The routes for the Olympic road races were recently announced by the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee and the UCI, and something is yet again conspicuously absent from the women’s course.

Women’s races seem to be chronically afflicted by a phenomenon whereby marquee features which form integral aspects of the men’s race tend to inexplicably go missing. Regrettably, the Olympic parcours is yet another egregious example of this.

The official route summary explains that both the men’s and women’s courses will commence in Musashinonomori Park on the outskirts of Tokyo and subsequently take in two climbs on Donushi Road and Kagasaka Pass. The document then abruptly announces, “it is here that the men and women’s courses diverge”. And this is where it all goes downhill, so to speak, at least for the women.

Following these climbs, the men will head for the heights of the Mount Fuji loop and crest the spectacular Fuji Sanroku climb, before riding through the Fuji Speedway, ascending the gruelling Mount Mikuni and Mikuni Pass loop (which features lactic acid-churning gradients of over 20%). After yet more climbing on the Kagasaka Pass, they will ultimately reach the roads of the Fuji Speedway to contest the much-awaited finale.

Yet after their initial two climbs, the women will have to make do with a paltry one and a half laps of the speedway circuit before rolling over the finish line. Their route somehow completely bypasses the most spectacular and potentially race-defining elements that are present in the men’s course.

This is unfortunately not the first instance in recent times that the UCI has provided women with a severely truncated and watered-down version of the men’s race at key international events. At last year’s World Championships in Bergen, for instance, the women’s time trial was left bereft of the dramatic Mount Fløyen finale, and instead featured a less-than-inspiring pancake flat run-in to the finish. The forgetful UCI course designer seems to have struck yet again in 2018, this time at the upcoming road World Championships in Innsbruck, where the women will have to forego the opportunity to race up the infamous Höll climb and its punishing gradients of almost 28%.

When the female peloton, as a matter of routine, is almost always provided with flatter, arguably easier and less iconic courses than their male counterparts, this only serves to reinforce the notion that female riders are somehow incapable of conquering anything more challenging. The entire situation appears to be nothing more than good old-fashioned paternalism masquerading under some less-malevolent veneer of traditionalism.

These days, particularly following the release of Agenda 2022, which lists gender equality as one of its main goals, the UCI is often quick to tout its reinvigorated commitment to gender parity. However, with this latest exercise in poorly thought out course design, it can hardly hold itself up as the bastion of equality that it so staunchly purports to be. Following the latest brouhaha that’s been stirred up by the Olympic route announcement, Agenda 2022 would appear to be nothing more than a reflexive pat on the back by the UCI that is bereft of any accompanying concrete action.

The governing body was, after all, very much involved in designing the women’s course alongside the Tokyo Organising Committee, and was presumably required to rubber stamp the woeful women’s parcours.

Is the UCI incapable of hearing the increasingly vociferous demands of their constituents for race parity?

With the Olympics providing a rare occasion for a women’s race to be televised to a global audience, the disappointingly drab course is a sorely missed opportunity to showcase the capabilities of the female peloton to an unprecedentedly wide viewership. Precisely when the world will be watching is the time to provide women with a challenging and testing course, not lop it in half and eviscerate it of its most exciting components.

Given the sheer notoriety of the Olympic Games, providing women with an equal course would do much to wipe existing prejudices about women’s racing from the public consciousness. However, viewers may instead only come away with the impression that female riders are second-class athletes on the bike.

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After first lamenting the uninspired Bergen and Innsbruck World Championships courses, followed by La Course, the one-day race that is ostensibly the answer to a women’s Tour de France, we are again left asking the same question, this time of the Olympics road race: why are the men’s and women’s courses so different?

Until women are allowed to crest the heights of iconic climbs, ride faster down their descents, and show their strength across incredibly demanding parcours, then the Olympic motto “faster, higher, stronger,” at least in cycling, will only be applicable to the men.


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