Lizzie Deignan fears ‘huge loss’ of Women’s Tour as funding issues threaten race

Two-time Women’s Tour champion Lizzie Deignan has warned the race will leave a huge hole in the WorldTour calendar if it does not go ahead in June.

Organisers Sweetspot last week said they must find new partners to fill a £500,000 funding shortfall in order to stage a race which has established a strong reputation at home and abroad.

Former world champion Deignan told the PA news agency: “The way the race is run is extremely professional and it’s probably been the most professional race we’ve had on the calendar.

2016 Women’s Tour of Britain – Stage Five – Northampton to Kettering
Lizzie Deignan also took the Women’s Tour title back in 2016 (Rui Vieira/PA)

“It will be a huge loss in terms of the opportunity for British teams to have a stage like that to race on, but also internationally it’s a really important race because June doesn’t have many stage races so it’s brilliant preparation ahead of the national championships and the Tour de France.”

Deignan, who will return to racing in May after having her second child, is aiming to hit peak form in time for a race which, if it does go ahead, will feature a Queen stage in her native Yorkshire.

“(The Women’s Tour) is what’s been in my mind during training rides,” she said. “If it goes, I need to rethink my whole calendar.”

Sweetspot’s appeal for new sponsorship came as they announced a route reduced from six days to five.

The last week has brought promising conversations with potential partners, and Sweetspot is also exploring some crowdfunding, but chief executive Hugh Roberts said nothing had materially changed.

“I would say it’s probably more likely than less likely (the race goes ahead) but it’s a very close call,” he said. “If we don’t get some good news by Easter we will be seriously doubting our ability to put together a race that makes sense for us.”

The three main costs are policing and accommodation, both around £50,000 per day, and TV production, which costs £175,000 for the week.

When car supplier Skoda exercised a break clause in their partnership deal before Christmas, it added another £60,000 to the sum that must be found.

The race also relies on local councils putting in money to host stages in their regions, an ever increasing challenge when budgets are being squeezed.

Doubt over the Women’s Tour comes in a year when Sweetspot was forced to cancel the Tour Series, its televised series of city centre criteriums, and in which British Cycling has also cut the number of rounds in the National Road Series.

Although Roberts said there were no questions over the viability of September’s Tour of Britain, the route is not yet finalised as discussions with local authorities continue over the details of three of the eight stages.

Building on the success of the past decade, Britain has more riders in the men’s and women’s WorldTour pelotons than ever before. But, with the loss of the Tour de Yorkshire, Britain has lost 26 per cent of its international races days since 2019, and there is a worrying picture for the domestic racing scene.

“At a time when the team environment is challenging around sponsorship and investment, it reduces opportunities for domestic riders to race in a full domestic series, that’s where the impact really is,” said Jonathan Day, British Cycling’s acting cycling delivery director.

“On a more positive note, down the pathway junior and youth level races are holding up, but the concern is where those riders progress to if we don’t start to turn it around.”

Sweetspot is developing plans for the Tour Series to return next year in a new format, taking this year’s hiatus as an opportunity to deliver a reboot focused on the UK’s biggest cities and borrowing ideas from cricket’s The Hundred.

The impact of a reduced calendar is felt by those teams and riders who see less opportunity to race on home roads.

But Ricci Pascoe, team principal of Cornwall-based squad Saint Piran, said he was trying to think positively about the future as he expands his operation ahead of launching a women’s team in 2024.

“For us personally it’s an exciting time,” he said. “We’re investing in our team, investing in people, and looking for a change in the sport. Of course I’m concerned about the domestic scene but we have to be part of the solution rather than moan about the problem.”