Now and again, the mainstream media takes some interest in the women’s branch of elite road racing. Currently, the Netherlands’ multi-world champion Marianne Vos has become a global star, mainly because television cameras captured her major victories at the Olympics and worlds. In the past several decades, champions such as Nicole Cooke, Leontien Van Moorsel, Jeannie Longo, Maria Canins and Beryl Burton also attained media fame (if not fortune). And, going back to the first half of the 20th century, when women’s racing barely existed, Eileen Sheridan made waves in the British press by breaking a number of men’s time-trial records, and intrepid Italian pioneer Alfosina Strada startled the tifosi by competing in the pro men’s 1924 Giro d’Italia and twice finishing their Tour of Lombardy classic.
Now, as then, the less-chauvinistic elements of the cycling community started talking about improving the status of female bike racers. But little seems to get done. It took the formation in 1949 of the Women’s Cycle Racing Association in Great Britain, and the virulent campaigning of its founder Eileen Gray, before a women’s road race was first added to the UCI world championships, in 1958. And it was another 26 years before women cyclists first raced at the Olympic Games.
That same year, 1984, the organizers of the Tour de France added Le Tour Féminin to their schedule, running the women’s stages on shortened versions of the men’s and preceding them by a few hours. Boulder, Colorado’s Marianne Martin (today a successful portrait photographer) took the first title in a field missing most of the Olympic contenders who, ironically, were preparing for the Los Angeles Games at the Coors Classic, based in Boulder, Colorado!
It seemed then that the female side of the sport was about to take off—especially after the Americans Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg took the gold and silver medals at the ’84 Olympics. There was a multitude of U.S. women’s teams (ostensibly sponsored-amateur squads, but little different from today’s pro teams), and by the late-1980s they had a solid calendar of women’s stage races, including the Tour of Texas, Redlands Classic, Coors Classic and Ore-Ida Women’s Challenge in the U.S. and the Tour Féminin and Giro d’Italia Femminile in Europe.
But for all the buzz created within the sport and the fast-emerging category of women racers, women’s racing didn’t get a foothold in the media. Cycling as a sport did its part but women’s racing gained scant publicity—it was largely ignored by European newspapers, even by specialist sports publications such as L’Équipe and La Gazzetta dello Sport; and even men’s racing wasn’t on the radar of the American media (except when Greg LeMond started winning the Tour de France, and then in only a minor way).
There was another peak for women’s racing around the turn of the millennium when the UCI inaugurated a women’s World Cup, and a new generation of riders, led by Cooke, began to gain the attention of the emerging new media on the World Wide Web. But when she held a press conference last year to announce her retirement from pro cycling, Cooke, the former world and Olympic road champion, said, “Women's road sport, that looked so promising in 2002 when I turned professional, has crumbled. There are so many ways in which the UCI could support the sport for women, but instead they have acted, regardless of their intent, in a way that has caused the sport to lose events.
“Gone are the Tour de L'Aude, Tour Midi-Pyrénées, and Tour Castilla-y-Leon. No HP Tour [or Exergy Tour] in America. No tours in Australia, New Zealand or Canada. Instead of a two-week Tour de France Féminin, we have nothing. Women's cycling has declined through each year of my career. It is not a sustainable business model. Yes, new races have been added to the calendar, but loss exceeds growth.”
An example is the UCI Women’s Road World Cup, which has been held every year since 1998 but has failed to establish true one-day classics like those on the elite men’s side of the sport. None of the original six World Cup races take place anymore, and while as many as five countries outside of Europe have staged World Cup races (Australia, Canada, China, New Zealand, USA), only one has survived: China’s Tour of Chongming Island, which will be held for the fifth time next year.
Over the past decade (the one discussed by Cooke), seven World Cup races have been lost—two outside of Europe: the Australia World Cup and Canada’s Grand Prix de Montréal, and five in Europe: the Primavera Rosa (Italy), Castilla y Leon (Spain), GP Nürnberger (Germany), and Amstel Gold Race and Rotterdam Tour (both Netherlands). Significantly, the longest surviving races are those held in conjunction with men’s classics: La Flèche Wallonne (now 15 years old), the GP de Plouay (12 years) and Tour of Flanders (10 years).
The longevity of these three women’s classics is partly due to the stability of their established race organizations, but also to the relative logistical ease of piggy-backing a second (shorter) one-day race with the men’s classic. Using this formula, the new management at the UCI could encourage other men’s classics (such as Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liege) to incorporate a women’s race and add it to the World Cup.
When I recently discussed this idea, and the potential growth for women’s racing, with 1984 Olympic champion Carpenter, she said, “The UCI has grown around the men’s side of the sport. What I don’t understand is that in this incredible push for global cycling, taking the sport into Africa, Asia and elsewhere, there’s no women’s component. So when the UCI creates the Tour of Beijing, for instance, there’s no women’s race. Why not do that? And not at a separate time, but at the same time.”
The need for more women’s stage races, preferably alongside men’s races, is very clear. And it’s encouraging that the organizers of the very successful pro men’s Tour of Britain (held in September) will be promoting in 2014 the first edition of what they are calling The Women’s Tour. It will be a stand-alone event, five days’ long, May 7-11. But what’s not so encouraging is that there only two days between the finish of the race and the start of China’s Tour of Chongming Island stage race—which is an essential stepping stone to the World Cup race of the same name.
While the UCI needs to create a deeper and better-structured calendar for women cyclists it also needs to develop stronger women’s teams. This was emphasized by Cooke, who raced for seven different women’s teams in her pro career. She said that women’s racing needed “radical and significant change” and that “the enforcement of a minimum wage is the foundation stone.”
She also observed that making women’s teams actually pay all their riders would put some into financial difficulty. “I know teams will go out of existence as a result [of a minimum wage],” Cooke said. “But the first-hand experiences of many people I respect, along with my own experiences, mean that the loss of many of these teams will not be mourned. There will then be proper reward and proper cognizance of those teams that try and do it right. And that is how it should be.”
Legislating a minimum wage for women pros is the first goal of the newly established Women’s Cycling Association (more than 60 years after the formation of the Women’s Cycle Racing Association!), headed by active American pros Robin Farina, Jade Wilcoxson and Janel Holcomb. And hopefully the WCA will be as successful a lobbying group in the 2010s as the WCRA of Eileen Gray was in the 1950s. But it will be just as hard for today’s women cyclists to get their voices heard as it was for those in the past.
For example, a minimum wage for women racers might threaten the economic viability of women’s teams—but that problem might be solved by grouping the current number of 34 UCI women’s teams into two divisions. The first division, similar to the men’s ProTeams, could have 10 or 12 teams with stringent fiscal, sporting and ethical requirements that would include a recommended minimum wage, while the second division would have lesser fiscal requirements (as happens with the second two tiers of pro men’s racing).
Another proposal that can raise the standards in women’s cycling at the highest level is to require the best-funded UCI ProTeams to add a women’s section to their program—as already exists with Argos-Shimano, Lotto-Belisol, Orica-GreenEdge and Rusvelo (connected to Katusha Team)—while Team Sky is also contemplating adding a women’s squad (and the United Healthcare squad is adding a women’s team in 2014).
The importance of women riders is growing. Every major cycling magazine published feature stories and interviews with Vos after her magical 2012 season; and, as an example of women cyclists’ prominence, outgoing champion Cooke was recently described as a role model by Team Sky racer and Olympic track champion Geraint Thomas during his formative years. He said this about Cooke: “Seeing her win titles was incredibly inspiring for me as a young rider.”
Clearly, the more publicity that women’s racing obtains, the more this sector of the sport will grow. Now is a better time to promote women’s racing than existed with past generations. With more bikes than cars being sold in virtually every developed country, and with more women riding those bikes, there’s an economic incentive for companies such as Trek, Cannondale and Specialized (which already sponsors the world champion Specialized-Lululemon squad) to put marketing dollars into women’s teams.
The biggest hurdle to jump is the media. Cycling magazines such as peloton can devote more pages to women’s racing, and race promoters can include women’s events in future television deals, but convincing the world’s mainstream media to give women’s cycling more than peremptory coverage is a massive task. It took decades for women’s tennis to gain media equality with men’s, and the women’s versions of pro sports such as basketball, golf and soccer are still grasping for recognition.
Let’s hope that women’s cycling can be fast-tracked.
You can follow John on twitter.com @johnwilcockson