At the foot of the Eiffel Tower, 144 women are eager to get on their bikes on Sunday afternoon. There and then the ‘Tour de France Femmes’ starts. A trip for women. Finally. With eight completed stages, with a yellow jersey, with daily live broadcasts.
It is a dream come true for many. And not just for Annemiek van Vleutens and Demi Vollerings from the field.
“We want the yellow jersey on the first day,” says Davide Arzeni enthusiastically. “We think it is possible. And so our Tour is a success. Then we can go home.”
These are the words of a team leader from a small Italian formation, called Valcar-Travel& Service, which has been invited to participate. At the highest level, the team does not act. Incidentally, only 14 of the 24 participating teams do so.
Metalworks in Bergamo
“Our budget is small,” Arzeni continues. “Our sponsor is only a small company. It is a metal factory in Bergamo. Valcar has no big ambitions internationally. The company does not need to grow. Our cycling team exists simply because it is the passion of the head of the factory, Valentino.”
Valentino Villa, who considers his riders “like his own daughters”, also does not want to make the move to the WorldTour, where salaries have increased again this year. “It’s doubled,” Arzeni shakes his head disapprovingly. “It’s hard for Valcar to agree to that. We can’t and we don’t want to.”
We don’t have to be an exact copy of the men.
Valcar has grown into a successful training team in recent years and wants to remain so. “They can learn and grow with us. Yes, we now also run big races, but we are also at the start of many small races where our riders can get used to the level. And where they can get used to winning, ” Arzeni explains at the beginning of June from a hotel room in Belgium.
The proof follows a day later: Ilaria Sanguinetti wins on behalf of her purple-blue formation Dwars door het Hageland, one of the smaller races. And again a day later, Chiara Consonni triumphs in the Flanders Diamond Tour, also a small race.
The team’s greatest talents will move on to the WorldTour next year. “Most, like Chiara, Silvia Persico and Olivia Baril, are also ready.”
Arzeni is not upset. It’s practice. Last year, Valcar delivered the current world champion: Elisa Balsamo. She was trained for five years in Bergamo and crowned the last year with the World Cup title. She defeated Marianne Vos in the sprint.
A few months later she switched to the big Trek-Segafredo.
At the end of 2020, Marta Cavalli, winner of the Amstel Gold Race and Waalse Pijl this spring, had already exchanged the Valcar nest with the WorldTour team FDJ.
Where the shoe squeezes and what Arzeni fears: that the women’s field will be blown up by all the new rules and the arrival of a bigger WorldTour. That talents in the future can no longer mature for a few years, but fly over too quickly. There are already fourteen teams that must meet all the expensive WorldTour requirements.
Crying rider on leash
Arzeni: “I had a crying rider on the line recently, I won’t mention her name, but she didn’t show up with her new team. Moved up too fast. Look, they’re moving up in the biggest competitions, that’s great, but they are under a lot of pressure, while sometimes they are not ready for it at all.”
Arzeni is not alone in his fear of the future. Managers and team leaders of the top teams also see that the development is going too fast. The salary demands that the UCI places on the WorldTour teams, no matter how noble the aims, come too soon and are too high.
“UCI gives licenses too easily”
Jumbo-Visma manager Esra Tromp looks at it with sad eyes. “Look, the arrival of the WorldTour is fundamentally very good. Women’s cycling has really taken off in the last five years. Both in terms of media value and in terms of competitions being run at the moment. But organizationally, it’s going faster than the riders can handle. The number of strong riders must first be increased in breadth to ensure that the bubble does not burst.”
Tromp is critical of the international cycling union UCI. “Licenses are issued too quickly for the WorldTour. The teams are sometimes filled with riders who don’t really have the level to compete. Of the fourteen teams, a number of them must be scratching their heads at what they’re doing.”
Beth Duryea of Germany’s Canyon/SRAM, who has been active at the highest level for years, sees that the UCI is partly out to emulate men’s cycling. “But we don’t have to. We don’t have to be an exact copy of the men. Of course it’s great that we can also run iconic races like Paris-Roubaix, but we can also organize races ourselves, such as the Women’s Tour in England for example.”
‘Would like to see it slow down a bit’
Duryea sees a number of teams struggling. “The UCI has set different requirements for the WorldTour formations. There must be a minimum number of riders on contract, there must be a minimum salary and teams must be present in all WorldTour events. Then you automatically end up with a bigger budget that teams have need. And not every team can handle such an increase.”
Duryea sees differences emerging, if only between the WorldTour teams themselves. “We’d like to see it all slowed down a bit, to grow it sustainably, and so teams can actually meet all the requirements.”
Tromp has a proposal to bridge the level gap. “An additional competition category would be good. You have to ask the question: how do you want to build a team, what are you going for, do you want to participate or do you want to win? The WorldTour guarantees you the big races, but you have the small games needed to perform.”
Hotel debotel of the Tour
Julia Soek is sporting director at Le Col-Wahoo, a continental team where many (British) talents get a chance. Her formation also received an invitation to the first Tour. “Young riders need time to develop. Everyone is completely off the grid for the Tour and it’s also a great race, but there are several good competitions. We try to offer our riders a balanced program. think.”
At the same time, the management of Le Col-Wahoo also wants to join the pace of the people and is highly speculating about participating in the WorldTour in 2023.
I don’t really want to, my heart is with Valcar, but I have to go.
Meanwhile, sporting director Arzeni, of the small Italian team from Bergamo, has some news. He himself is also flying out of Valcar at the end of this year. He cannot help but follow his greatest talents and also take a step towards the WorldTour.
“I actually don’t want to, my heart is here, but I have to. However, I have set a condition with my new employer that we start a collaboration with Valcar. So the talents can continue to flow naturally.”