UK’s top female cyclists speak out about sexist behavior within British Cycling

by Anne-Marije Rook


British Cycling is rife with sexist behaviour and prejudice is the common message coming from UK’s top female cyclists.

After being controversially dropped from the Olympic programme last month, track cyclist Jessica Varnish has come forward and opened up about the real reasons her contract was not renewed.

While British Cycling insists that the decision to drop Varnish from the Olympic programme was made on performance grounds, Varnish says it was anything but.

In speaking to the Daily Mail, 25-year-old Varnish said British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton told her that she was “too old” and that she should “move on and get a baby.”

In a statement on her website today, Varnish opened up fully.

“With regards to my contract not being renewed on performance grounds, I find this very hard to accept. Prior to the 2016 World Championships I was not once told that I was underperforming…During the 2 year Olympic qualifying process, I gained more qualifying points than any other British female sprint rider,” she writes. “At 25 years old I feel my best years are ahead of me. Sprinters such as Jamie Staff, Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy, all achieved success well into their thirties, so I refuse to believe that my career is finished.”

Regarding her comments in the Daily Mail, Varnish says she stands by them and has experienced more of those sexist encounters dating back many years. She also hopes to change the culture at British Cycling and their treatment of women.

“I hope that by shining a light on this culture, and sharing my experiences, the relevant people can investigate and make changes,” she said.

“I have been amazed by the response and support shown to me since the Daily Mail interview. I have been contacted by other riders both present and past, to say that they have experienced similar behaviour at British Cycling… I am not alone in my experience and I’m glad that a few feel more confident to speak up as a result of my interview.”

Among those athletes coming forward are some of the biggest names in British cycling including current world champion Lizzie Armitstead and retired world and Olympic champions Nicole Cooke and Victoria Pendleton.  All of which back Varnish’ claims of injustices within British Cycling.

British Cycling responded to the allegations with the announcement of an independent review into the federation’s performance programs, to be conducted in conjunction with UK Sport.

“We are fully committed to the principles and active promotion of equality of opportunity and we must take any such allegations seriously,” said British Cycling in a statement. “The terms of the review will be announced in due course and no further comment will be made at this stage.”

The Guardian also reported that additional allegations, which were denied by Sutton, outlining derogatory descriptions of para-cyclists had forced the organisation to announce the suspension of Sutton and a second review focussed solely on his conduct.

Lizzie Armitstead

Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) wins the Trofeo Alfredo Binda; her second UCIWWT win and the third one for the team,

“Any athlete in her position has the right to say what she said,” Armitstead told the Yorkshire Post. “She’s worked so hard to be in the position she’s in and to have that taken away from her, if she feels that it’s unjust, then she should speak out about it.”

Armitstead herself opened up about the gender inequalities within cycling after becoming Britain’s first medallist at the London 2012 Olympics, when she came in second to Marianne Vos in the road race.

“I haven’t operated within British Cycling for a very long time. I’ve had to forge my own path, because I needed to,” Armitstead said.

Victoria Pendleton

Track Olympic Games 2012 in London women II

Victoria Pendleton meanwhile spoke to Telegraph Sport in support of her former teammate.

“I have never spoken out before. But I have to do it now. I would not be able to live with myself if I sat back and let people try to discredit [Varnish’s] character,” she told Tom Cary. “Knowing Jess and having worked with her for several years, she is by no means a liar,” she says. “I think probably it is her truthfulness which got her into trouble in the first place. I wholeheartedly believe her.”

Furthermore, Pendleton said that her experiences at British Cycling were very similar.

“I know exactly how miserable they made me,” she said, adding that Varnish is right about the “bullying, suffocating” culture in British Cycling that is often directed just towards female athletes.

“Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic people who work at British Cycling who kept me together; who were there when I was struggling with it all. They were walking the same tightrope in many ways, because if you do speak up your days are numbered,” she stated. “You have to wonder why there isn’t a single woman in a position of leadership in the organization.”

Nicole Cooke

Olympic Games Cycling women

Nicole Cooke, whose been outspoken about gender disparities throughout her career, shared her support of Varnish in a fiery column for The Guardian, showcasing the many gender inequalities within British Cycling.  

Entitled “Welcome to the world of elite cycling where sexism is by design,” Cooke warns that the feud between Varnish and Sutton should be “ringing alarm bells in a sport that does not appear to have a level playing field.”

“Hypocrisy and double standards in respect to gender are ingrained in cycling and many other sports but this is hidden in reports of events,” Cooke pens. “Athletes with their Olympic dreams on the line are never going to be the source of information on ill treatment by those whose responsibility it is to select or administrate.”

Cooke sent an encouraging message to Varnish and all the other athletes that have come forward:

“Opening up right now are big opportunities for women’s sport and its sponsors. This is the time to address some of those issues that have remained hidden or ignored for decades. I didn’t win at London 2012 but time and again during those Olympics, as I travelled around the capital on Tube or bus, I was so moved with the kind words of so many to me recalling my win of four years earlier. The people of this country could not have been clearer; the old, the young, the slow, the quick, they valued the exploits of their daughters every bit as much as those of their sons. They, every one of them, did not discriminate,” she said. “Now is the time to drive discrimination from the establishment of sport.”

Editors Picks