Does women’s cycling even want Patrick Lefevere?

Should we be critical of his sudden interest in backing a women's team, or just grateful he's doing so?

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Last week, long-standing eschewer of women’s racing and espouser of questionable attitudes towards gender politics, Patrick Lefevere, announced that he would be backing a women’s team

With his team’s title sponsor – window manufacturer Deceuninck – leaving the team, and more-or-less citing the Belgian’s refusal to add a women’s programme as its reason for departure, Lefevere’s was a transparently peer-pressure-driven U-turn. 

“As a modern company we want to participate in women’s cycling,” Deceuninck CEO Francis Van Eeckhout told Het Nieuwsblad when the news of the sponsor’s move broke. “We discussed that at QuickStep, but Patrick is Patrick.”

Patrick is indeed Patrick, and has been characteristically Patrick throughout this season. Via his column in the same newspaper, Lefevere lambasted Sam Bennett – his own rider – describing him as ​​”the pinnacle of mental weakness” and comparing the Irish sprinter’s return to team Bora-Hansgrohe to that of a woman returning to an abusive partner. “Leaving Bora and moaning to everybody about how he was ‘bullied’ and almost broke and depressed. Only to return fourteen months later. It’s the same as women who still return home after domestic abuse.”

Lefevere later apologised for his remarks whilst also maintaining that his opinion on Bennett “remained the same.” 

Later in the season, when asked on Het Laatste Nieuws Sportscast if he would launch a women’s team, Lefevere said he would do so only “When there are enough good riders in Belgium.” He then reeled off some of his favourite female pros including Annemiek van Vleuten (“but she’s with Movistar”) and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (“she’s pretty good”) but failed to recognise Belgian national champion Lotte Kopecky who has achieved myriad top-tier results in recent years – including fourth in the Olympic road race in Tokyo.   

But he didn’t stop there, citing, in the same interview, a further reason for his lack of interest in backing a women’s team. “With all due respect, but I’m not the OCMW”, which is a Belgian welfare charity. His stance seemed pretty clear. 

So, Lefevere watched Deceuninck walk away, right into the arms of his rivals Alpecin-Fenix and its women’s programme, Plantur Pura. To quote Eminem (and, to be clear, I rarely do): “Guess that’s why they call it window pane.” 

Less than a week later, however, and the quarrelsome QuickStep principal was back in the headlines and getting behind Dutch development squad, NXTG Racing. “Despite common opinion I have nothing against women’s cycling,” Lefevere said in an exclusive with CyclingTips

The aforementioned examples might have given the opposite impression but since Deceuninck’s departure it seems Lefevere is now invested in the growth of the women’s side of the sport.  “A few months ago, I contacted Natascha [Knaven] to talk about her project. We have to make the pool of quality riders in the women’s peloton bigger. That is how you grow the sport. That’s how you make the sport more sustainable,” he said.

Regardless of the conspicuousness of his motives or the sincerity of his change of heart, the previously skeptical Lefevere has been forced into action and has invested in women’s racing. The upshot is that a host of young female riders are set to benefit. 

“I think Patrick Lefevere investing his money into a women’s cycling development team is brilliant – it can only be good news,” says Brodie Chapman of FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope. “I know a lot of people seem to think that he’s backflipped very quickly and very publicly but for better or worse he was forced into action.” 

For Chapman, the fact that Lefevere’s hand may have been forced isn’t as important as the fact that women’s cycling is still set to benefit from his backing: “At the end of the day there’s money going into an up-and-coming cycling team for women and [if] they can professionalise further then it’s a good thing. It’s not like he’s the manager or the director of the team or anything,” she says. 

“He should be forced into action, he should be putting money into women’s cycling … the media called him out and people raised their voices and with his tail between his legs he’s invested in women’s cycling so it’s only good.”

Chapman’s comments are in direct contrast to Lizzie Deignan’s riposte to Lefevere’s ‘charity’ comment back in September. At the time she quipped: “I’m pleased he has no interest in women’s cycling, we have no interest in him either” – although perhaps it is easy for a rider of Deignan’s stature to say so. 

Whether he is wanted or not, Lefevere is here, and the fact that he has faced repercussions for his vocal opposition to backing a women’s team in the form of a sponsor’s departure is a step forward for the sport. He is neither the hero that women’s cycling wants nor deserves, but if his backing of NXTG means more investment in women’s cycling, that can only be a good thing.

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