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Improving women's cycling: Dame Sarah Storey Q&A

Joe Robinson
18 Sep 2017

Dame Sarah Storey talks us through what needs to be done to improve women's cycling

Alongside her haul of Olympic medals and world titles, Dame Sarah Storey has been one of the leading voices on women's cycling in the UK. 

British Cycling announced in July that since 2013, women's cycling had grown by 723,000 riders. Despite this, Storey was fast to add that much more was needed to be looked at to reach the original target of 1 million female cyclists.

With women's cycling still suffering from inequity at all levels, much is yet to be done to address the problems surrounding this despite the sport's growth. 

We spoke to Storey to find out what needs to be remedied to improve women's cycling, both professionally and at amateur level.

Cyclist: You have just been elected onto the UCI Athletes Commission, talk us through this role and what you will look to do in it?

Dame Sarah Storey: This role is to sit alongside athletes from all disciplines within the UCI to further promote the voice of the athletes and to use a collective voice to get athlete-centred concerns to the highest level at the UCI.

So many issues affect athletes across the whole sport and where there are discrepancies in certain areas the athletes can share their experiences and work on ensuring everyone gets the same.

Cyc: With this commission role, alongside your elite women’s team and other advisory roles, is this a winding down to your career on the road and transition to a different duty in the cycling world?

SS: Not at all, everything I am doing is in a voluntary capacity so when I decide to leave competitive cycling i will need to have a job!

My competitive career in sport is far from over and I am currently training well as I near the end of my second pregnancy.

Cyc: You recently said that road safety is key to increasing the number of female cyclists. What is it in particular that you feel needs addressing?

SS: Attitudes of drivers and other people in motor vehicles towards the purpose of our roads.

Everything from the lack of education on how roads are paid for - via general taxation, not road tax - to who should be on them, not just motor vehicles, and how to behave around vulnerable road users.

Too many people, they are driving as though it is their right to be there above everyone else and there is a sense that anyone not in a vehicle should be prepared to get out of their way.

Drivers seem to be unaware of the danger they pose to those around them whilst in their vehicles and the press don’t help by focusing on the wrong issues.

There is a huge problem with vilifying cyclists rather than focusing on the promotion of the correct behaviour by all road users.

Similarly, there are commentators who focus on helmets or high-vis as being the key to road safety, rather than the root of the problem being in poor road design and lack of driver education.

Cyc: Do you feel that more can be done in women’s professional cycling to increase more women in to everyday cycling?

SS: There remains a huge gulf between men’s and women’s professional cycling in terms of sponsorship and live TV coverage, so as a result women who don’t already know about cycling are less likely to find role models in the sport that might inspire them on to two wheels.

We know the popularity of cycling has mainly been on the male side of the sport, with cycling being referred to as the “new golf”! As a result the numbers of men riding bikes is increasing at a faster rate.

Women’s professional cycling and elite level UK cycling could certainly benefit from the same exposure as the men, to ensure that more women are likely to see that it isn’t a sport just for men.

It’s one of our huge motivations for Storey Racing to work with Eisberg wine, for example, this is a company that reaches far beyond the elite and professional pelotons, and is creating vital discussion on the health benefits of cycling to a wider and different audience.

As a female cycling team, with the ethos #BestVersionOfYou, we are always trying to create an opportunity to share this mantra with other women and encourage them to take to two wheels as part of a healthy active lifestyle.

Eisberg provide us with a different platform and support our resources to take the team to a greater number of events where hopefully we can connect with the right audience.

Cyc: What were your thoughts on this year’s La Course? Is it time for a women’s Tour de France?

SS: For me La Course is a different concept to the men's Tour de France and it would be great to see existing, well organised races taking higher priority and receiving the support of the UCI to develop in to Grand Tours in their own right.

The only women’s Grand Tour is the Giro Rosa and the coverage of that is poor, no live TV and from what i have heard work to be done on the logistics of the event.

I don’t think we need to focus on replicating what the men have, but creating something that is right for the women’s peloton.

The style of racing in the women’s peloton is quite different to the men’s, it’s a lot less predictable because stages are shorter and the hammer usually goes down from the off.

The women have some superb stage race events in the Tour of California, Women’s Tour and Lotto Thuringen Ladies Tour, to name a few, these could be even greater with the right investment in live TV as the organisers are already superb.

Cyc: Prize money for women’s cycling remains drastically lower than mens. What should be done to remedy this?

SS: Create bigger prize pots and ensure that there is an equality in the regulations on prize money requirements at UCI level.

Having said that, the security of races and live TV coverage need to be absolutely the highest priority as so often these can be left lacking in favour of headline grabbing prize pots.

The priority needs to be on the whole package of the sport and not just creating one thing equally. For example the facilities provided for the women at the start of some stage races are non-existent, so riders are seen queuing at local cafes for the toilet facilities.

The whole package is important and teams will be better funded and have their own huge buses with facilities if the teams are getting coverage to showcase their sponsors.

Cyc: What is the first step for addressing the inequity in female cycling?

SS: I think some of the first steps have been taken inside the UCI, but there are so many levels of inequality, from poor reporting and a lack of column inches in cycling publications to the attitude of people that women’s cycling is still inferior.

Often it is the attitude of people that is the biggest catalyst for change. Too often there is a sense of, 'we’re doing something, the women should be grateful, so that’s enough for now', rather than, 'is what we are doing a form of tokenism or is this creating a sustainable change in both in terms of culture and provision.'

Cyc: Will you and Barney encourage your kids into cycling?

SS: We’ll be encouraging our kids to choose whatever they find enjoyable and exciting. Sport plays a huge part in our lives and Louisa loves swimming, running and cycling at the moment as well as her trampoline and climbing around in play parks or soft play. Active lifestyles are the key so we’ll be living one that’s for sure!

Cyc: Who is your tip for this year’s women’s world championships?

SS: I think there are a few in with a great chance but names like Coryn Rivera and Annamiek Van Vleuten or Anna Van Der Breggen spring to mind because there is a short climb before the flat finish.

It’ll be a race for the tactically savvy and could invite a springboard longer range attack for a rider with the strength to stay away.

The Dutch squad will be a major force as always and I’d love to see the Brits challenging too, so fingers crossed for Lizzie making a speedy recovery after her appendix operation.

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