Elisa Longo Borghini smiles broadly while clenching her fists in joy after winning the Women's Tour in 2022.

Wheel Talk Newsletter: Fake news or a real possibility?

The Women's Tour may not be dead, the UAE Tour is ready to go, and what to make of that supposed €1 million contract offer for Demi Vollering.

Elisa Longo Borghini was pretty stoked after winning the Women’s Tour. Photo by Zac Williams

Good day, and thank you for opening this week’s Wheel Talk Newsletter. The Women’s WorldTour continues this week with the UAE Tour, Demi Vollering might be leaving SD Worx-Protime with a €1 million contract at UAE Team ADQ, and Taylor Swift announced a new album coming in April. But before we dive into it…

After rumblings that the Women’s Tour would be no more in 2024, it seems the race may be saved after all. Late last week British Cycling announced that they would take control of both the men’s Tour of Britain and the Women’s Tour. According to British Cycling, it will be challenging to host both events this year but they intend to go ahead, as of now.

It’s possible that in order to go ahead with the women’s event, British Cycling will cut down the number of stages from six.

The peloton awaits the departure of stage 3 of The Women's Tour in Tewkesbury. The pack is standing on their bikes ready to go, with fans clustered at the barriers. The now-empty sign-in stage rises behind them.
The peloton is us waiting for more solid news on whether the race is happening or not…

The full statement from British Cycling:

“While delivering the events in 2024 will be incredibly challenging, we have already commenced positive discussions with partners across all areas of commercial, broadcast and local delivery, and have been hugely encouraged by the support we have received to date.

“We understand that the uncertainty surrounding the two events has been a cause of concern and confusion for riders and teams, and we will be open and transparent to ensure the greatest possible participation and success in the two races scheduled to take place this year.”

For now, it’s good news, or slightly more positive news than we got as recently as a week ago. The Women’s Tour, aside from its struggles with live coverage, remains a key part of the WorldTour calendar, not only because of what it offers for sprinters in the peloton, and its placement in the calendar, but also because of its importance to cycling in the U.K. and beyond. We need to have these top-level races outside of continental Europe for the sport to succeed.

And speaking of racing outside of continental Europe …

Racing continues…

at the UAE Tour!

The Women’s WorldTour continues with the four-stage UAE Tour from February 8 – 12.

The Course

Stages 1, 2, and 4 are flat as flat can be. The first stage takes place in Dubai and covers 122.3 km, the second covers 113.5 km from Al Mirfa to Madinat Zayed while the final stage takes place in Abu Dhabi starting at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and finishing 104.9 km later at Abu Dhabi Breakwater.

All three “sprint” stages are similar to last year and all three sprint stages last year ended up being a battle between Charlotte Kool (DSM Firmenich-PostNL) and Lorena Wiebes (SD Worx-Protime). It was the first major sprint showdown of the year and set the tone for a season-long story.

The key stage for the general classification players is, like last year, stage 3. Finishing atop Jebel Hafeet, the stage is 128 km long and despite the major action happening in the final 11 km, crosswinds took out some major players before the climb started last year. This year the race has added 21 km to the stage, but it’s all in the flats before the climb kicks off so likely won’t make a big difference.

The climb is not super steep, it’s long and gradual and last year we saw the peloton slowly lose riders until it was only two Trek-Segafredo (now Lidl-Trek) riders left.

Elisa Longo Borghini and Gaia Realini celebrate a 1-2 finish on Jebel Hafeet in the 2023 UAE Tour. The pair are hand in hand, with Longo Borghini's right arm stretched out wide as she crosses the line, while the much smaller Realini raises her left fist in the air.
Elisa Longo Borghini and Gaia Realini put their stamp on the race, finishing 1-2 on Jebel Hafeet.

The Players

Last year the UAE Tour proved a great start to the season for Elisa Longo Borghini and her young teammate Gaia Realini. The two were fantastic on the climb, finishing 1-2 on the stage and ultimately the overall.

Longo Borghini and Realini are back this year for Lidl-Trek, and both the women and their team are hoping for a repeat of last year. They’re bringing along some strong riders to support the Italians in Lisa Klein and Elynor Backstedt, plus new teammate Clara Copponi for the sprints and for leading into the stage 3 climb.

The biggest contenders for the general classification next to Lidl-Trek’s Italians are Mavi Garcia and Ricarda Bauernfeind.

Garcia will be lining up with her new Liv AlUla Jayco team for the first time, and the Australian team’s sole focus on stage 3 will be to get the Spanish champion to the base of the climb unscathed.

Canyon-SRAM’s Bauernfeind last year proved to be a rider to watch in the future with her stage win at the Tour de France Femmes, and this year she will have even more pressure and expectation heaped on her shoulders. As she’s a strong climber, Lidl-Trek will want to try to shake her off the pace early on the climb, but they might not have the numbers for it.

There are for sure more GC contenders but the startlist is slim.

In terms of sprinters lining up, there are a few to watch. UAE Team ADQ’s Chiara Consonni, Letizia Paternoster and Georgia Baker of Liv AlUla Jayco, maybe even Movistar’s Emma Norsgaard. But all the sprinters in the peloton will have a task besting the top two sprinters of the 2023 season: Lorena Wiebes and Charlotte Kool.

SD Worx-Protime is solely focused on stage wins with the team they’ve brought. In addition to Wiebes, who won one of last year’s stages, they are also bringing the world champion Lotte Kopecky. Not sure if we will see Kopecky going for any stages, with Wiebes a better fit for results, but we’ll see.

The start list for DSM Firmenich-PostNL is only halfway complete, but alongside Kool is Rachele Barbieri, who joins the Dutch team from Liv Racing-TeqFind, which merged with Jayco over the offseason.

Charlotte Kool sprints it out at the UAE Tour. She's at the front, at least a bike length ahead of the chasing riders behind. Chiara Consonni is just off her wheel while Lorena Wiebes, in the green jersey for best sprinter, is to the right of Consonni trying to come around Kool.
Charlotte Kool vs. Lorena Wiebes with Chiara Consonni just behind them during the 2023 final stage.

The biggest storylines to watch out for:

How will Kool stack up against Wiebes this year?

Will any other sprinters be able to match the top two? Can Consonni keep improving year on year?

How is Longo Borghini feeling after last season, and how will Lidl-Trek handle Realini this year?

Will crosswinds neutralize the climbers on stage 3? Can teams with less-sure GC riders take advantage of the early stages to break the race apart before the ascent?

How will the track riders who have Paris on their minds slot into the road peloton this year (there are quite a few at the startlist)? And how does this race fit into the large season-long picture? For Kopecky, for example, this is likely a tune-up race for the Classics. She will not be the only one on the start line purely there to shake the legs out before Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

How to watch?

This section is infuriating, but I will try. So for Europe, the race is live on Eurosport, we are the lucky ones. Coverage of stages 1-3 starts at 11:30 CET, and stage 4 starts at 11:50 CET. FloBikes has coverage in Canada at 5:50 Eastern, but if you try to watch from the U.S. without a VPN you’ll be geo-blocked. There is no Australian coverage that we can find at this time.

Wheel Talk Podcast

This week’s Wheel Talk Podcast is one of my favourite I’ve recorded in a while! After a few requests from EC members, I reached out to Helen Wyman, the cyclocross legend and current commentator, who agreed to join the podcast to chat about why cyclocross is the best sport in the world.

Listeners chipped in with questions for Helen on the EC Discord so we also answered a bunch of listener questions: Why do riders sometimes not wear gloves when it’s cold? What do the regular podium-goers of the X2O series do with all their ducks? How is Lucinda Brand still competitive while other riders of her age struggle to keep up with the younger generation?

We enjoyed chatting so much that we recorded for almost 90 minutes, and because I don’t want you all to miss the jokes, a longer version of the episode is available for members of the Escape Collective on the “Member’s Only” podcast feeds.

Not a member? Well, maybe now is the time to sign up.

Let’s discuss

Demi Vollering’s rumoured €1 million contract offer from UAE Team ADQ.

Soon after Lotte Kopecky hinted that she was considering a move away from the powerhouse team of SD Worx-Protime, rumours of another of the Dutch team’s top riders seeking a contract elsewhere have slithered into the world. Unlike the Kopecky story, rumblings of Vollering leaving SD Worx-Protime at the end of the season are not straight from the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift winner’s mouth, so it might all be for clicks. There are a lot of moving parts in this story, so let’s work through them.

Kopecky herself said in an interview that a move away from her current team was possible. The World Champion hasn’t mentioned any teams specifically and was vague on whether or not a deal would happen. At the end of the interview, she said she’s also happy with the team and doesn’t “necessarily have to leave.”

The rumours around Vollering’s departure started swirling after Marijn de Vries wrote about UAE Team ADQ’s offer in a column for NRC. Notably, it’s not attributed to any source, even anonymously, so only Marijn (and her editor, maybe) know where this bit of gossip originated.

Five things to think about:

1. A million Euros is a lot, and could likely be the highest contract for a female cyclist in the peloton. There are a handful making more than half a mil, but only the cream of the crop. Vollering would be the highest-paid rider in the peloton, and by a significant amount.

2. Would Vollering actually leave the team that built her into what she is, especially if that meant parting ways with her mentor and SD Worx director, Anna van der Breggen? And could UAE Team ADQ even back a rider like Vollering? Without Van der Breggen’s steady leadership and teammates like Marlen Reusser, Lorena Wiebes, Christine Majerus, and the rest of the insanely strong squad, would she still be as dominant?

3. Two of SD Worx-Protime’s top stars have now been rumoured to leave the team, so are we looking at a huge shift in the peloton in 2025? If both riders do move to other teams, it levels out the playing field a bit. Even if the same riders are winning, they will be wearing different jerseys.

4. How does Protime’s additional investment in the team fit into all of this and can SD Worx-Protime afford to match UAE Team ADQ’s offer, if it’s genuine?

And 5. Is this a PR stunt to try and get more money out of the current team during a contract year (after all, it happens all the time on the men’s side)? It’s not a bad thing at all, it’s how the game works.

It’s up for debate if Vollering would actually leave SD Worx-Protime. They aren’t the team that “discovered” her – that honour belongs to Parkhotel Valkenburg – but with the help of Van der Breggen from Vollering’s first year on the team, SD Worx-Protime can certainly take some credit in her development. It’s not like other teams where a rider spends a certain amount of time there only to find success elsewhere. SD Worx-Protime is the best team in the world, men or women (don’t @ me) and leaving it for something less of a sure thing is wild. Possible, but wild. It’s Hamilton going to Ferrari (I know nothing about Formula One, but that was all over the news so I assume it’s meaningful).

Don’t get me wrong: UAE Team ADQ is a strong team and has some impressive riders like Consonni, Silvia Persico, Sofia Bertizzolo, Elizabeth Holden, Karlijn Swinkels and more, but they are no SD Worx-Protime. The riders are one thing, the other half of the team is management. And if you look at the performance of the Dutch team vs. the United Arab Emirates team, there are multiple reasons beyond the strength of the riders that one team performs better.

If UAE Team ADQ is also looking to pick up other riders to support Vollering, that’s one thing, but are they also going to make sure vital organizational support like management, equipment, and sports science is up to her expectations? Can the directors at UAE Team ADQ properly handle Vollering? It’s mostly an Italian team and Italians and Dutch are VERY different.

Now, this might also factor into why Protime came to the team with enough money for their name to be added to the jersey. A sponsor of the team already in 2023, it’s possible SD Worx knew they would have to at least try to match UAE Team ADQ’s offer to keep Vollering on board. Even if it’s not a million, if it’s slightly less, they still might be able to keep their star rider.

It’s possible Vollering’s agent slid this bit of information into the media in an attempt to put pressure on SD Worx-Protime and alert other teams to the fact that Vollering is willing to leave her home of four years for the right price. Only time will tell. I for one will be shocked if she leaves, but not sad. It will make the racing a heck of a lot more dynamic.

The joys of social media

It’s been a rough road for Marta Cavalli, after a stellar performance at the Giro Donne in 2022 the Italian climber went into the Tour de France Femmes a favourite to challenge Annemiek van Vleuten. Alas, she would never get the chance to test herself on the Super Planche des Belles Filles.

A crash-marred stage 2 was the end of Cavalli’s bid at the Tour and kept her out of the peloton for most of the season. Even into the 2023 season, Cavalli seemed to struggle to feel comfortable in the peloton again.

By June the old Cavalli emerged to win the second stage of CIC-Tour Féminin Pyrénées and Cavalli fans (of which I am one) rejoiced. The form was coming around just in time for the Tour.

But the Giro and Tour were both hit or miss, Cavalli’s best result at the stage races was eighth on the Col du Tourmalet, almost six minutes behind Demi Vollering, who went on to win the Tour.

Cavalli ended her season on a high at least, by winning a stage and the overall at the Tour Feminin l’Ardeche.

Going into 2024, with the support of FDJ-Suez, we’d all hoped Cavalli would feel like herself on the bike again, but the universe had other plans. The French team and Cavalli herself posted on Instagram on Monday that the Italian was in a crash at training camp that resulted in a bone contusion in the pelvis.

Fingers crossed this is just another bump in the road for Cavalli. She is a lethal climber who we all want to see line up against Vollering this year and for many years to come, and a fabulous human being who doesn’t deserve another setback.

A picture worth a couple words

Alright, after that bummer of a segment let’s get some good vibes in here…

FDJ-Suez's Jade Wiel leans over to give some love to her Aussie shepherd, Twenty. Twenty is a medium-sized dog with long, white and black coat that looks merled or silver. Twenty is looking up at Jade with a happy, open-mouth expression.
photo courtesy ASO

Here’s a photo of FDJ-Suez’s Jade Wiel at the start of the Tour stage 3 with her furry friend Twenty. Twenty and Jade’s parents are frequently at the races supporting Jade.

Taylor Swift trivia

While we were all over here speculating about green vs. black dresses and what that meant for the next Taylor Swift re-record, Taylor was laughing in between studio takes for her brand new album The Tortured Poets Department.

In theory, it follows a pattern. In 2021 Swift released two of her “Taylor’s Vision” re-records – Fearless and Red. In 2022 she shifted to new music with Midnights, but come 2023 it was back to the re-records with Speak Now and 1989. With two re-records left, if Swift is indeed following some kind of pattern, it makes sense we are getting a new album in 2024, then Reputation and Debut in 2025. The Eras Tour is set to go through 2025 anyway, possibly beyond.

Swift announced her new album during her acceptance speech for her fourth Album of the Year win at the Grammys. Once again she made history, as the only artist to win AOTY four times.

But the immediate conversation in the Album Files (IYKYK) group chat post-announcement was not what you’d expect (or maybe it is…):

Matt: She’s pumping them out. “Tortured Poet’s Department” is a cool name. Except she has no apostrophe anywhere in there and it’s bugging me.
Iain: This is right though isn’t it? Or am I losing it completely? I don’t have a style guide at hand to confirm (Matt: ?) It is not a single poet’s department, but it could possibly be a collective group of poets, and then I think we’re a chance for “tortured poets’ department”, but I also don’t think that’s right either. It is the department of tortured poets.
Matt: Any of the three are fine. I would lean towards “Tortured Poets’ Department” but it’s certainly not as clean.
Iain: But something like Royal Architects Society would be grammatically correct, no?
Matt: Yeah, like the TS example, it’s fine. I don’t think there’s a right answer. My brain would just prefer an apostrophe for clarity’s sake, even though it’s not as clean a design.
Abby: That was actually my first thought upon reading the name and I hate that I’ve become this. I blame Dane.
Matt: I thought for sure you were going to tease me for pointing it out ?
Abby: I’ve changed. For better or worse it’s up for debate.

So, I asked two people who know a heck of a lot more about grammar than I do.

Dane Cash: This would be a judgment call kind of. And it’s hard to explain. An analogy would be that the claims department at your insurance company probably wouldn’t use an apostrophe. It’s just kind of an idiomatic thing that we use the noun before “department” in businesses or organizations as an adjective.

Joe Lindsey: If the department belongs to said Tortured Poets then yes. But it can also be “The Department of Tortured Poets” and is not possessive. And of course, apostrophe placement depends on singular or plural poet/poets.

There you go. It may not roll off the tongue like folklore, Speak Now, or Red but at least it is, in theory, grammatically correct.

Thinking about what the “vibe” of this album is going to be, rumour has it the genre is listed as synth-pop, similar to Midnights, but Aaron Dessner (of the National and Swift’s collaborator on folklore and evermore) posted pictures of Swift in his upstate New York studio last year so perhaps we’re looking at a follow up to those. An indie-leaning album.

Following the trend that you can catch Swift’s plans for her next album in the back half of her last album, listen to songs like High Infidelity, The Great War, Bigger Than the Whole Sky (?) and Dear Reader. And don’t worry about marking April 19th on your calendars, I will be insufferable in the lead-up.

Bet you didn’t think the TS part of this Newsletter would be a grammar lesson. It’s fun to keep you all on your toes.

Until next time!

This was a long one, if you made it this far, wow. You rockstar, you!

Thank you so much for reading my little newsletter. If you have any thoughts on future topics, questions for me or anyone at the Wheel Talk Podcast, or just want to say hello you can find me on the Escape Collective Discord or on Threads/Instagram @abimickey.

Don’t forget to tune into the UAE Tour, at least the third stage, and I’ll be back next week!

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