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A minimum wage in women's cycling might be a win, but it could also be a loss

A positive step on first look but there is still trouble ahead for women's cycling even after the introduction of a minimum wage

Genevieve Whitson
22 Oct 2019

The news that the UCI will introduce a minimum wage for the women’s peloton in 2020 certainly sounds like a win, at least initially. The recently announced minimum wage will start at €15,000 for the first year, with plans to grow it incrementally over the next three years so it reaches up to €27,500 by 2022 and becomes equal to ProContinental men’s teams by 2023.

Unfortunately, not every woman racing on a pro team will be entitled to the minimum wage. Due to financial limitations within the women’s peloton, only women with contracts to race with the highest tiered teams will be entitled to this.

Adding more financial pressure

No one objects to a minimum wage and a new era of professionalism – but many cyclists are concerned it will have a negative effect that the UCI did not consider. To pay their riders, women’s teams will be under more pressure to find sponsors for a sport with very little exposure for women, and some teams may even fold because they can’t afford to pay the minimum wage.

Lack of sponsorship and therefore lack of money is already an issue for women’s teams. It’s the reason that several professional women’s teams in Europe and North America have folded in the last two years. So while cyclists acknowledge the UCI’s announcement supports the equality movement for women in sport, many worry about the damage it will do to those teams already under financial pressure.

Team Torelli rider, and member of Team Scotland for the Women’s Tour of Scotland 2019, Jennifer George reiterates these concerns.

'It will be very interesting to see how many UCI WorldTour Teams are functioning in 2020,' George says. 'We have a climate that sees teams folding as sponsorship is withdrawn. In the UK we have gone from four UCI teams in 2018 to just one in 2019 and that team only exists as a result of crowdfunding due to a withdrawal of sponsorship.'

Creating the right environment for sponsors

How will teams pay this minimum wage in an environment that doesn’t appear to have the resources to manufacture it? Currently many professional female riders are earning below €10,000 a year or nothing beyond prize money.

Sponsors want airtime and recognition. But right now, women’s cycling appears to get just a fraction of the airtime with the majority of it going to the men’s racing.

Two time Time Trial World Champion and professional rider for Cogeas–Mettler Pro Cycling Amber Neben notes that, 'The UCI has a plan to implement a minimum salary requirement, but what is the plan to create an environment for media and monetary growth within women’s cycling?

'How do we make change that benefits the women while not debilitating the sport?'

Neben argues that introducing a minimum wage will only work if the money is there to drive it. 'It’s all driven by sponsorship dollars which goes back to the need to create an environment that sponsors will flood with resources. Is it realistic right now? Not without a major change to how cycling is presented and accessed across the world.'

Deborah Paine, a New Zealand representative who is also a professional cyclist for Cogeas–Mettler backed fellow teammate Neben’s argument for greater coverage of the women’s field. 'We need to focus primarily on growing the sport, publicity and awareness with live coverage. Keep the racing shorter and more exciting.'

The UCI’s plans are ambitious. In addition to a minimum wage they intend to have maternity, sickness, healthcare, holiday cover and a pension scheme in place by 2023.

However, how will the top tier teams provide these benefits and attract sponsorship in an environment where women’s cycling is still fighting for its equal right to airtime? Just this year Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) made the disappointing decision to not provide the minimum required 45 minutes of live TV coverage for the women’s versions of Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. This resulted in these famous races being removed from the Women’s WorldTour (WWT) in 2020.

'The women’s sport cannot wait or depend on the ASO,' says Neben. 'The opportunity to race on similar courses is a valuable part of growing the sport. I think the men should race the women’s distances. Shorter races provide a more exciting and digestible event that people would be more likely to watch from start to finish.'

Neben emphasises that cycling could learn a lot from other major sports, for example how they work their calendars, use the general media and social media, and create ways to directly access their events. She notes that these other sports do a great job of creating and maintaining fan interest around and outside of the actual competitions.

'Cycling needs to connect the dots. Cyclists are some of the most accessible athletes in the world doing a sport that just about anyone can do,' she says.

George supports Neben’s comment, stating that there is more to gain from focusing on women’s cycle races getting compulsory media and television coverage on 100% equal standing with the men.

'I think the UCI should be imposing equal media coverage for all UCI and all WorldTour events. In my mind this would be money better spent. Coverage brings sponsors, sponsorship brings money, that money pays the riders.

'I don’t want to be misunderstood here: equal pay is very important but at this time there are other things that need addressing. Equal pay before the other steps may just strangle our beautiful sport.'

Sharing resources a way to win equality

Tayler Wiles, pro for Trek-Segafredo and USA cycling representative, supports the minimum wage but questions if it would even be necessary if more men’s teams supported women’s teams and if the ASO allowed equal airtime for the women’s races.

'If more men’s teams had women’s teams (which is happening more and more each year) it would greatly share the resources. Our sport needs equal access to grow and thrive. The ASO has been a hugely limiting factor to that for years.'

Wiles stressed the positive impact of the men’s teams that are currently supporting the women’s peloton. Her own Trek Segafredo squad has men’s and women’s teams sharing equipment, staff and vehicles.

'What my team has done is a huge commitment to women’s cycling. Other sponsors and teams should look to mirror this.'

Some progress is not enough progress

It’s true that women’s cycling has improved since the days when talented female cyclists actually raced the men’s races just to get a ride. Now we have the UCI Women's WorldTour, 46 UCI teams and pelotons with 100 plus women throughout Europe and North America.

The UCI are adamant that the minimum wage will 'strengthen the professionalisation of women's road cycling and the role of women in sport governance.' And it may seem like women’s voices are finally being heard, however there is no ignoring the one limiting factor here and that's exposure. Until this is addressed, it could still be a few years yet before women’s cycling catches up with the men’s peloton.

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