Cyclist Nicole Hanselmann sped ahead of the other women riders and out of sight. In fact, she was so far ahead she saw something in the distance. The shapes turned out to be the rear section of the male race, and she was quickly approaching them.
If you follow professional cycling, you may have heard of the Swiss racer Nicole Hanselmann. In fact, even if you’re not a patron the sport, you may recognize the name from recent events. That’s because she’s been the talk of social media for events at the yearly Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
To be more specific, the Belgium Omloop Het Nieuwsblad race occurs every February. It’s also known as the Opening Classic, for a very good reason: it’s northern Europe’s first competitive cycling competition of the year. As a result, the contest has an illustrious reputation among cyclists and fans of the sport alike.
Indeed, the Omloop is so celebrated that officials combined both the male and female versions of the race in 2006. The race received further honors when the competition’s organizers added it to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) World Tour. Curiously, that’s the male tournament, as opposed to the female UCI Women’s WorldTour.
The Omloop dates back to 1945, when it was called Omloop van Vlaanderen (which translates as “Circuit of Flanders.”) The route originates in Ghent, Flanders, runs through the Flemish Ardennes’ uneven terrain, then finishes where it started. The course’s length is roughly 80 miles in total.
But its distance and rough ground aren’t the route’s only challenges. Because the Omloop happens in winter, weather conditions are frequently cold, adding another obstacle to participating cyclists. Furthermore, the climate has brought proceedings to a halt completely on several prior occasions. Organizers have consequently canceled Omloop three times in the past.
The first cancellation happened in 1971 on account of bad weather. However, conditions cleared within three weeks, and officials subsequently reinstated the race. Frost and snow prevented the Omloop again in both 1986 and 2004. These days, though, advanced weather readings help organizers to avoid such incidents for the most part.
This is the challenging world that Hanselmann has lived in since joining competitive cycling. The 27-year-old first broke into the scene back in 2009 at the age of 18. She joined the amateur team Bike-Import.CH and remained with it for two years. Hanselmann’s career trajectory has continued upwards since then.
After leaving Bike-Import.CH, Hanselmann joined the professional group Bigla Cycling Team in 2012. It was an important step for the athlete, since Bigla participates in some of the most renowned road cycling competitions. She’s been with them ever since and even became Switzerland’s national champion in 2017.
Despite such a remarkable achievement, that’s not why Hanselmann found herself in the media. She actually experienced time in the limelight for events that occurred in the 2019 Omloop. To begin with, we note that both the men and women’s races start on the same day, just ten minutes apart.
In the cycling world, a lot can happen in ten minutes. And if previous Omloops are anything to go by, it usually results in a significant distance between the races. But bicycles aren’t the only vehicles on the road for the duration. In addition to the cyclist’s bikes – or peloton – ambulances also follow both male and female competitors.
Even with the inclusion of ambulances, the men and women cyclists don’t often cross. However, the males’ ten-minute lead proved inadequate for former champion Hanselmann during 2019’s Omloop race. She raced ahead of the other cyclists, including three particularly tenacious opponents, who tried to close the distance.
Hanselmann herself uploaded a picture of herself during the Omloop to Instagram in March 2019. A description of what happened accompanied it. “Today was the first spring classic in Belgium,” she wrote. “I attacked after 7 km, and was alone in the break for around 30 km.” The distance between Hanselmann and the other women cyclists was significant.
The rider pressed the advantage and seemed to be on the way to victory, yet a complication occurred. Hanselmann was going so fast that she managed to catch up with the male cyclists ahead of her. “[An] awkward moment happened, and I almost saw the back of the men’s peloton,” Hanselmann wrote on Instagram.
As a result of her catch-up, officials pulled Hanselmann over and stopped the entirety of the woman’s Omloop. The female cyclists could only continue once the men had gone on ahead and increased the distance once more. Unfortunately, Hanselmann said that was a long enough break to ruin her shot at victory.
The previous champion told Cyclingnews as much in March 2019. “We came too close to the men’s so we had to get a neutral time gap again,” Hanselmann said. “So it was a bit sad for me because I was in a good mood.” As a consequence of the break, other cyclists closed the gap.
Hanselmann continued, “And when the bunch sees you stopping, they just get a new motivation to catch you. We could just see the ambulances of the men’s race. I think we stopped for five or seven minutes, and then it just kills your chances.” So how did the Omloop end?
Because of her previous advantage, officials allowed Hanselmann to go ahead of the other cyclists initially. “I got the gap again to start with on my own,” she described, “and I was just stood ten meters [11 yards] ahead of the bunch waiting.” Unfortunately, several factors scuppered her chance at victory.
A combination of the break in Hanselmann’s rhythm and the biting winter weather proved too much to overcome. “I got the gap again, and then they caught me at the end of the first cobbled section,” Hanselmann concluded. In the end, she placed 74th, with Dutch cyclist Chantal Blaak winning the race.
Despite losing her lead because of the delay, Hanselmann has been a good sport regarding the whole event. Indeed, she discussed her feelings about it with Olympic Channel. “I felt a bit sad because I was in a really good flow at that moment,” she explained. “But now, I’m actually quite easy about it. I’m not angry.”
On Instagram, Hanselmann commented, “Maybe the other women and me were too fast, or the men too slow!” But why did organizers stop the female Omloop in the first place? According to an official statement by Flanders Classics, the former champ was actually correct. The male cyclists were slower than usual.
“In normal conditions, the men ride faster than the women and the gap gradually increases,” Flanders Classics explained. “This year, however, the men were slower than usual in the beginning of the race, with a speed below 30 km/h (18 mph) at times. This circumstance caused a decreasing gap between the women’s and the men’s convoy.”
Flanders Classics went on to reveal that it had had safety in mind when it had stopped the women’s advance. “After 30 km (18 miles), and for safety reasons, the organization had to intervene because the leader of the women’s race was getting too close to the convoy of the men’s race.”
“At that point the elite women’s race was neutralized for about five minutes time,” Flanders Classics said. “As soon as the safety was restored the women were able to continue, with respect for the previous time differences obtained during the race.” But social media users have voiced some objections.
Hanselmann’s supporters made inevitable references to gender inequality on the cyclist’s Instagram post. “Unbelievable,” one person wrote. “They should have let you continue! Wonder if they would have stopped a man?! Hmm…” Another said, “Very, very embarrassing, and bad for the sport (and women, as usual).”
Other commenters made even more radical comparisons. For example, one said, “Reminiscent of when race officials physically obstructed Kathrine Switzer from running in the Boston Marathon in 1967. Women weren’t allowed to officially compete for five more years. Keep going Nicole! You’re a heroine! Make history!”
Additionally, a few Hanselmann supporters suggested that officials should have neutralized the men’s race. It’s not just members of the public that consider competitive cycling a male-dominated area either. According to BBC Sport, professional female British cyclist Nicole Cooke said as much to a parliamentary committee in 2017.
Cooke is a three-time cycling champion. She won the Giro Rosa in 2004 and the Grande Boucle in both 2006 and 2007. Even with such impressive successes under her belt, though, Cooke said that sexism was rife in the industry. She described cycling as “run by men, for men.”
BBC Sport also spoke to ex-cyclist Kathryn Bertine, co-founder of Le Tour Entier (LTE). The organization is dedicated to enhancing the appeal of women’s cycling events and getting equal gender treatment and coverage. Bertine said that the sport’s organizers probably didn’t even realize their bias because it was so endemic.
“They probably don’t even see it as sexism,” Bertine said on the lack of a women’s Tour de France. “It’s just very lazy. The very top of the sport is where sexism is still strongest, and that’s what needs to be dismantled.” But what does Flanders Classics say on the subject?
Flanders Classics begs to differ, as its official statement after 2019’s Omloop indicates. “For many years now, Flanders Classics has strived for equality for all participants,” the organization wrote. “As we do since 2018, we presented all men’s and women’s teams jointly in the iconic ’t Kuipke during an amazing show.”
“Right after, we lined up the men’s and women’s race alongside each other at the Emile Clauslaan for their respective starts,” Flanders Classics continued. “The Elite Men took off just eight minutes before the Elite Women in order to keep the numerous fans and the nice atmosphere at the start site for the women’s start as well.”
It would seem that there are professional cyclists in the industry who agree with this too. Hanselmann is one of them, as she told Olympic Channel during her post-Omloop interview. “Actually, much progress has been made to treat us more equal,” the former champion said of equality in cycling.
“We had team presentations at the same time, they mixed up the men’s and women’s teams together,” Hanselmann described. “And we have similar starting times, which is nice for us so we get more publicity.” The cyclist puts her delayed race experience down to a simple case of human error.
Hanselmann said, “I think it was a really well-organized race, and they just made a mistake in planning. “I think it’s nice for the women to get similar publicity and race close to the men.” On the other hand, she admits there’s still some work to be done in terms of equal gender coverage.
Olympic Channel questioned Hanselmann on the difference between herself, the top female Swiss time trialer, and her male counterpart. “There’s a big difference,” she revealed. “If you just turn on the TV you only see men’s races. Sometimes there are highlights from the women’s races. But mostly we have different races in different places, different dates.”
But that’s precisely why Hanselmann feels that Flanders Classics is making important steps towards gender equality. “Actually, it helps us to have races like this when we start together,” the cyclist informed. In fact, she’s of the opinion that things are only going to improve in the future, all being well.
“I think generally it’s in a changing process now,” Hanselmann continued. “You see, there are more men’s teams involved in women’s teams and it’s getting more together right now.” However, she conceded that event organization wasn’t her responsibility. “I’m an athlete,” she said, “so I’m not that much involved in the process.”
Hanselmann said that it might speed things along if there was a female version of the Tour de France. Currently, it’s a male-only event, which is something that Bertine’s LTE is working towards changing. That way, there’d be a literal comparison between male and female professional cyclists.
“I think it would be really nice for us to have a Tour de France,” Hanselmann expressed. “Because it’s just a really high prestige race. If we do similar courses or the same races, the image of women’s cycling would increase. And elsewhere they just don’t know what kind of races we do.”