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Has Team Sky’s success come at a cost to women's cycling, and the taxpayer?

Joseph Delves
24 Jan 2017

Nicole Cooke says British Cycling drained resources from the women's team to fund the Tour de France dream

The stock narrative around Team Sky’s success has until recently focused on the accumulation of marginal gains, not the delivery of suspect packages and therapeutic use exemptions.

Borne out of David Brailsford’s wildly successful time as British Cycling’s performance director, Team Sky also succeeded in its mission to deliver a British winner at the Tour de France.

However in evidence given to the government's Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into combatting doping in sport, Olympic and World Road Race Champion Nicole Cooke revealed how she believed British Cycling has always treated women as second class riders and that the development of Team Sky exacerbated this as publicly funded resources were directed towards the privately owned team.

Cooke says very little was ever done to support female road riders during her career. ‘At times odd riders would be supported for a period, while they were “in favour” but mostly, that support was only ever transient.’

She claims British Cycling’s relationship with Sky, which began in 2008 with their £1 million sponsorship following the Beijing Olympics, led to even more resources being diverted to developing male athletes.

‘In 2008 the plans were in place for a male only Team Sky that would use a variety of British Cycling Lottery funded staff in dual roles. Dave Brailsford managed the project with British Cycling CEO Ian Drake and President Brian Cookson on the Board of Tour Racing Limited, the holding company set up to “own” it.

'Once again the designed in oversight were the people who approved the initial decision to progress the project as male only. No successful appeal that it should be a male and female team was possible.

'This was run exclusively by men, exclusively for men. Other contemporary professional teams even those not connected to National Federations, ran male and female squads on the two circuits. To do so would not have been unusual or different.’ 

Cooke says British Cycling’s involvement with the Team Sky project drained resources that could have been used to support female athletes.

One effect of this was that in the run up to the 2008 World Championships, when it became obvious there was no male rider to challenge for a World title, they downgraded the whole preparation for that event.

‘At those World Championships I found I could not get basic repairs completed for my bicycle by the British Cycling mechanics,’ she says.

Equipment and support, often touted as partly responsible for Team Sky's meteoric rise, were also unforthcoming for the women’s team.

Despite being heralded in the media by British Cycling as so crucial to their success in that summer’s Beijing Olympics that they had to be kept under lock and key at the team's headquarters at the Manchester Velodrome, Cooke found herself without a skinsuit in which to race the World Championships a few months later.

Barred from wearing the one she’d brought along herself she recounts the surreal situation of being forced to enlist Emma Pooley to help her cut out the Sky logo from the jersey she’d been provided with and sew it onto her old one before she was permitted to race in it.

In 2010, while the men’s team were being developed with an eye to the 2012 London Olympics Cooke and Pooley found themselves having to pay for their own flights and accommodation to attend the World Championships in Australia, where Pooley won the time trial and Cooke finished fourth in the road race.

Recently tricky questions about what Simon Cope was doing ferrying supplies to Team Sky during the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné have mostly focused on the contents of the now infamous jiffy bag, however Cooke questions what he was doing running errands for a privately owned team while also being engaged as British Cycling’s coach to the women’s road team.

‘Cope was doing what he was told to do,’ says Cooke. Shane Sutton, who was recently cleared of eight of the nine charges of discrimination levelled against him at an internal British Cycling investigation, states he approved Cope’s trip with the jiffy bag.

‘Nobody in the organisation anywhere would have asked the question – hasn’t Cope got another job to do?’ says Cooke.

Within hours of Cooke’s appearance before the government committee British Cycling released a statement saying that ‘while there is still a way to go, British Cycling is absolutely committed to resolving the historic gender imbalance in our sport.’

They also highlighted their success in increasing the number of female coaches by 70% along with announcing equal prize money for the UK’s elite road series and the establishing of a women's road team training base in Belgium. 

With UK Sport, the body which allocates centralised funding to Olympic sports, taking an interest in the committee's findings, British Cycling is already on notice that it’ll require a clean bill of health with regards to ethics and gender equality if it expects to continue receiving government funding.

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