Margot McGovern takes a look at the long road ahead for women in the world of professional road riding.
Last year Marianne Vos (Rabo Liv Women Cycling Team) made history when she defeated Kirsten Wild (Giant–Shimano) in a nail-biting sprint finish on the Champs-Élysées before a roaring crowd and millions of television viewers around the world to become the first ever winner of La Course by Le Tour.
Vos had been a strong advocate for La Course and her win symbolised a larger victory for women in the sport, as it was the first time they’d competed in a UCI sanctioned race on that most famous of stages. However, it also served as a reminder of how much work remains to be done to close the gender gap in cycling—after all, a criterium through the streets of Paris is impressive, but hardly equal to the grand scope of La Course’s better known parent, the Tour de France.
While women have been extolling the virtues of riding a bike for decades (in 1896 suffragette Susan B. Anthony was quoted in New York World declaring that cycling “has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world”) it would seem little has changed since then when it comes to women’s professional cycling.
Elite women riders have long been served a raw deal. Men’s road cycling featured at the first ‘modern’ Olympic Games in 1896—the same year Anthony saw feminism riding on the saddle of a bike—but the equivalent women’s event wasn’t introduced until almost a century later in 1984.
Similarly, the first men’s UCI Road World Championships were held in 1927, while the women’s event made its debut 31 years later in 1958. Even the season-long UCI Road World Cup, which was first run for men in 1989, didn’t include a women’s competition until almost a decade later in 1998. While women’s cycling is slowly building its portfolio of high-profile UCI sanctioned races, including the Ladies Tour of Qatar, The Friends Life Women’s Tour, the Giro Rosa and, most recently, La Course by Le Tour, these events are still considered secondary to their brother races and, for the most part, fail to attract widespread media coverage.
As Ride On pointed out in a recent article, ‘Classic viewing’, we’re fortunate enough to be spoilt for choice when it comes to televised men’s road races—it’s not a question of what races are televised, but how many European classics and grand tours you can feasibly stay up for before sleep deprivation impacts too heavily on your daily life. Fans of women’s road riding have no such problem—you’d be lucky to find a broadcaster screening the highlights, let alone the entire race.
But could this change? Looking at Australian population figures alone, there are more women than men—7.43 million women compared with 7.3 million men (ABS 2011). And, as other sports like the AFL and NRL are discovering, women are turning away from watching men’s professional sports.
other sports like the AFL and NRL are discovering women are turning away from watching men’s professional sports
While the reasons are myriad, one is definitely the lack of professional women’s teams. There are now female AFL and rugby teams competing on the playing field, however. like cycling, they’re yet to attract the eye of popular media.
One sport that has is tennis. The Australian Open tennis shows how popular the women’s pro tour has become—they are given prime time TV and are some of the most popular sportspeople on the planet with big sponsor endorsements and after decades of struggle, pay comparable to their male counterparts.
With the popularity of cyclists like Australia’s record-breaking champion Anna Meares, one could surmise women’s professional racing in Australia can no longer be ignored by mainstream TV.
It may be a slow road to the small screen. Because women’s road cycling isn’t as widely-publicised as men’s, it offers less visible role models to aspiring female athletes and attracts significantly less funding from both governments and sponsors. This means that professional female cyclists are paid far less than their male counterparts, if they are paid at all. Instead, they must rely on alternate sources of income, either by attracting individual sponsorships or by working a second job. This leaves them less time to train and fully realise their potential, which, in turn, makes them less attractive candidates for pro teams and hinders the development of the sport. Given the lack of media coverage, women’s teams also find it harder than men’s teams to attract sponsors, meaning they can’t afford to support developmental squads and other important resources necessary to develop a higher calibre of athlete. As recently as January this year, Cycling Australia shut down its women’s European Development Program due to lack of funds. The program was instrumental in helping Australia’s top cyclists transition from a national to international level of competition.
Even if female riders are lucky enough to secure a spot on a UCI pro team, they may not be able to afford the opportunity.
While male UCI pro team riders receive a minimum-wage annual base salary, for women, there is no such guarantee. When current UCI president, Brian Cookson, first took office in September 2013, he promised to introduce a minimum-wage for women within his first year, saying: “If the UCI is to become a modern and progressive International Federation, we must ensure that there are rules specifying teams guarantee a minimum wage for women pro riders, and proper, modern terms of employment.” Cookson failed to make good on his promise. Even if he had, it might not have been a good thing, as many teams would not have been able to pay their riders, as he explained in The Guardian: “These women riders will not suddenly get a big pay packet every month. They will lose their positions and most of them—or a number of them—would re-register as amateur teams.”
It may seem like all bad news, but there are some positives. While the UCI has failed to implement a mandatory minimum wage for female pro riders, at the end of 2013 it formed a Women’s Commission, headed by Tracey Gaudry, first female UCI Vice President, “to advise the UCI and other commissions on all matters relating to women’s cycling.” Cookson also appointed at least one woman to all other UCI commissions “to ensure a certain gender balance in discussions of all commissions” and “to promote a constant exchange of information between the Women’s Commission and all other commissions.” Key on the Women’s Commission’s agenda is boosting media and communications around women’s cycling, and the women’s UCI World Cup was fully televised for the first time in 2014.
Meanwhile in Australia, pro rider and Wiggle Honda team owner, Rochelle Gilmore, teamed up with Victorian Institute of Sport women’s cycling coach, Donna Rae-Szalinski, in January to launch the High5 Dream Team—an elite squad of eight women selected with the intent to dominate the national road racing scene and in doing so, build the riders’ abilities and profiles to make them attractive to UCI teams. Essentially, High5 is a professional team that fills the gap left when the women’s European Development Program got the chop. There’s also talk of the Santos Women’s Tour and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race being granted UCI status in 2016.
The fight for gender equality in sport is perhaps being helped most by the decentralisation of the media and the hard work of the athletes themselves. While televised women’s road racing is still largely limited to occasional highlights, an increasing number of cycling websites, such as Peloton Café are giving significant (if not equal) attention to women’s racing. The Unofficial Unsanctioned Women’s Cycling Blog hosts highlights from key races and lists links to live streams, and official event websites, such as Giro Rosa, also host race footage and give fans the opportunity to watch their heroes in action. More journalistic websites, such as Ella on website Cycling Tips, further provide a platform to build discussion and community around the sport. As Ella’s editor Jessi Braverman writes: “The current readership of CyclingTips is predominantly male. Ella is part of our approach to give women’s cycling the attention it deserves and to give female cyclists a place that feeds their passion … It’s a place where we hope to build a virtual (and in some cases real-life) community of women bound together by their passion for the sport. We want women to arrive on this site and immediately see something of interest to them regardless of where they are on their cycling journey.”
Professional female riders are also taking advantage of the opportunities offered by digital media. They and their teams are active on social media and work hard to promote their sport, their teams and themselves as athletes. Many are also dedicated bloggers, writing personalised race recaps for both their own sites and online race news outlets. Chloe Hosking’s (Wiggle Honda) blog, with its humorous, down-to-earth style, is a personal favourite.
While change needs to happen, more needs to happen for equal opportunity for men and women both. Cycling bodies must continue to develop the visibility and profile of women’s professional road cycling, both for the women currently competing at an elite level—making teams attractive to sponsors and funding bodies and, in doing so, ensuring they can pay their riders a reasonable salary—and for those who aspire to compete professionally—providing visible role models and clear, well-supported pathways for development.
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