You might be a TdF fan who's seen posts about the Giro Donne on the front page, and wondered what the deal is with women's cycling, and why we're so excited about the Giro Donne. Of course, the sport is very similar to the men's racing, but there are some key differences. Join me under the jump, and I'll tell you some of them - and if you have any questions about the women's racing, you can ask them in the comments, and I'm sure one of the friendly, knowledgeable and doubtlessly attractive Café-ites will be glad to help!
1. Team size
Usually the teams are limited to 6 riders maximum, although for the Giro Donne they can bring up to 8 riders. Not all teams are big enough, or have enough riders for each type of race, so it's usual for some teams to have smaller numbers (eg in Tour de l'Aude, Lotto only took 4 riders - and you can see from the Giro Donne startlist that not all teams are doing so here, either). This means that in general riders are less specialised than in the men's racing - while there are some "pure" sprinters like HTC's Ina-Yoko Teutenberg or Gauss' Giorgia Bronzini, they won't have 3 or 4 riders helping them over the mountains, like riders such as Cavendish do. They're much more likely than their male equivalents to try to get into breaks as well.
2. Limits on races
The UCI have restrictions on how far the women can ride. It doesn't always have an obvious reasoning behind it - for example, on the track, not being able to ride a 1km time trail (other sports, like track athletics, which is pretty directly comparable, don't have the same issues) - but the fact is, women are limited to riding no more than 130-140km/day, as opposed to the men's 240-280 - and they can't ride in races longer than 6 stages without the UCI's special permision.
I'll stop my ranting here, but what this means is that riders have relatively more energy over the race, and so there's (very generally) more attacking. Lots and lots of attacks usually. We haven't seen it in the Giro Donne sprint stages, because there are some VERY BIG MOUNTAINS up ahead, so they've been conserving their energy - but at shorter stage race like the RaboSter Zeeuwsche Eilande, there were continual attacks all the time.
3. Types of Races
There has been a real crisis in the women's sport over the last few years, which means we've lost a lot of races, for all kinds of reasons. We're down to two big tours - the Tour de l'Aude and the Giro Donne - with some week-long races and smaller-but-tough short races like the Giro del Trentino and the Emakumeen Bira, and day races from the Spring Classics like the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and Fleche Wallone, which run on the same day and course as the men's races, to a lot of Dutch and Belgian day-races and crits (in May and June there are 5 or 6 races a week). The women are also more likely to ride a series of day races on concurrent days run by the same organisers - the Ronde van Drenthe and the GP Elsy Jacobs are examples of these.
But the biggest difference between the men's and women's racing is the UCI Road World Cup Series - this year it's 9 day races (including one team time trial), and in each race the top 20 finishers gain points towards the competition. Marianne Vos won this last year, and is in the lead with 3 stages to go - and Monty has been writing race previews before each round, which are full of useful information and fun thngs to watch and read.
4. Types of Teams
There two big teams, Cervélo and HTC, that share their structure and funding with the men's teams, and they are definitely head-and-shoulders above the rest in terms of resources. There's a lot more variation with the other teams, with some seeming to struggle along on a shoe-string, but it's less of the flying between races with their own beds and personal chefs, and more staying in trailer parks and tweeting pictures of terrible hotel food.
You also have National Teams alongside the pro-teams - and these fall into different categories. Within the Giro Donne, the Netherlands National Team has superstars Marianne Vos and Annemiek Van Vleuten, who usually ride for Nederland Bloeit alongside Chantal Blaak and Lucinda Brand, who ride for Leontien.nl (I'm not sure why those teams aren't there - my guess is that the Netherlands Team has good funding for this, as it's great for the World Championships and looking ahead to the Olympics - or maybe Bloeit and Leontien just couldn't afford to ride two big Tours). Team USA have Mara Abbott and Shelley Olds-Evans, who ride for the USA domestic team Peanut Butter & Co TWENTY12 - in this case, the USA Team is deliberately wanting to help domestic riders get to ride in Europe, and have young riders alongside superstars, to improve their cycling. This is why Marianne has ridden different World Cup rounds in different team colours (except up to now she's been in her National Jersey, or World Cup leader, but the principle stands!)
Next there are national teams like Team GB, which exists as a vehicle for former World and Olympic Champion Nicole Cooke to get to stay on the circuit, supported by a team of very young British riders who are there for experience and (hopefully) to develop into the superstars of tomorrow. Team Australia is half-way between these - they ride more races than Team GB (they're at the Giro Donne, which GB aren't, for example) and they'll also take on riders like Vicki Whitelaw and Rochelle Gilmore, if they're not racing for her home-team Lotto.
You'll see other national teams cropping up in different races as well - and as with the men's racing, smaller, more local teams will ride alongside the more "pro" teams.
5. Year-round racing
This only counts for some of the riders, but because it's a lighter season, a lot more of the stars of the women's racing will ride year-round. The most obvious example is Marianne Vos, who rides (and wins World Championships) Cyclo-Cross or Track in the winters - but Grace Verbeke, and Christel Ferrier-Bruneau also ride the 'Cross season, and Giorgia Bronzini, Lizzie Armitstead, Shelley Olds-Evans and more all ride track (very successfully indeed). This can be difficult, when the Track World Champs overlaps with the Road World Cup, as in this year - but that's a rant for another day. The advantage is that as a fan you can follow the riders year-round - and people in countries like the UK and Australia have the chance to see riders race in real life on the track (in the UK there are no professional road races, and a lot of Australian stars relocate to Europe or the USA for their road seasons).
What these add up to is racing that relies a lot more on tactics, and on crazed attacking and continual breakaways. If you like supporting the underdogs, women's cycling has lots of those, by its very nature. It can also be pretty mysterious, if you're living in an Anglophone country without the enlightened tv companies of the Netherlands or Italy - but if there are ways we can make it easier to follow - or you have any questions - let us know, and we'll be happy to help.