Cycling's governing body announces new women's tour

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Cycling's governing body announced a new tour for women's racing on Thursday, promising more events and greater visibility for what has largely been a neglected part of the sport.

The women's WorldTour replaces the confusing, antiquated World Cup system that has been in place since 1998. The series will run from March through September and feature 17 events in the U.S., Asia and Europe, increasing the number of competition days by 60 percent.

Much like the men's WorldTour, the top 20 pro teams will be invited to participate, though event organizers will have the option of including lower-level teams in their fields.

''We've been investing quite a lot of time, effort and money into women's road racing. That was part of my manifesto when I was elected,'' UCI president Brian Cookson told The Associated Press. ''We need to develop the women's side of the sport. We believe that's the right thing to do.''

Women's cycling has fought for equality for years, with fewer chances to race and purses a fraction of those for men. Teams often struggle to find enough sponsorship money to remain solvent, and that means some of the world's top riders have a hard time making ends meet.

Television and media coverage of their races, so important in a sponsor-driven sport, has been an after-thought at best - even though they are sometimes more compelling than men's races.

''For a long time, I've argued that all they really need is opportunity,'' said USA Cycling vice president Jim Miller. ''And if given an opportunity to race in front of the number of eyeballs that men do, in most cases the average fan can't tell the difference.''

There has been momentum building for women's cycling the past few years.

In 2012, the UCI announced prize money for individual races at the world championships would be equal for men and women. Two years later, there was a one-day women's race in conjunction with the final stage of the Tour de France for the first time, giving competitors a chance to race on the same Champs-Elysees circuit in an event broadcast in 23 countries worldwide.

There also have been new and expanded women's races tied into the Tour of California, Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge, the three major stage races held in the U.S. each year.

''I started racing in 2004, and I've noticed a profession in women's cycling,'' said 23-year-old Coryn Rivera, one of the top American riders. ''We have bigger races in Utah and California, and of course having the women's counterpart to the Tour is huge.''

Even those are often abbreviated version of the men's races, though. Some are just one day.

''I might have a different perspective than some, just because I'm the person that looks for sponsorship every year,'' said Nicola Cranmer, the general manager of the Twenty16-Sho-Air team. ''I still think it's really challenging, but what has happened is there has been a really aggressive effort to get more women's racing in mainstream media.''

This week's world championships is a good example. The women's time trial and road race are part of the package broadcast by NBC Sports and its sister network, Universal Sports.

''Largely, the problem in my opinion is getting the general public exposed to the athletes, the stories, the rivalries, the racing. That's beginning to change,'' Cranmer said. ''But that would be in the last two years, where you're starting to get some momentum.''

The new WorldTour promises to build on that momentum.

For the first time, multi-day events such as the Women's Tour of Britain and the women's version of the Giro d'Italia will be included in the schedule. All events will be required to have some TV coverage, and riders will compete for an overall championship along with race wins.

''Putting in place the conditions for growth is important, rather than passing a rule, like women have to get a minimum wage,'' Cookson said. ''I think we're making a really good step forward with the conditions that surround the women's WorldTour next year.''

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