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Highlights of Women’s Professional Cycling 2021

By Megan Flottorp

Well guys, we’ve (almost) made it through another wonky 12 months and it’s time to kick back, relax, and look back on all that has happened. Despite some not insignificant hiccups, the world of professional cycling was largely able to get back on track, and although there remains some uncertainty about how the pandemic will continue to affect next season, the women’s peloton gave us plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the future.

From inaugural races and big announcements to emotional wins and an Olympic upset, the last 12 months have been an enthralling time to be a fan of women’s cycling. Although gender equality within the sport is something we need to (and will) continue to fight for, there is advancements and fearless leaders who are persistently pushing for change to celebrate. As 2021 draws to a close, here are a few of the big moments that will mark this year as one to remember in the history of the sport we love.

A crowdfunding campaign addressed shocking discrepancy in men’s and women’s Strade Bianche prize money

Strade Bianche women
What the success of the “Equal prize money for the Women’s Peloton” campaign says about the state of professional cycling should not be taken lightly. © Profimedia

This spring, following outrage at the hardly equal prize purses at the men’s and women’s Strade Bianche, Dutch cyclist Cem Tanyeri started a GoFundMe page with the intention of generating prize money for the top five finishers. “The women’s peloton has ridden more than enough kilometres without a fair prize money compensation,” he wrote in the campaign, titled: Equal prize money for the Women’s Peloton.

The organizers of Strade Bianche had planned a €2,256 prize for the women’s race and a €16,000 prize for the men’s race – an obvious disparity if ever there was one, so it was heartening to see a fan take action. In the end, more than a thousand people donated, and their contributions topped up the prize purse for the top five finishers by over €26,000.

Following the success of Tanyeri’s campaign, critics were well positioned to draw attention to other races lacking prize money amounts. For example, Flanders Classics CEO Thomas Van Den Spiegel has responded to criticism about the lack of equal prize money at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which saw Anna van der Breggen earn €930 compared to the men’s winner, who took home €16,000. With louder voices calling out discrimination and more people in positions of power showing up for women’s pro racing, we’re happy to be closer to realising the goal of equal opportunity in cycling.

Lizzie Deignan storms to victory at the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes

The women’s peloton hit the infamous cobbles for the first ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes this year and Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) confirmed her already solid status as an ultra-fierce rider by taking top spot. She put on a stunning display of skill, determination and strength, as she soloed for over 80 kilometres to win the race.

After the race, Deignan commented: “Women’s cycling is at this turning point, and you saw this today. This is part of history. I am proud to be part of a team that also makes history. We are so grateful to everybody behind the scenes and all the viewers, because every fan who’s watching this is also making history. It proves that there is an appetite for women’s cycling and that the riders here can do one of the hardest races in the world, and I am so proud that I can say that I am the first-ever winner.”

Canyon//SRAM introduces their plan for a Development Team

In exciting news for pro cycling hopefuls worldwide and a step in the right direction for the sport in general, Canyon//SRAM Racing announced that they will be starting a development team as part of their diversity and inclusion programme. Set to launch next year, the team will be in addition to the Canyon//SRAM Racing Women’s World Team. Rider recruitment focus will be on, but not limited to, Africa, Asia, and South America. This two-tier structure will be the first of its kind for a European-based World Team, creating a formal pathway to the Women’s World Tour.

The squad will be a UCI Continental Team and scholarships that include supervised training, coaching, mentorship, and stagiaire opportunities at Canyon//SRAM Racing will be offered to eight riders. A stellar initiative that holds real potential to make cycling more diverse and accessible? Yes, please.

CANYON//SRAM Women's Team
The development squad is a first for a European Women’s WorldTour organisation. © ThomasMaheux

Anna Kiesenhofer takes surprise gold in Olympic Road Race

In one of the most significant surprise (and slightly awkward) victories in Olympic road racing history, Austrian rider Anna Kiesenhofer rode to Olympic gold in Tokyo at the women’s road race. Annemiek van Vleuten and Elisa Longo Borghini took second and third, respectively. However, it was unbeknownst to van Vleuten (who raised her arms in victory as she arrived at the finish) that Kiesenhofer had already crossed the line 1:15 minutes prior.

So, what of this surprise Olympic champion? Well, Kiesenhofer returned to cycling in 2019 as an amateur rider and won the Austrian national road race and time trial championship titles. She entered the Olympics with a trade team and no professional contract. Aside from her cycling pursuits, she is also a holder of a PhD in mathematics and studied in Vienna and Cambridge before completing her doctorate in Catalonia in 2016. She currently combines teaching and research at the University of Lausanne. Now that is one heck of an impressive resumé, to say the least.

Elisa Longo Borghini goes solo to win GP Plouay 2021

Speaking of Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek Segafredo), who took the bronze medal at the Olympic road race, we need to mention her spectacular win at GP de Plouay-Lorient-Agglomeration Trophee Ceratizit. With a stunning solo attack in the last 10 kilometres, she outmanoeuvred Gladys Verhulst (Team Arkea) and Kristen Faulkner (Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank) to claim the crown.

The race was 11 laps of a constantly undulating circuit, for a total of 150km – 50km more than the 2020 addition and had three major climbs, for a total of 2,321 metres of elevational gain. It was an unrelenting race, and the peloton dwindled with every ascent.

In the end, though, Borghini emerged as the clear and deserving winner. She had a gap of 40 seconds, with only three kilometres left and as she came into the home straight, she continued to look behind her. She ultimately rode up the long flat rise to the finish on her own, though, and had one final glance behind her before she put her arms out to celebrate and cross the line.

Tour de France Femmes announced

Finally, we can’t close out the year without remembering a long-awaited announcement and looking enthusiastically ahead to next year. Declared earlier this summer to much fanfare, we now have assurance from the UCI and ASO that there will be a women’s Tour de France in 2022. This is, of course, a massive milestone for the women’s peloton. There’s no doubt about how high the stakes are and how closely the route, riders, and organisers will be followed as the race details continue to unfold over the coming months!

As we celebrate this exciting announcement, it is also encouraging to mark another year in which we continue to see landmark achievements being made in women’s cycling. Thus, let’s raise a glass to how far we’ve come and vow to keep at it in order to make 2022 an even more outstanding year in the history of women’s cycling.