The ups and downs of 10 years as a female cycling commentator

It was a decade ago today that José Been did something she never thought possible: commentate on a bike race.

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August 18, 2012. Ten years ago today and the first day I ever commentated live on a cycling race.

Time flies when you are having fun, as the old saying goes, but it’s true. I’d never held a job longer than a year and this one has been going for 10 now. I wanted to share a little throwback on the good times and the bad times because wow the world has changed in 10 years for female cycling commentators.

I started with Eurosport Benelux in 2011. The then-manager Danny Nelissen had spotted my tweets and needed someone to write short news stories. He called me out of the blue and offered me not only the writing job but also a screentest at Eurosport because, as he said, he wanted more female voices on the channel.

I did the screentest and in June of 2011 did my first news broadcast. I don’t know if Roger Federer had actually died but my announcement of his win at some tournament surely sounded like he had. Having a microphone in front of you is a daunting thing. 

When I joined Eurosport, it was well known that I loved cycling but I was also told straight away, on the day of my interview, that for a woman without a past in professional cycling there would not be an opportunity to become a cycling commentator. 

I grew up with cycling because my father was a rider and then a sports director with local clubs. The sport gradually became my biggest passion but apart from thinking of maybe getting a job at the Rabobank cycling team’s office, booking flights and doing administration, working in cycling never crossed my mind. 

But life sometimes has its way and when there was no one available to commentate the first two stages of the Vuelta a España in 2012, I got a text message at 11pm asking whether I could step in.

The Vuelta a España has always been my favorite race. It’s the race of new beginnings and last chances, of endless landscapes and fascinating history. As it happened, the first race I ever commentated on was the Vuelta: a team time trial in Pamplona. Movistar, being based in Navarra, had high ambitions of winning that race, and they did.

I wasn’t overly nervous beforehand, but despite that, I talked a thousand words per minute. I didn’t even know I had so many facts about the riders taking the start. There seemed to be something about each and every one of them stored in my brain. The facts came out fast. Very fast. Too fast.

Oh boy, I talked a lot those first two stages alongside Danny Nelissen. But when I came home it sunk in and I realized that I had become a cycling commentator. It was something so far-fetched that it had never even crossed my mind. 

After those two stages of the Vuelta I thought my time in commentary was over. But when Danny, who wasn’t only the manager at Eurosport but also the lead commentator, left the company over the winter, I was thrown into the deep end and got to do more commentary. The news broadcasts ended that year and I was promoted to full-time cycling commentary with all the French and Spanish stage races, including the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, plus the track and women’s cycling.

My track cycling colleague Nick.

I got some compliments on my commentary initially, but they gradually faded; they always do after something or someone new starts. Then the criticisms started, and it was lot. I was prepared for the praise to end but not for the harshness of what was next. The fact I was not going away apparently bothered some people.

The emails, Facebook messages, and tweets started to come in. One of the most prominent cycling websites had a message board with a thread dedicated to commentary that started to be 99% about me. It wasn’t fun, to put it mildly.

Most things that were said about me just weren’t true and because most of it was anonymous, I couldn’t defend myself. Some of the critique was true because it was about the way I did my commentary job, and let’s be honest: it wasn’t great in those first races.

I had never learned how to commentate a race so it was a quick learning process on the job. Sink or swim. I was always open to criticism that would make me better because I had never been a cyclist myself. I had to learn from those who were, and I did. I listened to their criticism and learned.

But most of the criticism I got was on how I looked, that I had ugly glasses or an ugly face in general, how much I weighed, the size of my butt, how horrible my voice sounded, how stupid and dumb I was, how terrible I was at languages, and how I pretended to know how to pronounce names but was apparently always wrong.

The criticisms were about me being a fangirl and how I was probably after a quick night of fun with riders I mentioned too often; how I elbowed my way into the cycling world, leaving more knowledgeable people in my wake; how I probably performed sexual favors to the boss because how on earth could I be in that position any other way; how I was a bitch and a horrible person; and, yes, how I talked too much about cheese. And then there were threats about how they would come and find me at work because “when everyone hates her so much, we can do something about that.”

It was a lot to take in and completely overshadowed the nice reactions I got. I thought the negativity came with the job and that I had to accept it. It was part of being in the public eye as a woman.

I stopped engaging and started blocking. I started building a name for myself but also a wall around myself. I gradually learned how to technically become a better commentator but also to weaponize myself against the trolls. 

I started to learn when to talk and when not, how to dose the facts and when not to share too much. I learned to put the race first. I learned how to get the best out of the experienced pro cyclists by my side and make them the prominent and most knowledgeable voice in the broadcast. I learned to develop my own style instead of copying others. I enjoyed those hours in the booth with my colleagues who became friends. 

But gradually the negativity piles up. You absorb it and it lingers somewhere within. If people say I am fat, dumb, and stupid I start wondering if maybe there are right. You should not read it all but you can’t avoid it when they tag you or email you directly. And just when you think that they possibly can’t think of any new negative things again, they come up with new ways to hurt you.

I said I ignored them but of course I didn’t always. The human brain is wired towards criticism. When there are 10 positive remarks and one is a negative, the negative one sticks. Friends in cycling media turned out not to be friends at all. And it all added up. 

I decided it was best for me to leave Eurosport. I told myself I hated cycling. Of course, I didn’t hate cycling but by telling myself I did, it would justify leaving behind the job I had loved so much, knowing I would never commentate again. Or so I thought.

I knew that it wasn’t the job or the sport that was the problem but I needed to step away from that spotlight and the big podium and to choose a smaller podium with less prominence and fewer viewers. Funnily enough that smaller podium in a different language than my own became the biggest podium I ever had. 

Working in Norway with Robbie McEwen.

In 2019 I started again as an independent commentator in Dutch and English. I got invited to the Healthy Ageing Tour, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Tour of Norway, and the Tour of Luxembourg but then COVID hit and these smaller races were all cancelled. I was back to square one.

Meanwhile the flame in me was rekindled. I knew I had my place in this cycling media world. This is where my passion is and I would fight to find a new place where I could share my love with the sport again. That was always easier said than done. There weren’t any options left in Dutch and frankly I didn’t want to go back to Dutch media outlets anymore. But how would I establish myself in another language? 

Working in media is all about meeting people who want to go that little extra step for you. I have met a few along the way and Daniel Lloyd from GCN/Eurosport is one of them. As are Caley Fretz and Wade Wallace here at CyclingTips. I will forever be grateful for their help and trust.

My first assignments with GCN took place in our cupboard. I now have a home studio without groceries.

The rest is now history. I am back in cycling commentary but mix it with writing for CyclingTips and doing other freelance jobs. Before, cycling commentary was who I was. It was all I had, meaning that every critical word was directly and indirectly pointed at who I am instead of what I do. I am now in a much better place and a lot of that is down to a changed climate towards women in sports. 

The difference between how women in cycling media were perceived in the Netherlands 10 years ago, compared to the Anglo-Saxon world I now work in, is very remarkable. When I started working with Eurosport in English last year I literally got thousands of reactions and barely a handful were negative. I thought most of them would be about having a female lead commentator but my gender hardly mattered. The remarks were about my knowledge, my style of commentary, my pronunciations, my personality and my humor. There was hardly a bad word to be found. Apparently, I was not awful, dumb, and annoying after all. 

Here at CyclingTips we have some very talented female writers and at Eurosport, GCN+ and Discovery+ more and more women are picking up the microphone. Most of them are still commentating on women’s races as an expert but women like Hannah Walker, Joanna Rowsell, Dani Christmas, and Pippa York stand their ground covering men’s races too. And that is only at my work place.

I am still one of the very few female lead commentators in the world but things are changing fast. It’s a privilege to watch this development from the first row.

Ten years ago, I started my career in commentary at the Vuelta a España. One day it will all come full circle again when I return to this race I love most, as a commentator. Until that moment I savor each and every minute I get behind the microphone again because sharing my love for cycling with you all is the best job I could ever have hoped for. 

I lost that job once, but now in a world where women in sports media are more prominent and more welcomed than ever before, I don’t see any reason why I should leave behind what I love, ever again. 

We are on our way to a cycling media landscape where women will be equal to men and to a place where the adjective ‘female’ really doesn’t matter.

I just want to be a cycling commentator covering cycling races. No more distinction; no more men’s or women’s cycling. I just want to be a cycling commentator, and one of many women in that role. Period.

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