Beyond podium girls: My experience as a woman in cycling

by José Been


Today, Flanders Classics announced they will no longer use flower girls, or podium girls as they’re better known. And it sparked some controversy.

As a women’s cycling advocate, people automatically assume that I am against the use of podium girls. And however politically correct that may be, that would actually be incorrect. If these women like their jobs as podium girls, hostesses or flower girls, let them have that job. But let it be for the right reasons.

There is an underlying stream of everyday sexism that bothers many with regards to podium girls, and grid girls as they are called in motor sports. There is a sense that there is no place for women in cycling – or sports – apart from being pretty, smiling and silent. A picture to look at, not a competent colleague to work with.

I have a personal story to tell about being a woman in cycling.

I am by no means silent: it comes with the nature of my job as a commentator. I am actually the first female cycling commentator in the Netherlands and one of four female lead sports commentators in total.

The Netherlands is a country many deem progressive. Let me tell you, we are not. Not in politics (we have yet to elect a female Prime Minister), not in work (we have the highest percentage of part-time working women in the world) and certainly not in sports and media, where 95% of sports commentary and journalism is done by men.

My colleagues, the three female lead sports commentators, are all in tennis — a sport where equality is further progressed than cycling. They are also three former top tennis players. I never cycled professionally. I swam and achieved no better than a measly bronze medal at the provincial championships. My point being, I don’t hold this job because I was a wonderful cyclist.

At first it was pure luck from being in the right place at the right time. And I’ll admit that at the beginning of my career, I was not a very good commentator. Yes, I knew a lot of facts, results, names, history and geography, but it didn’t always come out right. I talked, but it was not great. I was thrown in at the deep end. There is no school for cycling commentary. It is all about learning on the job. And I did. But having a woman behind the mic stirred something ugly with the many male viewers of the sport.

I have never been a girly girl. There were two moments in my life where me being a woman was suddenly an issue. When I got breast cancer (and suddenly everything is pink), and sports commentary.

Some examples, in random order, of my experiences as a commentator.

When I started as a general sports news commentator I was told, “I know you love cycling but a woman covering cycling is not something anybody is going to believe.”

Whether it was said as a joke or not, it was not okay.

As said, I was never an elite athlete and therefore people wondered how I could possibly have ended up with a job in sports commentary. The solution to many was obvious: ‘she must have slept with someone in the industry’.

These type of comments resurfaced again when I started as a press officer for a men’s pro cycling team. Someone even went as far as saying: “You are probably working in cycling because you can sleep with many men.”

Whether said in jest or earnest, telling a woman she is probably only in a certain work position because of favours to men is plain insulting.

On that note, “You know a lot about cycling…for a woman” will never be received as a compliment. I don’t want to be in this job because I am a woman. I want to do this job because I am passionate about it, and good at it, too.

For a while there was this argument in the Netherlands that female radio DJs or sports commentators are scientifically unpleasant to listen to you because of the pitch of their voice. “I have nothing against you personally but I just can’t listen to a woman doing cycling commentary,” was a comment I received many times.

This argument, supposedly backed by pseudoscience, has long been debunked. But that is everyday sexism. The culture that supports these attitudes is something you keep feeding by positioning women in the sport where they are only judged by the way they look.

I get many emails and messages on social media by young women who are in journalism school or work in sports media who feel inspired by my story. First and foremost, I never planned to be a pioneer or to be inspirational, but I turned out to be one.

I have encountered many #metoo situations in cycling, from jokes about sex to a team mechanic showing up in my hotel room uninvited in the middle of the night, but I won’t be deterred. Not then and not now.

If I can show young women that sports commentary or journalism is a career path open to them, all the scrutiny, frequent insults and hatemail are more than worthwhile.

In the end, my message is this: Whether your dream job is to be a cycling commentator, a podium girl, the next world champion or the head of the Netherlands, you can do it. Every position should be open to girls.

José Been is a Dutch cycling fan turned cycling commentator. She’s now an avid cyclist herself, a women’s cycling advocate and a total Twitter junkie.

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