Two-time Olympic champion Marianne Vos made history this weekend, sprinting to a spectacular victory at the inaugural Friends Life Women’s Tour. At just 26, Vos is already a talisman for our sport – not just on the bike but also as a campaigner pushing for equality in cycling.
Women’s professional road cycling has forever been seen as the poor cousin of the men’s sport. In a world where other sports such as running, triathlon and athletics have all managed to offer equality in pay and coverage, cycling has traditionally struggled to make headway.
2014 is being heralded as a pivotal year for women’s cycling, and the skies do appear to be brightening. We loved last week’s Women’s Tour as much as anyone. But we must stay realistic and focused. It’s clear that there’s a long way to go to achieve anything like parity with professional male cyclists. It would still be easy for female riders to become despondent and give up, as it’s already been a long road to get where they are now.
In 2013, the campaign group Le Tour Entier, spearheaded by Vos, Emma Pooley and Chrissie Wellington, called for cycling authorities to provide better opportunities and equality for women within the sport.
As a direct result of their campaign, we get to see women race in this year’s Tour de France for the first time since 2009. Granted, La Course is just a one-stage race hosted on the final day of the men’s event. But it’s a start, an opportunity to showcase to the world what women’s cycling is all about.
It’s been a long and arduous journey for many of the riders, with most experiencing teams collapsing due to lack of financial support from sponsors. The first three teams that Lizzie Armitstead joined collapsed, as sponsors didn’t see fit to continue supporting women’s cycling.
Even with so much heady post-Women’s Tour positivity in the air, it’s important to maintain the pressure to make professional women’s cycling succeed. Brian Cookson, who was recently elected as president of the International Cycling Union (UCI), was at the head of British Cycling for years whilst professional women’s cycling trod water. So what’s changed?
For one thing, he’s appointed Tracey Guardry to the position of Vice President and established a specific Women’s Commission that helps to address the imbalance in prize money, and spoken encouragingly. But there remains much that needs sorting at the very core of professional cycling.
Did you know that in the technical regulations of professional racing the UCI restrict how far women can race. Admittedly the men have restrictions too, but wait – women’s races are limited to 130km (80.7miles) compared with the men’s limit of 240km (149miles). Rather a similar story to the history of women racing the marathon!
If you thought that was bad, then there are also limits on duration. Even though women have been scientifically proven to be of equal stamina to men over ultra-long distances, their male counterparts get to ride in races that can be up to 23 days long, whereas women – “unless an exemption is made by the management committee” – can only race for 6 days.
It’s also worth noting that due to many of the women’s peloton still need to hold down a job to support themselves to race. Imagine trying to train while you’re on deadline at uni or working a 9-5 job?
The UCI have protected the men, ensuring they receive a minimum wage. Unfortunately, this has not been extended to women. On top of this, there’s the issue of prize money, which is slowly being addressed with races such as The Women’s Tour and La Course both offering the kind of money their male peers can expect.
It’s vital to capitalise on the changes that have been made. As well as offering much improved pay, The Women’s Tour and La Course also mark a change in media coverage. Throughout The Women’s Tour, there was a full hour of highlights on ITV4 every evening, with compelling rider stories reaching the national news headlines.
Coverage is critical for women’s cycling, as Dani King said in an interview before The Women’s Tour:
“It’s the snowball effect. The more people see it, you get the sponsors, you get more racing and it just grows. It is really important. It’s going to be a big event. The coverage is really important – that is a big step for women’s cycling.”
And Britain responded. Even in the most British of conditions the route of the route was lined with spectators, spurring the peloton on. It was incredible to see the scenes on the sidelines, and even the riders were overwhelmed:
As the women’s peloton leaves the UK after an unforgettable 5 days of racing, it’s clear to see that changes are happening, and we celebrate that. At the same time, we mustn’t forget that there’s still a long way to go.
So make sure you show your support when you can: if there’s racing on television, watch it – the increase in viewing figures will help make a fantastic case to get more women’s cycling on television and help lure the sponsors, who in turn can support the women and fuel the whole process.
We are intrigued to see what will happen now, the progress that will be made after both The Women’s Tour and La Course. A full women’s Tour de France perhaps…
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