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by Anne-Marije Rook
December 7, 2017
Photography by Anne-Marije Rook and Cor Vos
WOMEN'S CYCLING BROUGHT TO YOU BY ORBEA
For the past decade, if you wanted to find out anything about women’s cycling, you logged onto Twitter. You’d either search the “#womenscycing” hashtag but more likely, you’d head straight to the @_pigeons_ profile.
In the latter part of the 2000s, Twitter is where women’s cycling gained its fanbase. Filling the void in media exposure and TV coverage, Twitter became the hub of the women’s cycling collective with fans, staff and riders alike sharing whatever race updates, commentary and clippings they could find. And _pigeons_ was in the middle of it all.
Whether you wanted to know who won the women’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, where to catch a livestream of the next race or learn more about the dominant force that is Marianne Vos — Sarah Connolly a.k.a @_pigeons_ was your girl.
As the fanbase grew, so did her dedication to the sport. With the financial support of fans worldwide, Connolly made it her job, turning tweets into the prowomenscycling.com blog, weekly podcasts and live Twitter racing coverage. We even started hearing her voice on live coverage of La Course and the women’s Ronde van Vlaanderen.
But after nearly a decade of tweeting, keyboard activism and “living like a student,” Connolly is done. At the end of this month, she’s taking a step back, happy to see professional media take over while she returns to being a full-time fan.
The media’s attention lfor women’s cycling looks a little different these days. Photo courtesy of the UCI
Connolly is not a cyclist. Never was. Like so many fans, she fell in love with the sport through spectating.
“I came into cycling late. It was 2008 and there was the Tour, the Manchester Track World Cup and the Olympics —in which Nicole Cooke was amazing— so there was a lot to love in cycling that year. ” Connolly recalled.
“I knew nothing about cycling, but I attended the Manchester Track World Cup and the track is so addictive especially when you see it live. Also, the track is men and women on the same stage so I found out about the women’s side. I kinda fell hard for cycling.”
Devouring all information she could get her hands on, she quickly learned that the story of women’s cycling went largely untold.
“When I started, I knew nothing about women’s cycling, but saw knew there was a massive void. I was [covering women’s cycling] to find out about it. You know, ‘be the change you want to see’ kind of thing. I knew nothing,” Connolly explained.
“There was very limited information there so I got most of my information from forums, and Google Translate as I translated news from different languages.”
In starting her avid tweeting and subsequent blog, Connolly said she set out to garner and disseminate information while proving to mainstream media that there was a demand for women’s cycling coverage.
“I wanted to find out more about [women’c cycling], demonstrate there was an audience, and say to mainstream media, ‘hey, there is an audience and why aren’t you doing more about it?’,” Connolly said.
“I wanted to show that women’s cycling is interesting, tell stories and share the ‘WTF this is lunacy!” stuff that I love. It just kind of went completely out of control from there.”
As Connolly invested her time and energy into the sport, the riders and fans invested in her. Followers worldwide chipped in to fund Connolly’s work through Patreon —allowing her to keep the lights on and the live commentary running, while riders were generous with their time.
Her fan-made media has arguably been women’s cycling’s main source of information but professional and mainstream media has caught on. And so it’s time to pass the torch.
“I am super lucky to have had the opportunities that I have had. It’s been an absolute privilege to share my passion with people, but I’ve been doing this for a really long time, and I think I am not the best person to do what I do anymore. [The sport] is much more pro now and I think the media should also be more pro, to be perfectly honest,” Connolly said.
Plenty of mainstream media attention for women’s cycling these days.
Connolly’s reasoning behind taking a step is two-fold, she explained. One, she’s no longer needed. Two, she’s just plain tired.
“To be completely brutal about it, when I first started, I was a major source of information for a lot of people and I was needed. But it’s 2017; you can watch women’s cycling on mainstream TV in the UK. Laura Trot and Lizzie Deignan are household names, track races are on BBC One, cyclists are on the cover of glossy supermarket magazines. [The sport] has really transformed. In a lot of European countries, you can’t pretend that you don’t know that women ride bikes anymore,” said Connolly.
“When we started podcasting, we were telling people what happened in the races that week because that was the only way for them to find out. Now, even if you can’t watch it
live, you’ve got the UCI highlight videos, and you’ve got sources like Ella and Voxwomen. We are in a completely different world now and that’s fantastic and that makes me feel really positive about stepping back. I genuinely feel like we are in a good place.”
With that said, Connolly was quick to note that the sport still has a lot of growing to do, and that the economic and equality issues in the sport today are as prevalent as they were eight years ago, but it she’s frankly too tired to keep fighting the same battles.
Banners and plenty of fanfare greeted the peloton for every departure at the OVO Energy Tour. Connolly provided live commentary.
“Part of me stepping back is that I’ve recognized over the last couple of years that I can’t get angry anymore about the injustices in cycling,” Connolly admitted.
“It’s not because I’m not angry, it’s because I am just exhausted. I just can’t talk about La Course again, I can’t have the minimum wage debate again, and I can’t talk about the Pinarello advert because I just don’t have the same energy to keep having the same fight over and over and over again.”
“For me personally, to do what I do and to keep writing about it, to be angry about it, to try to affect change, I have to care. I still care but I am just tired. I think it’s time for some people with newfound energy to take over that voice and take over the fight.”
And just as funding is lacking for athletes, so is the pay for those cycling journalism. Living like a student in your forties, Connolly said, isn’t sustainable in the long run.
“Maybe I’ll be like Giorgia Bronzini and just keep saying this is my last season.” – Sarah Connolly
With that said, Connolly is not leaving with bitterness. Quite the opposite in fact.
“I guess I want the cycling equivalence of walking away while I’m still at the top. You know, I don’t want the cycling equivalent of having a head injury and hating the sport,” Connolly said.
Just like Giorgia Bronzini is in her third ‘last year’ of racing, Connolly said she could very well change her mind.
“I am completely realistic about the chance that maybe I’ll watch Ronde van Drenthe next year for old time’s sake and it’s an amazing race —like the first time I saw Drenthe—and I just fall in love all over again,” she said.
“I am not disappearing completely —I mean if anyone wants to pay me to commentate on a race, I’m there in a heartbeat — what I am stopping is things like Twitter, the podcasts and I won’t be doing the same things on the website. Of course I’ll be reading Ella and keeping up with the news, I am just going to be quieter…and I will also enjoy watching the races on my TV and not from some stream that is going to give me some virus.”
Most cycling fans know Sarah as ‘_pigeons of Twitter’. She is someone who brings women’s cycling closer to the fan and followers. Through her Tweets, articles and podcasts, she has made women’s cycling more accessible. If you want to know what’s going on in the field of women’s cycling, just look at @PWCycling. In this way, for example, my mother has always been up to date with the latest news.
The enthusiasm of Sarah is sincere and contagious. I am sure that there are many fans who have become involved with women’s cycling because of her.
In her interactions with me as a rider, she is always very conscientious and grateful. She gives you time and space, and is therefore loved within the peloton. And when someone does so much for the sport, it is only a small effort to give something back as a rider.
Many thanks to Sarah. I wish her well.
“When I started racing overseas, I also started using social media. It gave me a connection with people back home and helped me feel less isolated.
One of the first accounts I started interacting with was @_pigeons_ and I was impressed that Sarah Connolly was promoting and supporting women’s professional cycling in the UK, Europe and the US at a time when there was barely any coverage on mainstream media.
Over the next 9 years, Sarah has grown her following, her expertise, and insight to become a leader in cycling commentary, and we are the better for it.
She’s provided invaluable notes for high profile commentators and their tv coverage of Olympics, World Championships and WWT races, explored the lesser-known riders’ stories, and celebrated the efforts as much as the victories.
Sarah has truly been a champion for professional women cyclists across the globe.
Aspiring young women riding now can’t comprehend a world before they were able to broadcast their lives and experiences to millions of people. But Sarah Connolly and her selfless and passionate support for the sport allowed so many of us to make human connections at a time when we were isolated, uncertain and unrecognised.
I for one am immensely grateful for her persistence, her attention to detail, her humour and single minded focus to support women in sport.”
Please join us in thanking Sarah for her work by leaving a note in the comments below.