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The gender divide: the future of women's cycling

Richard Moore
11 Oct 2018

Historically women’s cycling has had less money, support and coverage than the men. We look at what's changed and what still needs to

This article first appeared in Issue 74 of Cyclist Magazine

Words Richard Moore Illustration Eliot Wyatt

In 2007, when she was just 18, Lizzie Deignan (then Armitstead) was chasing the dream, hoping to ride the major races in Europe and turn professional.

In her first year as a senior she went to one such major event, the Tour of Brittany.

It felt more like a school trip than an international bike race, not least because they were put up at night in classrooms, sleeping on camp beds. School desks were positioned between the beds to give the riders some privacy.

On the final night there was a treat for the riders: a night in a hotel.

The scales fell from Deignan’s eyes as they pulled off a busy main road on the outskirts of town at a HotelF1: a chain not exactly renowned for luxury.

The small room, with a double bed and a single bunk above it, was to be shared by three riders.

For dinner, they traipsed along the busy road to a chain restaurant.

Since then Deignan has won the Tour of Flanders, Strade Bianche, the Women’s Tour and in 2015 she became World Champion.

In general, her sport has improved as she has, and there haven’t been too many other experiences like the Tour of Brittany. But the progress has not been linear.

‘At the professional level things have improved in the last five years, but it isn’t across the board,’ she says.

She cites a race that, in theory, should be the benchmark: La Course by Le Tour de France, which in 2017, and with great fanfare, moved from the Champs-Élysées to become a two-day event in the south of France.

Stage 1 was a mountain stage, albeit a mini one over 67km, finishing up the Col d’Izoard a few hours before the men arrived.

Stage 2, 48 hours later, was innovative: called ‘The Chase’, it was a 22.5km pursuit, with the riders setting off in the order they finished on the Col d’Izoard, and with the same time gaps, to race through the streets of Marseille.

‘When I heard about it I thought it was ridiculous, but then I thought, perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps that’s what sponsors want,’ says Deignan.

‘It was something different. And just because the sport has always been the way it is it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be flexible and open to change.

‘Stage 1 was great, but the Marseille stage was a joke. Apart from the race itself, there were no facilities for the women. No toilets, nothing. I was given a “Shewee” by one of the organisers.’

If you’re looking for a contrast, says Deignan, look no further than the Ovo Energy Women’s Tour, now in its fifth year.

‘The Women’s Tour is the best, without a doubt,’ says Deignan. ‘It’s the stuff behind the scenes that they get right – the things that people don’t see.

‘The hotels, the logistics, the information for teams… simple but important things. There are other good races too.

‘The Amstel Gold Race was a new one last year, for example, and it was done well, from the presentation of the teams to the crowds.’

Deignan thinks the inception of the Women’s WorldTour in 2016, while not bringing about radical change, has helped raise standards and increase exposure.

There are now more teams, and more good riders. Contrast that with a time, not that long ago, when it seemed that almost every race, regardless of the course and the conditions, was being won by Marianne Vos.

It’s tempting to sit back and admire the progress, and simply assume that women’s cycling will continue in the right direction.

And there is certainly still a lot of ground to make up. When bike racing first became popular at the end of the 19th century, women were initially discouraged from partaking. In 1912 they were banned.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that they were readmitted when the French Federation and UCI created a women’s road racing championship.

In 1960 there were 34 female licence holders. In 1975 the figure was 400 and by 1982 it was 1,500.

Two years later, a women’s Tour de France was launched – it went through various name changes and slots in the calendar but didn’t last.

It’s only in the last five years that women’s racing has really gathered momentum.

A key moment seemed to be the reintroduction of a women’s event in conjunction with the Tour de France – La Course, established in 2014, the same year as the Women’s Tour was launched.

But while the Women’s Tour has gone from strength to strength, the case of La Course illustrates the point about progress not being linear.

It’s telling that in 2018 La Course reverted to a one-day race, on a mountain stage.

Deignan is sitting out this season as she prepares for the birth of her first child in September.

She intends to return in 2019, targeting the World Road Race Championships in her native Yorkshire.

But while she’s clear about that, she is less so on some of the issues that still face women’s cycling.

‘I wish I had the answers,’ she says.

Breaking the cycle

One step forward, one step back seems a recurring theme for women’s cycling.

On a freezing cold morning in late February the top teams, male and female, gathered in Ghent for the start of the first cobbled Classic, Het Nieuwsblad.

In the Kuipke Velodrome, home to the Ghent Six, the teams were presented one by one before a packed house, the warmth inside offering a stark contrast to the icy conditions that awaited them out on the roads.

The women’s teams were mixed up with the men’s teams, with some of the top riders interviewed on stage.

Six of the male World Tour squads have women’s teams, and in those cases the male and female riders were called to the stage together.

The message conveyed by the presentation was clear: the men and women have equal billing.

Not when it came to the racing, though. Skip forward a few hours and, while the men’s race played out on big screens, the leading group of women suddenly appeared on the finishing straight.

As they gunned towards the flag the finish line commentator tried to pick out some of the riders, but it was Denmark’s Christina Siggaard who emerged as a surprise winner ahead of the promising young American, Alexis Ryan, before an unprepared and largely oblivious crowd.

There had been no TV coverage and precious little information about the race.

What news there was seemed to come mainly from the Boels-Dolmans team car: their tweeting mechanic, Richard Steege, is often the best, and sometimes the only, source of reliable updates from the top women’s races.

If Deignan doesn’t have the answers, perhaps The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA) does. The group was launched last year by Iris Slappendel with the help of Carmen Small and Gracie Elvin.

Slappendel and Small have both retired, but Elvin, at 29 and a two-time Australian national road race champion, is at the peak of her career. She was second in last year’s Tour of Flanders.

One inspiration for TCA is the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), founded in 1973 as a reaction to the widening pay gap between the men’s and women’s games, with the discrepancy at the time as high as 12:1.

It was Billie Jean King, then the world’s best female player, who called the meeting of 60 players at the Gloucester Hotel in London on the eve of Wimbledon that led to the establishment of the WTA.

Within a decade the women’s circuit comprised 250 players and offered $7.2 million in prize money. Today, 2,500 players compete for $146m.

Elvin and her fellow female riders can dream. In the meantime, the TCA, set up to represent ‘the competitive, economic and personal interests of all professional women cyclists’, is a start.

Last year, in February and then again in April, they sent a survey to the 450 riders registered with UCI teams – it was encouraging that over 300 riders responded, though Elvin notes with some frustration that the number of riders actually joining TCA, for which there is a small membership fee, is considerably lower.

The results from the surveys were revealing, particular when it came to the subject of pay.

Almost 50% of respondents said they earned less than €10,000 a year, and 17% rode for no salary at all; 52% had had to reimburse their team for services such as equipment or clothing, mechanical support, medical testing or travel costs; 52% had a second job and 35% were in further education while also racing ‘professionally’.

The least surprising finding was that 97% answered ‘Yes’ to the question of whether salaries and prize money were too low for the level of commitment required.

‘I’ve been quite lucky,’ says Elvin. ‘I’ve been on a good team, but when I saw those results I was pretty surprised.’

The reality for most riders is very different to hers, which is why she thinks a minimum salary should be the top priority.

For love and money

Overall, Elvin is cautiously optimistic, but with the emphasis on the caution. ‘It’s been good to see new races come along in the last few years, like Amstel Gold and big-money races such as Ride London and the Women’s Tour.

‘There have been plenty of good news stories but I think maybe they’re exaggerated because a lot of the finer details that are actually important haven’t changed that much.

‘A majority of riders still struggle to get by on no money.’

The Women’s Tour recently announced the same prize money as the men’s Tour of Britain, a total of €90,000 (an increase of €55,000).

But as Elvin suggests, although such initiatives attract positive headlines, they do little to help most of the riders who make up the professional peloton.

She says that TCA’s first priority is to help riders with mundane but important details, such as contracts (91% of respondents had signed contracts with teams without legal advice) and healthcare.

But they have their eye on the big picture, too, and think about how to become agents of more radical change, doing for women’s cycling what the WTA did for women’s tennis.

‘The belief in possibility is a tradition in women’s cycling,’ says another leading rider, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio of South Africa.

‘It may not be apparent on the surface but it’s the longest-standing tradition we have.’

The event that embodies this belief in possibility is the Women’s Tour. Elvin echoes Deignan in nominating it as the best race on the calendar.

It isn’t organised in conjunction with a men’s race, which means it isn’t perceived as the warm-up show, as so many women’s races are.

It attracts huge crowds, with prestigious finishes in town and city centres – last year’s finale was in central London. Elvin mentions the schoolchildren who line the route.

‘If we inspire one kid from every school we’ve done a good job.’

Change is coming – most obviously in non-traditional cycling countries such as the UK and Australia, more slowly in places such as France, Belgium and Italy.

In some riders there is bitterness towards ASO, who organise the biggest (men’s) races but seem less than committed to women’s racing.

It’s why Deignan isn’t particularly interested in a women’s Tour de France. ‘That’s the lowest priority for me,’ she says.

But in another traditional cycling country, Spain, there are encouraging signs: a stage race added to the Women’s WorldTour in the Basque Country, a women’s Movistar team to go alongside the men’s squad, one of the longest-established set-ups in the peloton, and the Madrid Challenge, traditionally held on the final day of the Vuelta a España, going from one to two days in 2018.

Inevitably the pace of change is too slow for those currently at the top. A sad irony is that Deignan and Elvin wouldn’t be moved to mobilise if the sport was progressing as they would like it to.

It’s why, in tennis, world No1 Martina Navratilova benefited more from Billie Jean King’s efforts than King herself.

Clearly women’s cycling needs a King, of whom Navratilova said, ‘Billie Jean, she just pushed the clock forward, she sped up the process.

Any progress is measured by jumps, and that was one of those jumps that pushed the clock forward and allowed us to move forward as women athletes and to make a career out of it so it wasn’t just a hobby.’

Priority number one

What should be the main target to improve the lot of women racers?

Among the issues that dominate any discussion of women’s racing are the introduction of a minimum wage for professionals, television coverage, proposals for a women’s Tour de France and whether men’s WorldTour teams should also run a women’s team.

Elvin, who helps run The Cyclists’ Alliance, puts the minimum wage as the number one issue.

Deignan, the former World Champion, prioritises TV coverage. ‘We’re a business-led sport – we need investment and that’s only going to come from us being able to offer sponsors more exposure,’ says Deignan.

‘It’s chicken-and-egg.If we can grow the sport through TV coverage and greater investment, the minimum wage would follow, and that would help improve the depth of talent of the peloton.

‘I’m not in favour of men’s teams being forced to have women’s teams,’ she adds. ‘The mix of men’s and women’s teams is good, but there’s room for both.’

Deignan’s own team, Boels-Dolmans, isn’t attached to a men’s team, and has been the sport’s dominant force.

Elvin, who rides for Mitchelton-Scott, agrees that women’s squads shouldn’t be compulsory for men’s WorldTour teams.

‘My team loves having a women’s team, but a lot of sponsors are just not interested, and the women would suffer from that. They’d be an afterthought and wouldn’t be looked after.

‘A minimum wage is one of the highest priorities,’ Elvin adds. ‘I’d like to see a two-tier system of teams, with a minimum wage introduced in the top 15 teams. It would help promote professionalism.’

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