour helped push women’s professional cycling into “the big time”.