Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Shoddy Journalism Leads to Sensational and Misleading Headlines

You've probably seen the headlines - 'Female Cyclist Forced to Halt Race After She—Gasp!—Caught up With the Men" or "Female cyclist halted in Belgium race after capturing massive lead, catching up to men". Problem with these headlines is they aren't factual, are all based on shoddy journalism, and after a little more examination the actual story is less than what it seems. Does sexism and misogyny exist in professional cycling? Yes, but the situation in this particular race was not the blatant sexism that the headlines and reporting would have you believe!

There were two races taking place the "Omloop Het Nieuwsblad" Elite Men's and Elite Women's race. The men's race was 200km and left  a little under 10 minutes ahead of the women's race which was 123km. Both the men's and women's race were following the same route through the first section of cobbles, the Haaghoek cobbles that start around the 38km mark. Here is a "recon video" of these cobbles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9R5jwf61ewA&t=119s

In the men's race, a breakaway of 4 men reached this first section of cobbles with a 14 minute lead on the main body of the men's peloton. The women's race was "neutralized" or forced to wait around the 35km mark or 3km before the start of the first cobble section. Nicole Hanselmann had a 43 second gap over a group of three other cyclists. At this time, the back of the "caravan" following the men's race was in view and Nicole was about to become part of this string of vehicles.

Have you ever watched a bike race on cobbles? Take two and a half minutes to watch this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_WWbI9mQ5I 

The race was paused because the lead woman cyclist was about to become part of the trailing vehicle caravan, but she had not yet caught any male cyclists. The main body of males were going slower than the organizers expected. However, the decision to stop the women was strictly a safety issue, you can't have two groups of riders that are competing in separate races with all accompanying support vehicles and officiating crews passing and intermixing on the narrow cobble roads! It must also be remembered that the men's race and women's race diverged at a later point. Had the races become intermixed attempting to separate the riders into their proper routes could have been disastrous!

The question is raised, why force the women to pause, why not force the men to pause since they were caught? Because the men were not "caught". There were four riders 14 minutes ahead and well onto the cobbles so the lead men had actually extended their lead over the lead women at this point. Plus, if you watched the video above you would realize there is no room to pause a race once they are all out racing on cobbles! The women however were still on well paved roads in a place suitable to pause and allow a safe gap to open back up. 

The men's race of 200km would finish at an average speed of 25.4 mph and the women's race of 123km at an average speed of 22.8. The early 14 minute gap by 4 riders in the men's race would be erased and the race would be won by Zdenek Stybar who was not in the early breakaway. On the women's side, the early leader Nicole Hanselmann would be allowed to start first following the pause and given the same lead she had prior to the neutralization, but would start the cobbles with only a 15 second gap and would end up 74th on the day, just under 13 minutes back of the winner, Chantal Blaak.

As I stated before, sexism does exist in cycling. Why is the women's race shorter? Why is their TV and other race coverage much less than the men's? These are all issues that should be addressed, but I would suggest that miss-characterizing what happened this past weekend at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2019 is not the best way forward, especially in this era with daily claims of "fake news".

Most of the race details I've stated can be found at the following two links:
the women's race can be viewed here: 

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