The UCI's decision to remove the Giro Rosa from the Women's WorldTour due to its organisational shortcomings, including not providing the required live television broadcast, has sparked discussion about whether the penalty was too heavy-handed, especially during a season of upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an interview with Cyclingnews, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, who has placed inside the top 10 overall in six editions, described a 'love-hate relationship' that she has with the event that is often referred to as the only women's Grand Tour. She believes that the Giro Rosa has made many organisational improvements over the last two years, but relegating it for not fulfilling all of the top-tier series requirements was the right decision.
"I believe that it is the right thing to relegate the Giro Rosa because there needs to be accountability," Moolman Pasio said. "We need to create a benchmark standard, and there needs to be consequences, because if there aren't consequences, then it doesn't matter what new rules are in place, races or teams will get away with breaking those rules, and there will never really be proper progress. I think there needs to be accountability.
"I do believe that the UCI is sending out the right message by creating accountability. If you want to be a WorldTour race, then you have to execute the rules that are set in place."
The Giro Rosa celebrated its 31st anniversary this year, but it almost didn't happen after Italy was heavily hit by COVID-19 coronavirus. Organisers were forced to cancel the event that was originally scheduled from June 26 to July 5, and postponed it to September 11-19. Race director Giuseppe Rivolta said that he didn't want to abandon the Giro Rosa and was determined to see this year's race go ahead, even if it meant some sacrifices.
When the race kicked off with the team time time trial in Grosseto, professional cycling fans took to social media to express frustration that there was no live television broadcast of the event. Athletic Sports Group (ASG) and Pulse Media Group (PMG Sport) reached an agreement for the media rights to the Giro Rosa this year; however, it told Cyclingnews that the event would only be offering a "near-live" programme after each stage along with the highlight reels. When asked about the mandatory live television requirement, they did not respond.
The UCI implemented a mandatory 45 minutes of live television broadcasting, in addition to post-race programming and highlight packages, for every race organiser that wanted to be part of the 2020 Women's WorldTour. It was done to help raise the level and marketability of women's cycling, to meet the demands of people who wanted to watch women's cycling on TV, and generally increase viewership of its top-tier series.
Cyclingnews understands that the Giro Rosa organisers committed to the live broadcast in their application and during the run-up to the event. However, when complaints began to mount because there was no television broadcast, organisers hit back, claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to sacrifice live coverage to ensure the race went ahead. They also said that television line-ups for live broadcasting were at capacity during September, and there was no place for the Giro Rosa in programming schedules. Cyclingnews understands that they were also concerned about extra costs associated with increased expenses of the major WorldTour teams.
Moolman Pasio acknowledged the setbacks that many sponsors, teams and events have faced this year due to COVID-19 and increased financial requirements to be part of the Women's WorldTour.
"The big thing that, this year, set them back and has resulted in this relegation is the fact that there was no live TV coverage," Moolman said. "That has a lot to do with the fact that the UCI created a minimum requirement to be a WorldTour race, and one of those requirements was 45 minutes of live TV, and the Giro Rosa didn't execute on that.
"Of course, it's an exceptional year with COVID-19 and difficult times for everyone, and I'm sure just as difficult for race organisation, and it's been a difficult year, and at least we had the opportunity to race."
In an interview with Cyclingnews following her victory at La Flèche Wallonne, Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) – who also won the overall title at the Giro Rosa – said relegating the event for not fulfilling the live television requirement was a statement and that Women's WorldTour events should all have live television.
"First of all, the live broadcast is something woman cycling really needs at the moment. People should be able to watch our races. Never more so than now because nobody can watch it live with all the coronavirus rules," Van der Breggen told Cyclingnews. "It is also a statement that the Giro Rosa lost the Women's WorldTour status because of no live broadcast. Women's WorldTour races should have it."
Cyclingnews understands that the UCI did not grant exemption from the requirements of being part of the Women's WorldTour this year and that they do not help fund the live broadcasting of events. Lizzy Banks (Equipe Paule Ka), two-time stage winner at the Giro Rosa, called on all stakeholders, including the UCI, to help financially commit to live broadcasting costs to ensure that major women's cycling events reach international audiences.
"Some might ask, is it fair that the UCI creates all these rules, while they don't make an effort to facilitate the development, and they're just creating the rules," Moolman Pasio said. "There's been a lot of criticism toward the UCI regarding this [relegation], and even during COVID-19, where they created all the protocols, but they didn't support the teams on executing the protocols."
Teams and organisers have faced heightened costs associated with being part of the WorldTour reforms implemented this year. Costs include the live television, increased participation allowance fees and registration fees, and top-tier teams are now obligated to pay riders a minimum salary, along with health and other social benefits such as maternity benefits. While this has been considered a major development to women's cycling professionalisation, it has left some teams ad event struggling to make ends meet.
"I appreciate the work that [David] Lappartient is doing for women's cycling; pushing for women's Paris-Roubaix and a women's Tour de France, and I believe he cares a lot for women's cycling and wants to create opportunities for women's cycling. I think the UCI has the right intentions and want to see women's cycling grow.
"Is it their responsibility to fund TV coverage? That's up to everyone's own opinion. Maybe in the first years, they could step in, but everyone is having a hard time with COVID, so everyone has a loss of revenue streams.
"Going from no live coverage to suddenly a requirement of live coverage, and a whole lot of other things, it's a big difference. A lot of teams, even the WorldTour teams, are experiencing that Continental to WorldTour, suddenly, is a lot of different and new things that cost a lot of money to execute. It's all good and well to have new rules in place, and new reforms, but I do believe that maybe there needs to be more support and collaboration to help take that next step."
Moolman Pasio believes that the UCI's implementation of a 45-minute live television programme is ultimately a positive step forward in developing women's cycling but that the sport would progress faster if there were live television coverage held consistently on mainstream media platforms.
"The big thing for women's cycling is that we need more exposure, and that's the only way this sport will progress," she said. "We can put new reforms in place, make new rules and enforce more [men's] races to do women's races, but for the sport to move forward, we need mainstream TV time, not just streaming time, we need to be on mainstream channels to build a proper fan base."
As live television coverage of women's racing is becoming more frequent; however, Moolman Pasio said the sport needs to make it easier for fans to watch the sport and to build a loyal fanbase. For example, some events might only show the final of a race, and it's difficult for fans to know where to find the live broadcasts and on what platforms.
"It doesn't help to have no continuity in the exposure of women's cycling," she said. "Some races are putting in the effort and meeting the requirement of the WorldTour status and doing live coverage, but one week it will be a live stream and the next it will be on Eurosport and the next only on GCN.
"How do you build a loyal fan base if your fans don't know where to find you? You have to have die-hard fans that are seeking out to find Women's WorldTour cycling. It needs to be easier for the fans to find women's sport, and we want to create new fans, so we need mainstream media so that people can stumble upon the sport as well to watch it."
Grand Tour status
The Giro Rosa has historically been considered one of the biggest and most prestigious women's races globally. It is commonly referred to as the only women's Grand Tour primarily because organisers commit to offering ten days of racing, the longest race on the calendar. In more recent editions, they have included iconic mountain passes such as the Mortirolo, Stelvio, Zoncolan and the Gavia, which was cancelled from last year's event due to landslides.
However, from an organisational standpoint, Moolman Pasio has said it wasn't managed or marketed to the level that would be expected of Grand Tour, although she noted a marked improvement on its organisational shortcomings over the last two years. Not fulfilling its requirement for live television broadcast was not the only concern in the UCI addressed in its decision to relegate the race to 2.Pro level in 2021.
"Part of me feels sad that it's been relegated because it is our Grand Tour, but are we wrong to automatically give it that status just because there's romanticism in the fact that it's the only really long race for women?" Moolman Pasio asked.
Cyclingnews understands that there were other organisational concerns surrounding security and safety, finances and changes to routes and start times, and these concerns extend to previous editions of the race. The UCI stated that it withdrew the Giro Rosa from the Women's WorldTour "due to various shortcomings on the part of the organiser with regard to the specifications (particularly in terms of television coverage), despite repeated requests from us over the past few years."
Moolman Pasio, who competed in ten editions 2010-2015 and 2017-2020, described a love-hate relationship with the Giro Rosa and has questioned its assumed Grand Tour status, especially in earlier editions. She said the race organisation over the years hasn't been up to par, but that it has improved.
She praised the organisers for trying to make small organisational developments each year. Still, she said there are other races on the calendar that have stepped up and are now exceeding the expectations of a Women's WorldTour event.
"To be honest, I've always had a little bit of a love-hate relationship with the Giro Rosa," said Moolman Pasio. "It has always been a dream to win the Giro Rosa, but in the first couple of years, and being naive and new to the sport, and of course it was our version of the Tour de France, and I used to put it in that bracket of being super special, and so it didn't really matter how the race was organised or not. It was just the fact that we had this Grand Tour that made it special. For many years, I overlooked all of its shortcomings.
"As I got older and wiser, I started to really see the shortcomings of the race. What started to disturb me was that it was given this Grand Tour status, given the fact that it was our longest race and often the hardest race because of the big mountain passes, but I didn't really believe that it deserved that status. It almost just automatically got that status, which I felt wasn't really fair as new races started coming into the calendar like the Women's Tour [in Great Britain], which was the standout competitor, because they showed to the world that it is possible to make a really good stage race for women with great support, people out cheering, and they did an amazing job of marketing the event.
"It became very clear to me that the Giro Rosa seemed to be in a comfort zone, whereby they automatically got this Grand Tour status because they were the only 10-day race and with big mountain passes, but they weren't doing the work to grow the race and create the spectacle around it that it deserved. This had a lot to do with the shortcomings in their marketing strategy. They were focussed on organising the event, and they got away with it being a Grand Tour because no one else was competing with them, but they weren't putting in the effort to market the event, attract the crowd and activate in the community. New races that came along, like the Women's Tour, started to place pressure on the Giro.
"In the past two years we have seen improvements in the job [the Giro Rosa organisers] have done to try and attract more crowds and awareness of the race, but TV exposure has always been a shortfall of the race. The organisation has improved, and the work they've done to market the race and attract crowds have improved, but it's unfortunately too small of increments of improvement.
"We have been fortunate in 2018 to have the Zoncolan, as the same stage as the men, and last year we have big mountain passes. So the organisation has been improving things, and even when it comes to hotels and the general organisation of the race, I can't really criticise them on that [now] because they've been, especially in the past two years, making an effort to do a better job. I would say in terms of the organisation of the race, and the race itself, I do believe in that regard that they now put in the effort to justify being a WorldTour race."
Next year, the Giro Rosa will take place in July as a 2.Pro level event, but the UCI stated that organisers would be eligible to reapply to the Women's WorldTour in 2022. "We hope that the Giro Rosa, a historic race on the professional women's road cycling calendar that is highly appreciated by the riders, will do its utmost to reach the level required by the UCI Women's WorldTour," read a statement from the UCI.
Moolman Pasio agreed, reiterating that the pressure needs to be applied to organisers to fulfill the live television and other organisational requirements to be part of the Women's WorldTour for the professionalism of women's cycling to continue to grow and develop.
"It has to start somewhere, the pressure needs to be put on and people need to have something to work toward, and so I do believe that it's the right thing that the Giro Rosa was relegated. Otherwise, if people keep getting away with it, then we will never move forward," she said. "Women's cycling is in a good place, and it's a good thing that there is accountability.
"The most important thing that has come from all of this is that the fans have learned that they need to stand up and speak up. The more people who come out and show their dissatisfaction for no TV exposure, the better for the sport because that holds the races accountable at the end of the day. So, thank you to the fans for speaking up and showing their distaste and frustration for no TV coverage."