Opinion: Double standards in Paris-Roubaix race imagery

We now have a Paris-Roubaix Femmes and all the imagery that comes along with it, but the reaction to that imagery shows that we still have a long way to go.

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The imagery that comes out of Paris Roubaix is one of the most compelling aspects of the race. As we pointed out last week, until now, certain parts of cycling legend, some of the most captivating and iconic, have been the reserve of the men. After last weekend, however, we now have versions of classic cycling iconography featuring women – which includes the Roubaix showers. 

This is why I asked for a first-person account of shooting the race from Trek-Segafredo’s photographer Jojo Harper. I knew what capturing the day meant to her. I knew that it would be worth hearing what was going through her head as she immortalised this historic moment. As a female photographer, who has been working with a women’s team for years, Jojo knew the significance of this moment and would do it justice. 

We put her story up, and the reaction was largely positive. Except for a few who took umbrage at our choice of cover shot.

Jojo is a friend of mine, I know how much work and care goes into these photos, I know she has a personal relationship with each of the riders, they trust her. I did not, for one second, consider that her shot of three of the Trek-Segafredo women in the shower would be viewed in a sexual way. 

Jojo revealed that many more of the women went into the showers after the race than the men usually do – a reflection of what it meant to the riders to be able to finally share in the history of the race. When I chose it as the cover image for the piece, it was because it was symbolic of the iconic shots that women had been missing out on until this point. It certainly wasn’t a gratuitous grab for attention. 

To some, however, the women’s exposed shoulders in a grubby, concrete shower is enough to be considered sexual. The fact that the piece was female-led and was about the race, the type of image synonymous with Paris Roubaix, and the women pictured themselves, was overlooked. As often happens in women’s sport, the story of their athletic achievement was overtaken by a politicised argument. 

Myriad images of the men in the very same showers have not been met with the same accusations and are instead viewed as epic depictions of the exhaustion following a race that is feted for its extreme physicality – even by bike racing standards. The women used their bodies in the same way, their muscles and skin ravaged by the cobbles and mud, they were fatigued and elated, they were washing off the dirt and grime from a day that will go down in cycling history, in showers that are part of that history. 

The chosen cover was an image that signified an important step towards equality in the sport, yet some accused CyclingTips of cynically using women’s bodies to generate clicks. “Why not use an image from within the race?” some asked, overlooking the fact that the content of the piece contains a lengthy depiction of the way the shower photos were taken with Jojo’s explaining the fact that only female photographers were allowed in – literally no male gaze allowed. 

An image that should have been seen as a celebration of an historical moment instead became a reminder of how women’s bodies are sexualised by society in a way that men’s are not. What started as a simple endeavour –  to hear from a female photographer on an historic day for women’s sport — became unnecessarily politicised by the very same people who sought to condemn the sexualisation of women’s bodies.

We may now have a Paris-Roubaix Femmes and all the imagery that comes along with it, but this reaction shows just how far we have to go when it comes to equality in the sport.

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