This month brought about what will hopefully be a promising turning point for women’s cycling and even women’s sport as a whole. On a chilly morning on the banks of the Thames, the Wiggle Honda Pro Cycling team was launched.
The new team is unusual for a number of reasons, for one, it’s not a by-product of a men’s team. This means the focus is solely on the women, with limited budgets, as most women’s teams can usually only afford one star rider at best. Wiggle Honda features three Olympic gold medallists, a twice World Champion, Commonwealth, Junior & National champions, all of whom are passionate about working together, to get results as a team.
Another notable difference is the resources available to the team. As manager and rider Rochelle Gilmore put it ‘None of our sponsors have said no to any of our demands.’ In the past women’s teams have had to beg, borrow and steal equipment, make convoluted transport arrangements and all for less pay than the UK minimum wage (there is no minimum wage for a female cyclist but for men it’s €35k).
The aim of the team (as well as winning races of course!) is to raise the profile of women’s cycling, bring more women into the sport and help to drive equality for women athletes.
Women’s cycling is changing, perhaps not fast enough, but there are some positive actions to bring the sport towards the level of recognition it deserves.
The team launch last week proved that women’s cycling could make mainstream press, with articles appearing in the Times, Guardian, Telegraph and on BBC news, no doubt helped by the signing of Laura Trott, Jo Rowsell and Dani King to the team. These are three Olympic gold medallists who are swapping the track for the road and now have national fame, thanks to their achievements at London 2012.
The cycle specific press are starting to realise that they too are guilty of not giving enough coverage to women’s cycling and column inches since the Olympics, seem to have drastically improved. Procycling magazine has taken a massive step and given one of their long standing ‘Rider Diaries’ monthly columns to Wiggle Honda’s Emily Collins with a four pages about her, in the latest issue, something many male pro riders would be hugely proud of!
Race organizers are also beginning to recognise the value of women’s events, though many long standing events have disappeared from the calendar recently, due to financial issues. Several of the remaining ones, such as the Michelton Bay Crits and World Championships, have secured equal prize money for the women’s race. This is a huge leap considering the gap in most races. For instance in 2011 the Men’s tour of Qatar prize fund was in excess of €100k, compared to the women’s race at a paltry €20k!
The sport has been much undervalued for years, it gets very little media attention comparatively and almost no TV coverage (other than World Championships, Olympics and Commonwealth games, but let’s face it, most sports get at least that!).
Why? Who knows. Whilst the races are often shorter, they are certainly not lacking in excitement, in fact without the slightly overbearing presence of strict team tactics, the women’s racing is often far more spontaneous! It’s probably just the stigma of women’s sport being somehow ‘not as good’, something few sports have overcome, notable exceptions being tennis, skiing and athletics.
A big argument is that women’s racing attracts a lesser audience, ergo less sponsorship opportunities and less income. While this is true, it is a chicken and egg situation; without the media coverage you can’t attract the fans and without the fans you can’t get the sponsors. Somewhere down the line, the risk needs to be taken in order to make a positive change.
What’s also apparent from looking at fan bases and comments on social media, women’s cycling, like many women’s sports, fails to attract a solid female audience and is often championed by men. When was the last time you saw a female athlete on the front cover of a woman’s magazine? For women’s cycling and sport generally, to change for the better, it needs women to support it, demand coverage and enjoy being part, of one of the most accessible sports on the planet.
Daniel Loots, author of this article, is Social Media Executive of Wiggle Ltd. http://www.wiggle.co.uk/