Confession: sometimes it’s hard for me to remain completely impartial when covering women’s cycling.
Having been part of women’s cycling in varied capacities for the better part of a decade, there are certain riders, teams and events that make me fall in love with the sport over and over and over again, and I can’t help but cheer for them.
The Women’s Tour, a five-day stage race in the United Kingdom, is one of those events.
Billed as a brilliant, not-to-miss new addition to the women’s calendar last year, the Women’s Tour completely stole my heart. The top teams brought the biggest names in the sport for world-class racing, the media turned out in full-force, deafening crowds lined the streets, and little girls and boys had access to their heroes for autographs and pictures.
Logistics were handled so seamlessly that I never once thought about the massive undertaking that was The Women’s Tour – which is how you know logistics are done right. The race organisation offered a generous prize list and plenty of fanfare. Every podium presentation was an opportunity for a party on the stage. There were post-race press conferences and pre-race interviews and next level excitement everywhere I turned. And each night, we got to relive it all when we watched the one-hour race highlights on ITV.
Now, I have been to my fair share of races. I have never experienced anything like this. Riding in a team car during the opening stage, we rolled down the windows as we navigated our way through town during the neutral start. The noise from the crowds, mostly children standing roadside with their schools, was deafening. I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed.
This was not Tour of Flanders or Strade Bianche, each incredible races in their own right but races in which the women’s peloton are clearly the sideshow. The Women’s Tour was (and is) a standalone women’s event. All this – it was all for the women.
Tell me no one is interested in women’s cycling, and I will tell you about the Women’s Tour.
Rebranded with the name of its new title sponsor, The Aviva Women’s Tour has returned for year two, and I’m thrilled to be back on-site covering the event. Racing gets underway on Wednesday. Here are that are going to make us fall in love with this race and this sport all over again.
Top Teams and Biggest Names
Sixteen teams will line up in Bury St Edmunds on Wednesday. Amongst them are 12 of the top 13 ranked women’s teams in the world. And teams have brought their best.
National darling Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) highlights a star-studded field of 94 women that include golden girls Laura Trott (Matrix Fitness) and Dani King (Wiggle Honda), Paralympian Dame Sarah Storey (Pearl Izumi), hometown hero Hannah Barnes (Unitedhealthcare) and a slew of other Brits thrilled to race on home roads.
The start list boasts an international mix with 11 national road champions, time trial world champion Lisa Brenneur (Velocio-SRAM) and two-time former world champion Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle Honda). Women’s Tour defending champion Marianne Vos and road world champion Pauline Ferrand Prevot are both sidelined with injury, but Vos is onsite as an ITV4 presenter.
Media Coverage and Television Time
In between the press conference and team presentation on Tuesday, Armitstead spent nearly two hours smiling for photographs, answering questions and patiently giving video interviews as journalist from around the globe wanted a piece of her time – Ella included.
While this might be common amongst the men’s peloton, riders within the women’s peloton rarely receive this much attention from the media. Armistead was the consummate pro, and when I voiced my praise with her willingness to play along the evening before such an important race, she said: “I’m happy to do it. It’s rare we have such a big stage. You’ve got to make the most of it.”
Remember when Chris Froome bypassed the post-race press conference required by stage winners at the Dauphiné last week? Yeah – that’s not how the women’s peloton does things. Armitstead’s attitude embodies the sentiment of much of the women’s peloton. Riders are thrilled to have center-stage in front of such a large audience. And (for once!) the time generously given translates into a reciprocal amount of coverage.
And that coverage extends into television time. Every night ITV4 hosts a one-hour highlights programme hosted by Marianne Vos and Ned Boulting. The same programme is repeated the following morning. Highlights will also be shown by British Eurosport, Eurospoart Asia and various other channels. Details on how you can watch the action here.
Crowds and Community Involvement
You guys. These crowds. I wish you could be here to experience this yourself.
Last year Orica-AIS sport director Martin Barras compared the experience to a rock concert. He likened the race organisers (Sweetspot) to tour promtors, the team staff and race staff to roadies, and the riders to the band.
As you judge a band on ticket sales and attendance, you can assess this tour by the size of the crowds showing up at the races. In that regard, this rock and roll travelling show was wildly successful. We were tickled pink by the turn out in the pretty start town of Oundle on day one and were positively blown away by the mayhem when crossing the final finish line in Bury St Edmunds. In between, every town and village we crossed tried to outdo one another and it became standard practice to toot the horn at any occasion, just to see how high we could drive the pitch of the screaming crowd.
You might be wondering: “Isn’t this what rock and roll is all about? What’s the big fuss?” Well you have to understand that the little band that is women’s racing was turned overnight into The Supremes, The Runaways and The Spice Girls all rolled up into one. The Big Time! Girl Power! Our fans are new to the show but it’s easy to imagine they will become fiercely loyal.
All of this is significant because until last week, we did not have an audience. We have always been convinced we had a great gig to play but years of empty bar rooms and dance halls can take their toll. As a result, there has been a great many band members that left us figuring we would never make it.
And at The Women’s Tour last year, the women’s peloton realised they had made it. That all they have to offer is recognised and wanted and celebrated. It gave me goose-bumps to witness first hand.
Speaking to riders before the team presentation yesterday, I repeatedly pitched the question: “Tell me what you love about the Aviva Women’s Tour.” All but one rider, without hesitation, mentioned the crowds. The one rider who mentioned something other than the crowds was, of course, Mel Hoskins (Orica-AIS), who instead elected to heap praise on the buffets.
Now – here’s where Sweetspot gets the credit. They spend months in the lead-up to the race start going into schools and other community groups, often with British riders in tow, to not only promote the race but encourage the community to learn about cycling and the cyclists and women’s sport in general. It’s no accident that the crowds are massive. It’s representative of the investment Sweetspot has made.
Speaking with Sweetspot director Guy Elliott in April, I learned that his vision for the race was one of equality. “The disparity between what is on offer for men and what is on offer for women at the highest level of cycling is a commentary on the inequality endemic in our society,” Elliott said. “There are moral and social reasons for promoting equality. The objective of the Women’s Tour is to send a strong message that women do not have to be second best.”
And one of the ways that Sweetspot chooses to reinforce this message is by offering the women’s peloton a prize purse equal to the prize purse their male counterparts will compete for at Tour of Britain in September. The Aviva Women’s Tour has increased it’s prize purse to €39,000 this year – and while many riders will repeatedly tell you that fighting for equal prize money is one of the lower priorities of their collective agendas to advance women’s cycling, the generous prize purse offered by Sweetspot matters.
The prize money referenced above is clearly part of the larger social agenda surrounding this race. Elliott talks about the dismal drop-out rates within women’s sport and the embarrassing dollar amounts committed to women’s sport sponsorship in the UK as part of his motivation to make the Aviva Women’s Tour become much more than a bike race.
“I see this as a celebration of all women in sport,” Elliott told Ella. “The event is something meant to encourage women to stay physically active and healthy. We have seen catastrophic drop-out rates in sports participation for young women – many of whom have very few role models with whom they can relate. When we pitched the concept of the race to councils and businesses, we talked about the crisis women face and the messages inequality sends rather than cycling.”
And while the majority of riders are blissfully unaware of the social agenda, they feel its benefits.
“I worry sometimes about how selfish cycling is on a personal-level,” said Armistead. “And then I have little girls come up to me here and say I took a picture with you last year, and you gave me your autograph. They remember that. To have the ability to inspire someone in that way and maybe be a part of the reason they get into women’s cycling – I would have loved to have something like that as a young girl.”
Your best resources to follow our favourite race of the year live will be:
- the official Aviva Women’s Tour twitter account
- CyclingTipsLive – we’re tweeting from the caravan daily
- The live ticker on the Aviva Women’s tour website
- search for #AvivaWT2015 twitter hashtag
- In addition to the live coverage, we’ll have daily reports, images and special features on ella.cyclingtips.com.au
Looking for a bit more basic information?
- The Aviva Women’s Tour website has nearly everything you need.
- The Velofocus preview gives key course information.
- Most teams have done detailed race previews outlining their goals for the race. Here are previews from Orica-AIS, Velocio-SRAM and Wiggle Honda.