Sunday 18 November 2012

The State of Women's Cycling 2012

Amber Neben
It's the end of another year in women's cycling. What a year it's been - the racing, as ever, has been first rate, just as you'd expect in a sport full of highly professional, competitive athletes spurred on by their own love for what they do rather than by their love of fat bank balances (and, if any women out there are thinking of taking up cycling as a way of becoming rich, think again. The salaries - if you're fortunate enough to get one, many "professional" female riders don't - remain a joke, as are the prize funds at most races. As an example, the winner of the men's Chrono des Nations received €5,785, the winner of the women's race at the same event received €379. The women's race was shorter at 20.87km, 43% of the 48.5km men's race; but Amber Neben's prize was equal to only 6.55% of that received by Tony Martin).

What's different now compared to where we were at this point last year? Not much, at first glance. The season got under way with the usual bad news that races were being cancelled due to organisers being unable to secure the sponsorship they needed in order to keep them going: the Tour de Languedoc Roussillon and GP Ciudad de Valladolid are two examples of races that are no longer with us (but, with luck, may reappear in future years), the Giro del Trentino Femminile was cut to two days from its usual three and even the famous Holland Ladies' Tour got into trouble with organisers announcing it might have to be cancelled until a new sponsor - the hairdressing chain with a long-standing connection to cycling, Brainwash - came onboard and saved the day. The UCI still says it's fully committed to women's cycling, but still seems unwilling to do very much: women's cycling, it claims, is insufficiently developed at present to justify greater financial input; however, it has apparently decided that rather than putting in the cash required to develop it, it will instead wait for a magical fairy to come along and start the process.

Emma Pooley
Perhaps the two biggest and most depressing stories of the year were Emma Pooley's announcement that she was considering leaving cycling, either temporarily or forever, and Rabobank's decision to pull out of the sport. Pooley, who has for some years now been one of the most prominent voices in the sport, indicated that she'd had enough of her well-thought-out and reasoned campaigns for the women to get a fair deal resulting in nothing of any consequence being done by the UCI and needed time away to concentrate on completing her PhD. Rabobank, which has enjoyed enormous public exposure from the highly successful teams it sponsors (especially the women's team, home to world number one Marianne Vos), announced it would be ending its long connection with cycling because it was no longer confident in the wake of the US Postal/Lance Armstrong investigation that the UCI was able to bring doping to an end. It would, therefore, be ending its sponsorship of both the men's and women's teams, in spite of the fact that doping is virtually non-existent in women's cycling when compared to men's cycling (it said it would, however, continue sponsoring Vos who, as the 21st Century's Eddy Merckx, is every sponsor's dream come true; Vos, being the star that she is, replied that it doesn't work like that and that she and the team come as a package).

Earlier in the year, British Cycling failed to notice that female cyclists competing at the top level of their sport are rock hard, stupendously fit athletes and, in a peculiarly Victorian way, mistook them for weak-willed delicate creatures unable to race on two consecutive days, so it tried to persuade the organisers of the Smithfield Nocturne to drop the women's criterium in order that riders wouldn't be too tired at a (British Cycling) event the following day. The thing is, the Smithfield Nocturne is massively popular event that draws thousands of fans (and generates new ones) in addition to - crucially - getting TV coverage, whereas the British Cycling race isn't. It is, therefore, simply too important to be allowed not to go ahead. Team Mule Bar Girls were first on the case and got a promise from the organisers that, provided a sufficient number of riders signed up, they'd go ahead and run the race anyway. Then, realising that they too could help, fans joined in by Tweeting, Facebooking, blogging and doing all manner of things that have required new words to be added to the English language over the last few years. The race was saved, and it didn't take very long to save it.

The Olympic Women's Road Race was watched by millions
This may yet prove to be the biggest thing that has happened in women's cycling in 2012: the rapid emergence of a new "activism meme" among fans, fueled at least in part by the unexpected success of the Women's Road Race at the Olympics which generated viewing figures far higher than anyone had hoped. We have realised that we do not have to be - and should not be - the silent partner in the riders/organisers and federations/audience triumvirate and that, as the majority of riders, directeur sportifs and race organisers are already doing all that they can, it's down to us to use collective effort to pressure federations, raise funds and get more people to races - by doing so we can help make the changes that the UCI won't, even though the millions of people that watched the Women's Road Race at the Olympics proves a potential audience exists.

Indicative that this is the case is the success of two new projects - namely the Women's Cycling Social Media Jersey and the Fan-Backed Women's Team. When the Media Jersey project began, organisers Sarah and Dan hoped to raise a few hundred dollars to award a t-shirt and a small cash sum as a prize to the rider decided by a poll (which ultimately received 4,605 votes, a fantastic response) to have done most to raise the sport's profile - within only days, it became apparent that they were going to raise enough to much more: the overall winner would receive a t-shirt and $500 and the riders decided to have done most at the Giro Toscana and the Tour de l’Ardèche and Brainwash Ladies Tour would receive $250, while the two runners-up would receive $100. Perhaps the first person to spot the emergence of this trend was Stef Wyman. Wyman is a man with a dream - he wants to see women's cycling become everything it can and should be and he wants professional female cyclists to be on equal footing, both in terms of recognition and salaries, with professional male cyclists - but he is not a dreamer: in fact, as the manager of Matrix-Prendas, the team he has built up through hard times into one of the most successful in cycling, he's about as much a realist as anyone could be. Back in September, Wyman wrote an article for Cyclismas in which he posited the idea that a fan-backed team, in which development would be driven by fans' passion for the sport rather than by sponsors' wallets, might be one way in which women's cycling could be taken forward. It was an idea that proved to have legs as strong as those on the riders in his team and he immediately began getting emails from people who were willing to get involved and provide funds; already the Fan-Backed Women's Team has grown to become more than just one team and is becoming involved with race promotion.

The general feeling is that we don't need to rely on the reluctant UCI - they're not going to help and we don't need them to do so; in the very near future, as a direct result, we might look back on 2012 as the year when women's cycling turned the corner and entered the final sprint into its glorious future. Despite the many problems still facing the sport, I'm more optimistic about the future of women's cycling than I have been at any time since I began following it, and I'm not the only one.