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Top women cyclists reveal how they would improve women's cycling

Maria David
26 Mar 2019

We look at the current state of women’s professional road racing, and hear from those at the sharp end of the fight to improve conditions

When the winner crosses the finish line of the Tour of Flanders, he will pocket €20,000. A few hours earlier the winner of the women’s race will win just €1150. Apart from some of the big races in the UK, such as the Tour de Yorkshire and the Women’s Tour, the women’s prize fund is only a small fraction of the men’s in equivalent road races.

Although the women’s racing calendar includes a number of Monument races like Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege that mirror the men’s race, there are still a few key events that women do not have the opportunity to compete in – notably the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix.

ASO, the organiser of both of those races has stated clearly that there are no plans to hold any women’s versions of these events.

While one-day race La Course is staged during the Tour de France, ASO director Christian Prudhomme has reiterated that a women’s Tour de France would be logistically impossible. As for the Queen of the Classics, the timetable for Paris-Roubaix is already full given that a junior men’s race also takes place.

UCI President David Lappartient has called on ASO to do more to advance women’s racing, notably to secure guaranteed television coverage for the women’s races it organises.

During a recent public meeting at London’s Look Mum No Hands in which women racers discussed racing conditions, Molly Weaver highlighted the need for better TV coverage to attract greater sponsorship, and more funds for UCI WorldTour teams to pay all their riders at least the minimum wage (€15,000 per annum) when the rule comes into force in 2020.

Currently around half of female professional racers are paid €5,000 euros pa.

In order to address issues in women’s professional cycling the Cyclists' Alliance was formed in 2017. Started by Iris Slappendel, Gracie Elvin and Carmen Small, the group aims to represent competitive, economic, and personal interests of female professional cycle racers, and gives a voice to women when bargaining for improved conditions.

Women's professional cycle racing is decades younger than the men’s game, so it is not surprising that there is a lot of catching up to do.

Just as with the men’s racing, media coverage of the sport is key in giving women’s cycle racing a wider appeal, and attracting sponsorship that will eventually translate into more resources and better working conditions.

With 45 UCI women’s teams there is strength and depth in women’s racing, and this will allow for a two-tier system of big WorldTour teams and smaller Continental Teams, thus allowing an easier entry into top level women’s racing for aspiring racers and teams.

A number of movers and shakers in women’s cycling have given their own opinions to Cyclist on where we are in women’s racing.

Hannah Barnes – racer for Canyon-Sram

'I believe a Paris-Roubaix would be an amazing addition to our race calendar. We have proved that we are capable of taking on demanding courses such as Strade Bianche and Flanders and they have always been exciting to watch.

'I have watched Roubaix for many years now and have loved the brutality and drama of the race and would love to experience it for myself.

'I don't believe that the women's peloton needs a three-week stage race. The attraction of women's cycling is the excitement and drama that the shorter and more intense race lengths bring.

'We have a great 10-day stage race [Giro] already on our calendar which brings huge amounts of enthusiasm and suspense covering all different terrains.

'However, I did love racing along the Champs Elysées and would love it if we got the chance to race along it again.

'I love racing on days when the men are because it means we get to experience the atmosphere that the men’s peloton brings but we can also find ourselves competing for attention.

'In races that stand alone we get full recognition from all media platforms, organisers and fans which makes us feel special and also gives us the opportunity to showcase our sport.

'The Ovo Energy Women's Tour for example is at a completely different time of year to the men’s race so we benefit from the great organisation and media platforms.'

Iris Slappendel - executive director of the Cyclists' Alliance and ex-professional racer

'In the time that I was racing professionally the changes I saw were longer, better organised races, more media attention, more depth and strength in the field, more professional teams, and higher salaries.

'There was a lot of goodwill in women’s cycling, and that made the sport very special to me. I still love to be involved because there are so many people working in women’s cycling out of passion. But yes, we definitely do our job in less optimal conditions than the men.

'Since forming the Cyclists' Alliance we have not seen much effort by ASO really, but we have seen moves to change things by the UCI.

'I think our 2017 survey has opened people’s eyes at the UCI. We see especially in the "newer" cycling countries like UK, USA and Australia that they’re making a lot of effort to improve the races, but also Flanders is doing a really good job too.

'If I could change one thing in women’s cycling it would be more TV/online coverage and definitely live streaming of races.

'I would also like to see that more female cyclists are aware of their rights, and we really try to educate them on this. It’s OK to speak up.'

Giorgia Bronzini – Trek-Segafredo sports director and recently retired professional racer

'When I raced, the Women’s Tour was one of the best organised races, and had good prize money. I also liked Yorkshire. The organisation was perfect. Sadly, I cannot say the same for the Giro.

'The organisation was fine but the standard of hotel could have been higher, and the prize money was ridiculous. My heart is in it because it’s in Italy, but I think they could improve the race.

'There are no rules about prize money in that category of race so organisers are free to invest the money how they want. Sometimes they invite a couple of small Italian teams. I don’t think it’s good for the girls because they come to the Giro for a 10-day race and after a few days they have to hang onto the motorbike because they are not able to finish.

'It’s a waste because the organisation has paid for them to come. I think it is better to have a couple of teams fewer in the race and then the money saved can be used for more prize money.

'They show the Giro on RAI TV, and as people are already watching TV for the Tour de France we get a spot for about 15 minutes. But it depends what they show and how you show us, for people to be interested.

'Last year they showed Zoncolan and put out a lot of publicity about it, but they just showed a very short video and people didn’t understand the race. You need to show stages with a bunch sprint, showing the girls doing a lead out.

'Personally I would show a circuit race or some laps around a village so that people can see you. To put a finish line in a famous village after 130km, and do laps of the village can get people involved a bit more.

'Being a Sports Director is an amazing and totally new experience and I am learning a lot. I really appreciate Ina [-Yoko Teutenberg, Trek-Segafredo sports director] helping me and sharing her experience.

'Also, because I raced with all the girls last year I know all their skills and this is very helpful in the job.'

Gracie Elvin – racer for Mitchelton-Scott and communications director of the Cyclists' Alliance

'As part of the Cyclists’ Alliance, I have been a big advocate for minimum salaries and certainly think that this is an important step for women’s cycling. If you can prove to both a race sponsor and a team sponsor that it is worth equal prize money and better salaries, because they will receive better exposure through live streaming, then we can really change the environment for women’s cycling.

'As a rider who lives for the Spring Classics I am a definite yes on wanting to race a women’s Paris-Roubaix! My personal bias aside, I think it should be the next big goal for women’s cycling.

'While the Healthy Ageing Tour [which is on at the same time] is a fantastic race and deserves high UCI status, I think that it is the perfect race for lower level teams to compete in. Because of the big Women’s WorldTour calendar we have seen some great lower level races lost because the bigger teams don’t go to them and the smaller teams are forced to gain invitations to WWT races.

'I think the development-level riders are having to make too big a jump from their national level races to the WWT. I really want to see the tiered system of racing and teams so that there are more opportunities for all to race enough.

'The Ovo Women’s Tour has been a stand out event since it began. The inclusion of equal prize money came after they provided coverage, great organisation, race promotion, and equal opportunities for all teams to compete. Prudential RideLondon was also one of the first to provide equal prize money and include live coverage, but we would like to see an extended course in the future and not just a city circuit.

'In Australia, the Santos Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race do a really great job.'

Stefan Wyman – former Matrix Fitness Pro Cycling team manager

'A greater sense of responsibility from new organisers like Sweetspot has put the sport ahead of the progress in regulations. Higher standards in all areas from events like the Women’s Tour not only reward the riders, but also provide a professional platform to reward, impress and add sponsors.

'I would say the use of social media has been the biggest driver in change for women’s cycling over the past 15 years. I think cyclocross is far ahead of road right now, but that gap will close with the introduction of increased television coverage.

'When I managed a women’s team, initially attracting sponsors was always the biggest issue. To show a sponsor there was to be real value to them was extremely hard and the sport needs to be more than a passion project for sponsors.

'There was also a big issue where there wasn’t a set "entry price" for a women’s team; some teams run for £10,000pa and some £1 million, so expectations of what you might get in return was a lottery in some ways.

'There are certainly less smoke and mirrors in place today and the sport is more transparent to riders, fans and sponsors.

'I am very much in favour of a two-tier system and I’ve been asking for it for more than 10 years. The salary situation needs to be resolved, and my opinion of a phased approach would be the best option with a small increase every year until we reach the men’s levels.

'We don’t need a Tour de France to be run at the same time as the men, nor is that even practical when it comes to logistics and policing. But the prestige of the TdF would be a game changer for the sport if it was done right.

'What’s so wrong about having a one-day event linked to the men’s Tour de France anyway? We had a great experience at La Course, so did our sponsors, riders and fans. I’d like to see it get back to the roads of Paris as soon as possible.

'I’d rather see people spend their time and energy going to supporting existing events. Thuringen, the Women’s Tour and the Giro are three good races for women right now that with careful planning could become our own Grand Tours.'

Dani Rowe – co-owner and coach at Rowe & King and ex-professional racer

'When I raced I did not necessarily feel a sense of getting a raw deal – not on a daily basis, no. I try and remain positive about the growth within women’s road cycling but it still has a long way to go.

'There were many positive aspects of being a pro rider. I was lucky to be part of some amazing teams where I grew as a rider and additionally made some life-long friends.

'In the past few years I got to race a lot of the iconic races that were previously only part of the men’s pro calendar.

'I have so much respect for the organisers who now give equal prize money. I don’t believe there should be a difference and I’m proud that the UK is really leading the way in terms of the gender equality with prize money, with races like the Tour de Yorkshire and RideLondon.

'If I could change one thing that would improve conditions for professional women’s cycling, it would be more TV coverage.
The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad incident was such a shame and just proves how high the standard is in the women’s pro peloton. I don’t think it will happen again.'

Adrian Letts - retail chief executive of Ovo Energy

'As the title sponsor of the Women’s Tour, we’re helping to bring fans and spectators across the country unparalleled access to watch the world's best teams and riders competing on their doorsteps in the Ovo Energy Women’s Tour.

'We decided to offer equal prize money last year as we wanted to help provide an equal platform on the world cycling stage. We felt that there was an opportunity for us to stand up for what is right and to be a catalyst for positive change.

'Our position as title sponsor allowed us to play our part in supporting the development of professional women’s cycling, and we’re pleased to equal the prize money again this year.

'Companies should step up and take a meaningful step towards gender parity in sport, providing an equal platform for women to compete and inspire future generations.

'Both men and women have been campaigning for too long to have parity in cycling, and companies can lead the way and help the sport move in the right direction.

'This year the Women’s Tour has increased to six days for the first time in its history. Last year we increased the Women’s Tour prize fund by €55,000, bringing the pot from €35,000 to €90,000.

'This year we’re pleased to increase the fund to €97,880 as the Tour length increases.'

Carmen Small – Team Virtu sports director, vice director of the Cyclists' Alliance and ex-professional racer

'Women's cycling still needs to have bigger budgets. We need to have more staff at the races. This is something that I began to understand after the first few months of my first year [as a sports director].

'If everyone is a little less stressed out because they aren't rushing around to get everything done, people do their jobs better, attitudes are better, we all enjoy the job a bit more, and in turn riders will see that and perform better.

'I think the races need to pay for more staff. Right now most races pay for four staff members. The UCI needs to change this rule on how many they need to pay for.

'It is doable to have four staff, but at races like the Giro or other stage races this becomes more complicated and your staff get very tired by the end of the races. If we have point-to-point races and a lot of feeding because it's hot, then this becomes impractical.

'Of course it's wonderful to have a Tour de France alongside the men because of the viewership but we also need to make our sport our sport.

'Logistically it would be impossible to have a three-week long tour for the majority of the teams. We don't have infrastructure or the budget to do a race like that.

'We have an already busy WorldTour Calendar. Most teams cannot run a double programme and the way it's set up now smaller teams have to miss some of the WorldTour events because of budget or lack of riders.'

Photos: Allan Stone, Juan Trujillo Andrades, Velofocus, Trek-Segafredo, Kristof Ramon, Peter Stuart, Team Virtu

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