Women’s Cycling Moving Ahead

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Over the weekend Anna Meares accepted her second “Oppy” medal as Australian cyclist of the year which reinforced that cycling is not all about the men and that a woman are recognised as being equally successful and inspirational. So why is it that women’s cycling still struggles to receive coverage, recognition, decent wages and prize money while some other sports have thrived? I’m no expert in women’s sport, but I’m slowly learning after speaking with a number of women who are far more knowledable than I.

A Brief History

I can find references to Frenchwomen racing bikes as far back as Paris–Rouen in 1869 where there was one woman (entered under a false name) who finished the 134 km race in under 24hrs. Also, back in 1889 the first women’s six-day race was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

In the grand scheme of things women’s pro cycling is a relatively new profession. The UCI Road World Championships for women made its debut in Reims, France in 1958 and it wasn’t until 1994 that there was a World Championships Time Trial event. The women’s road race was introduced into the Summer Olympics in 1984 (Los Angeles) and track cycling in 1988 (Seoul). In comparison, this was 100 years after men’s bike racing was included into the Olympics.

The UCI began the Women’s Road World Cup in 1998 as a season-long competition for women. It could be said that this was the beginnings of women’s professional road racing.

Wage Disparity

I’d argue that a fair definition of “professional sport” would be one in which the athlete can earn an income in which he or she can make a living from. Currently, many of the regulations in women’s cycling are based on Continental team rules (which minimum wage is zero). Many women do indeed get $0 from their teams to race and need to look for personal sponsorships in order to chase their dreams.

Unfortunately a minimum wage for women’s pro cycling which compares to men’s is not viable at the moment. This is a separate debate, but there would be a huge disconnect between payroll and exposure for sponsors. It’s simple economics. Without media attention there are very few influential stars, role models and therefore little appetite for advertisers to pay for it all. From my own perspective, I can see what happens when I put up a post on women’s cycling this site. The number of reads are dismal. I have limited resources and can’t afford to spend time and money on putting effort into women’s cycling. I can’t see why any commercially run site would be any different.

We could debate the problems in women’s cycling for hours, but I’d like to talk more about the differences in the dynamics of the sport and parallels we can draw from other sports which have been successful.

Differences In Sporting Dynamics

I had a lengthy conversation on skype with Dr. Vicki Harber, professor in the Faculty of Physical Education & Recreation at the University of Alberta, who is also a member of the Canadian Sport for Life expert group and helps shape athlete development programs for young female athletes. She was kind to give me her perspectives and insights into the differences in men’s and women’s sport beyond the obvious.

Dr. Harber says,”We can break it down into two things. Firstly, on a pure, physiological, quantitative level, if you put a man against a woman in most sports, the man is going to win. They’re faster, stronger, they’re going to do it better. Period. But that’s a ridiculous comparison. It’s like going back to Billy Jean King versus Bobby Riggs. The second thing is that professional sport is so driven by demand, because the spectator wants the spectacle. They want the biggest, stronger, faster. And because women can’t do it the same way that men do, the way in which women make up for it is, and pardon me for putting it bluntly, it becomes a tits and ass show. There’s buckets of literature about the sexualisation of women in sport.”

In my personal view, the dynamics of some women’s sports simply lend themselves better to entertainment than others. Swimming and tennis immediately come to mind. I love watching both and each have their own subtleties that I can appreciate. Besides the obvious physiological differences, women’s cycling is a much different beast than men’s cycling because of economics, team structure, and environment.

I spoke with Bridie O’Donnell (professional cyclist, advocate, medical doctor, and much more) about these differences and she gave a good explanation on why women’s racing often plays out the way it does. “If you’re an athlete without a Y chromosome, therefore you’re a women, you have a very different change of pace ability, different top end, and often a very different attitude towards racing. We often see men going off on daring attacks in a 260km road race and finishing strong. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do to go out in an early break, do a job, defend a jersey for your team leader, etc. If we are to use the World Championships as an example, there are nine men in a team but only six women. Automatically you put 50% more men in a team that can be used as protection or disposal of early in the race, or extra fire-power. If you only have six women in a road race, you don’t want to lose those women.”

“We also know that cycling for men is a very insecure job market. For women it’s even more so. If you’re trying to secure a contract or get a result for yourself, your role in a team is often much less respected as it might be for a men’s team. Adam Hansen and Matt Hayman are very good examples of riders who make a very good living at being incredibly good and reliable domestiques. I rode for teams in Italy as a domestique. Not only did I get paid barely nothing, but there was no recognition, no television coverage, you don’t make any extra money if your protected rider wins a stage at the Giro. You might not get picked for the World Championships for being a hard working domestique. Unfortunately the average female is probably more selfish and not thinking about team roles just because of the nature of her working environment. She’s not going to go off and dispose of herself or annihilate her opportunity to get a result by doing some kamikaze attack in the first 50km of a race.”

Bridie believes that fixing the problem of lack of television coverage could solve a whole range of other issues. “We’re seeing a change, and I’m so grateful to Marianne Vos and the Dutch team. What they showed in the Olympics is that with only four riders in the team there was a relentless attacking style, which made for good television. It really changed the nature of the race. Something that I thought about after this is, like men, women are show-offs. We’re entertainers, we’re athletes, we want to be impressive, we want people to see us doing great stuff. If our races are being televised, I guarantee that riders are going to be more aggressive. Women will attack more if we’re on TV. That’s why men attack and get in breaks in the Tour de France. I firmly believe that televising women’s racing will change the nature of it and make it more exciting. That combined with commentators who know what they’re talking about and are interested.”

The Business Model Of Professional Cycling

It’s well known by marketers in the sporting industry that women respond very differently than men do towards athletes and influencers. For example, men may aspire to be like Fabian Cancellara and will buy the same wheels, bike and kit as him. There’s a saying, “what wins on Sunday, sells on Monday”. A large majority women on the other hand will not necessarily be influenced in the same way by a star such as Marianne Vos. Her accomplishments could be seen as being out of reach and unachievable. Women’s goals are often much more internal and they tend to be much more impressed by different role models than men.

Dr. Harber explains, “At a fundamental level, sport is oven driven by an extrinsic reward. People will often push themselves to the extremes of effort and commitment because there is often an extrinsic reward – whether it’s money, an Olympic Gold, celebrity status, whatever it is. Because all of that is less available to a woman, then over time women realise that the vast majority of sports will never take them to a living. Because of that, sports have mainly been an intrinsic pull for women. If coaches can recognise that in a female athlete is not doing sport for the extrinsic accolades and are able to tap into her heart and soul, you’ll create a warrior. Coming back to the commercial side, it’s not necessarily complimentary or supportive of that.”

This begs the question, should the business model of women’s pro cycling be the same as men’s? After all, much of the team and athlete sponsorships come from brands that ultimately need to sell more product. If racing success doesn’t inspire the masses, then is it doing it’s job from a commercial perspective? Let’s face it, pro cycling is one big moving advertising platform on wheels and it has to sell more widgets.

Last week Rochelle Gilmore called for women’s Tour de France alongside the men’s. I understand the desire for wanting to adapt the biggest and best men’s bike race for women, but does going head to head with the biggest men’s race the answer?

Dr. Harber says, “If you try to build a women’s professional model based on a men’s professional model, it’s not going to work. The recently folded professional women’s soccer league in the US is a classic example. It’s not for lack of money. It’s the way the money was spent. Where they selected to place teams, trying to put them in big cities where they’re going head to head with other huge professional spectator sports. I think if they had deliberately gone to places where girls soccer is popular and registration rates are high, those are the people who would have come to see the games. Women want role models. If a woman is a good social citizen and deemed to be generous in her community and is authentic, then women are going to respect that and it will flow on commercially.”

With regards to media coverage Dr. Harber says, “We know from evidence that women’s sport will get a maximum of 5% media coverage when going head to head [with men’s sport]. Of course the media coverage they do get of that 5% is of showing a lot of skin and you’d never be able to determine what sport she’s doing. The only time this changes is during the Olympic Games, then it becomes 50/50%. It’s one of the times when everyone needs to be better behaved and isn’t purely driven by commercial dollars”

Successful Women’s Sporting Models

These problems aren’t unique to cycling. The overall appetite to support women in any sport is very low. There are very few sports where women will get paid equally for the same amount of talent, effort, dedication and success that they put in. That’s not to say there aren’t great efforts to make progress – far from it.

Many women’s sports suffer the same problems, but some have done a good job at overcoming them. Tennis is arguably the most successful women’s sport from a commercial point of view.

Back in the early days of the profession (1930’s) there was a huge disparity in the prize money and income of Tennis. The US Tennis association wouldn’t hear anything of it. It was Billy Jean King who said that this has got to stop. In 1970, Billie Jean King and a few other female players boycotted a professional tennis tournament because of the prize money disparity. In addition to boycotting the tennis tournament, Billie Jean King and the other female tennis players started the Virginia Slims Tour (for women only). Billie Jean King was instrumental in the US Open’s paying equal amounts to men and women. The thing to remember however is that this was during a time where sporting salaries weren’t out of control like they are now and this could have been more possible than today.

It’s not only Tennis that’s been hugely successful. Dr. Harber explained the way in which European women’s soccer has been extremely popular. “In particular in the Scandinavian countries, the way they run their women’s professional leagues is hugely successful. The connection to community that they create is a big part of this. The transitioning of athletes up the development ranks under the professional team’s umbrella is something they also do exceptionally well.”

Breeze Program

Breeze is a program created by British Cycling aimed at getting more women into riding bikes in response to the growing gap between the number of men and women cyclists.

Here in Australia, Cycling Victoria has adopted the Breeze Program to establish a network of women’s bunch rides across Victoria, led by women. Cycling Victoria will train and mentor female leaders and provide support and networking opportunities to help establish women’s only bunch rides in their local area. Bridie O’Donnell is an Ambassador for the Breeze program. Interest in the Breeze Rides program has been very strong, with over 50 females applying to become ride leaders. The women will undertake training and accreditation over the next two months with new bunch rides to be announced over summer. Cycling Victoria hopes to develop a ride network of over 1,000 women within the program’s first twelve months. Intuitively this looks to be a huge step in the right direction which I hope follows the success of women’s European Soccer.

You can find out more information here.

Looking Ahead

It’s still a long road ahead for women’s cycling to solve many of its challenges but it’s still in its infancy and the gains that have been made in this short amount of time can’t go without notice. The potential growth is huge and with programs like Breeze and huge successes that clubs such as SKCC have had, the future looks promising with the hard work of many passionate women.