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Is it time to switch off in protest against sexism?

27 Feb 2019

Words: Joe Robinson

Professional cycling has a big problem and we need to talk about it. No, it's not the 'sportswashing' of rich Emirati states to divert attention from their human rights records, nor the suspicion of motorised doping or even the rumours of micro-dosing and anti-doping law manipulation.

We are just 58 days into 2019 and yet I find myself penning a second story this year about professional cycling and its problem with misogyny and sexism. In other words the sport is currently working on an average of one issue per month, and that’s just counting the overt problems such as posters with naked women and lewd photo gestures.

Last month, it was a 36-year-old Iljo Keisse of Deceuninck-QuickStep pushing his genitals against an 18-year-old waitress while posing for a photo before the Vuelta a San Juan, all for a bit of banter.

Now, it’s one of cycling's pre-eminent one-day Classics advertising its race using two naked women, in just body paint, lying on top of one another to form the shape of a frog, with the line ‘Who shall crown himself prince in Harelbeke?’

That's right, E3 BinckBank – or E3 Harelbeke as you're more likely to know it – believed the best way to advertise its race was by making two women in nothing but body paint lie on top of one another.

Immediately, the poster was hit with a backlash. Look through your Twitter feed yesterday morning and you’ll notice a torrent of criticism condemning the post, labelling it ‘out of touch’ and ‘inappropriate’.

Funny thing is, this isn’t the first time we have been here with this race.

Remember back in 2015 when it made light of what is – and let’s not be coy about this – sexual harassment?

Taking inspiration from when Peter Sagan groped the bottom of podium girl Maja Leye at the 2013 Tour of Flanders, E3 decided it would be a good idea to release a poster showing a rider reaching for the exposed bottom of a podium girl. The tagline: ‘Who squeezes them in Harelbeke’.

Oh, and let’s not forget the poster in 2014 that had one woman, in just body paint, using another as a bike. Or 2011 when a group of cyclists were riding across a naked woman lying in a field.

It’s clear that the childish minds behind the E3 race are acting like a bunch of school kids and seem to even feed off the annual backlash against their poor-taste advertising. Almost a lost cause.

But the real worry is that this is just one leaf in a tree full of sexism constantly casting its shadow over the sport.

I’ve already mentioned Sagan's podium antics. He apologised by giving her flowers because that’s what girls want, isn’t it? This from a triple World Champion held up as the sport's poster boy.

What about the time Jan Bakelants said he needed a pack of condoms for all those Tour de France podium girls? Or when ASO director Christian Prudhomme unequivocally confirmed that a women’s Tour de France in July was ‘impossible’?

Or when ASO technical director Thierry Gouvenou told Rouleur ‘I don’t think that there is a real demand from the women to do Paris-Roubaix at the moment’ despite countless women in the pro peloton pleading for a chance to ride the cobbles?

Did you know, when working for Belgian team Wanty-Groupe Gobert, former team employee-turned-commentator José Been was left standing in a cold Gent square post-race because women were not allowed on the team bus?

The issue runs deep.

And I can’t even sit on my Anglo-Saxon high horse and point my finger at those continental Europeans who just do things a bit ‘old-school’.

We are only a few years on from the mastermind behind Britain’s track cycling and Team Sky’s Tour de France success, Shane Sutton, being forced from his British Cycling technical director role following numerous allegations of sexism.

Sexism in cycling is everywhere and while we are becoming more in tune with it, and many more are condemning it, it's clear that we're a long way from actually solving the problem.

I doubt the organisers of E3, the directors at ASO or Patrick Lefevere will be reading this any time soon. And even then, it's not like this is an issue reserved to cycling, either. It’s every sport from tennis to rugby union, Formula One to athletics that is presented with these problems on a daily basis. In fact, is just all walks of life, really, isn't it?

So, how about when the E3 BinckBank Classic roles around this time next month, maybe think twice about switching on the telly and enjoying an afternoon of racing in the first place?

Think twice about taking to social media to discuss how exciting the racing is or how much you love the race.

Show them, that as a community, we are done with this idiotic sexism and we are not going to accept it just because the E3 happens to be quite an exciting race.

After all, cycling is built upon a fragile house of cards created from potentially volatile sponsorship deals.

All it takes is for one party to consider their investments to be better spent elsewhere and whole teams and races come crashing down.

In a month’s time, when the E3 Harelbeke takes place, what if we all decide to pretend it’s not happening, and decide to turn off the television coverage?

Not interact with the race results when they pop up on social media. Not retweet or share a team’s witty comments on the race or their message about how well a certain rider has raced.

Quickly watch how things will change. I mean just look at how quickly Deceuninck-QuickStep’s took a u-turn regarding the Keisse situation as soon as both Deceuninck and Specialized began to cast doubts over its association with such problems.

It sounds drastic but we have to start somewhere. Otherwise we are just going to be sitting here this time next year discussing the newest E3 poster all over again.