How HAS women’s cycling changed in the last few years?
I was asked this question earlier today, and it really got me thinking. I’m still riding the high of hanging out at the British National Road Championships, and talking to inspiring riders like Emma Pooley (read my post-ITT, pre-Giro interview with her on Podium Café) – and of course last month I was working on the Friends Life Women’s Tour (you can listen to me talk about that here and here, and see all the videos I collected from the race on Podium Café), but I genuinely think we’re on an upwards wave at the moment. The question is always “how do we keep moving in the right direction?” but it’s important to take a moment to be happy about what’s going well.
So, of course if you look at the last 10 years in women’s cycling, we have lost a lot of races, and we still have issues about the lack of Grand Tours and especially the lack of climbing races (I’ve been analysing the changes to the women’s cycling calendar over time, and my posts about that are on Podium Café) – and there are lots of challenges still to be faced (getting riders paid! Getting to be able to watch races!) but here are some things that are going well:
Women’s cycling on tv and streams
What’s impressing me this year is how much more women’s racing I can actually get to see – and how interesting it is about which races are being shown. In Italy and the Netherlands, races have been streamed live, or featured on local news etc for years, but the rise in races from English-speaking countries is a real plus, and show real initiative.
In the UK, ITV4 has become the home of women’s cycling, showing the Tour Series, the Friends Life Women’s Tour (no coincidence they’re both run by the marvellous SweetSpot, a race organiser that really puts their money where their mouth is) and most recently, half an hour highlights from the National Road Championships, and this is wonderful – I can watch them on my tv, or online for 30 days after the race, and it’s great coverage – I especially appreciate them hiring ex-sprint star (& Wiggle Honda boss) Rochelle Gilmore to do commentary, as she knows this sport inside out. And what’s even better is how BBC Sport are also getting in on the game – although they don’t have the rights to show the races, they had both a local and national tv crew at the Women’s Tour, with Nick Hope‘s daily videos and reports being especially good (here’s his report on British team Matrix-Vulpine at the Tour, for example). Being on the local news is astounding – my little sister doesn’t know anything about cycling, but was watching every day because she watches the news, and it really brought home to me how it doesn’t matter if the cycling media don’t cover it (Cyclingnews, eg, didn’t send a reporter, even though they’re based in the UK) because the mainstream media are a far better gateway to a passionate audience).
On the other side of the World, Cycling Australia have also been superb in the last few years, making really great video highlights of their National Road Series races that allow the riders to tell the stories of the races, and help you get to know who’s who. Have a look for those and their rider profile videos on their youtube – I had no idea about their domestic scene, and these made me a big fan – it’s funny I know much more about their national series than I do about the British!
And over in the USA, there’s some great experimentation with live race feeds happening. I always love the Tour Tracker, and getting to see the USA National Champs live, and I wish they could cover races like the Giro Rosa too, but what’s been fascinating has been seeing other ways of streaming. The USA Crits series is streamed live and archived on their youtube, and the final stage of the Redlands Bicycle Classic was a little bit shaky, as they were experimenting with filming from mobile phones on bikes, and it was truly innovative (watch it here). I have always been a fan of how the Open de Suède Vårgårda, the Swedish round of the Road World Cup, makes a home-made stream on Vargarda.nu, with commentary, GPS graphics and fixed cameras on the climb and on the finish-line – and all of these show exactly how the argument that “it’s too expensive to show women’s races” is nonsense. I can only imagine that as technology becomes more advanced, we’ll see a lot more coverage like this. I’ve been writing “how to watch women’s cycling” posts for a while now, and am so excited that we’re seeing more and more and more races.
One of the things that I think has led the changes as well has been a change is social media. At one of the Friends Life Women’s Tour press conferences, Marianne Vos was asked about the growth of women’s cycling, and she said that it’s because of social media that the sport has grown. I first got into writing about cycling on the long-gone BBC 606 forum, and back then I found out about race action through Liz Hatch‘s twitter, Vicki Whitelaw‘s blog and CJ Farquharson’s womenscycling.net. Once I found Monty’s posts on Podium Café I was off – and I absolutely love how the women’s peloton has embraced social media and run with it.
Back in 2012 I had a little series celebrating riders & teams whose social media I really loved, and it’s so impressive how riders themselves have grown interest in the sport. I think of Marijn de Vries and Bridie O’Donnell as two of the pioneers of blogging and tweeting (with Whitelaw, of course), telling us stories about what it’s actually like to race, the highs and lows and intimate secrets that make us laugh, shock us and keep us hooked, and Ashleigh Moolman, who came over to the European peloton in 2010, with her Femme Velo website and twitter that gave a fan’s eye view of the peloton from within (want a more recent equivalent? Read Anika Todd‘s blog!). And riders like Chloe Hosking, who has always been such good value, not just writing about herself, but pulling together resources like who to follow so you can follow women’s cycling, and riders who blog – that’s so helpful, and I love how Chloe uses twitter to help crowd-source these.
One of the things I love about the women’s side of the sport is how open, approachable and friendly riders are on twitter etc. Helen Wyman was the first rider who answered me (and took the micky!) on twitter, and it was a genuine thrill when Marianne Vos first replied to one of my tweets and wow, followed me on twitter. OMG, they’re extraordinary riders, and they knew I existed, even for a moment! Vos now has social media all wrapped up, with a super-slick website collecting content from all her social media platforms – so clever!
I am also so grateful to all the riders who’ve let me interview them over the years (probably the best way to find those is to look on the Podium Café interview page and the interview tag on this site for the podcast-interviews). I am some fangirl who lives on the internet, and these riders take the time to talk to me – bloody hell, that’s so incredible! I am especially grateful to Helen Wyman, Marijn de Vries, Vicki Whitelaw and Annemiek van Vleuten (who has an awesome blog!), who were some of the very first – it means so much that they’re willing to do that for a random fan, and I’m forever grateful to them and to everyone who’s supported any fan in making our own media.
Then there are the teams. I think Rabobank-Liv are currently winning the social media race, with their website which includes content from fans and riders using the #RaboLiv hashtag, regular videos on their Rabo Liv youtube and by RaboSportTV, and collecting all their own and other people’s videos on their video page, so you can one-stop-shop for the Rabo videos news. And of course they tweet everything!
Nipping at their wheels in second place is Wiggle Honda, whose video output is just superb – very fast, very good quality, and I love their mix of in-car race footage and off-bike features, so you really get a feel for all the personalities in the team. Have a look on their youtube, it’s really great – and check out their race reports on their site.
A team that’s been doing great work for all women’s cycling fans is ORICA-AIS. I have been continually impressed with all of Jessi Braverman’s work – up until now she’s been the one pulling together the race reports, twitter and especially the race previews, where different riders tell us all about what they’re going to face. Jessi has run the social media beautifully, making it all about the team – and their photos from the races show how it played out for everyone, not just ORICA, and I love that. I’ll miss her now she’s gone.
And of course, looking to the UK, I always love Matrix-Vulpine, the little team that could, who not only have superb output on their site and on their twitter, but also include the Neutral Service section of their site, which celebrates the entire UK domestic scene. They don’t have to, but they WANT to, and it’s really special.
OK, this isn’t a change as such, because I always think of Hanka Kupfernagel and Daphny van den Brand fighting hard to get the chance to race cyclocross in the first place, and then to race the World Championships and then the World Cups, and to get paid prize money, and all the women that have come since (Judith Arndt and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, fighting on and off the road, for example), but so many changes have been lead by riders, and I love it. Marianne Vos using her platform to call for more doping tests, for example, Giorgia Bronzini using hers after winning the World Championships to take Pat McQuaid to task for his ignorant comments on women’s cycling, and Lizzie Armitstead using the press that came about after winning her Olympic silver to call for change (and to be fair, any opportunity she has – like this recent Rouleur interview – oh my word, she doesn’t pull punches, does she?) and of course Chloe Hosking’s “bit-of-a-dick-gate” – and those are just the tip of the iceberg.
And then there’s the direct action – Boels-Dolmans and Rabobank-Liv leaving the Tour de Languedoc-Roussillon last year in protest over the appalling way they treated the riders, and more than half the peloton refusing to race the final stage of the Giro Toscana last year over the execrable approach to safety for what was it, the third year in a row? I loved that, with Vos, Bronzini and Elisa Longo Borghini leading the protest, with ELB especially coming under a lot of pressure from the race organisers, including an attempt to get the Italian Federation to sanction her and Bronzini (it failed of course!)
I loved Kathryn Bertine using her column at ESPNw to highlight women’s cycling, and how that evolved into crowd-funding the Half The Road film (want to watch it with me? It’s on on 8th July as part of the Bristol Cycle Festival with triathlete Chrissie Wellington introducing it – buy your ticket here and let’s have a beer afterwards too! And keep checking their site for more screenings) – and then she was really on a roll, because with Emma Pooley, Wellington and Vos (again!) she set up the Le Tour Entier which included the petition to have a women’s Tour de France, which resulted in La Course by Le Tour de France, the women’s race at the Champs Elysées on the final stage of this year’s TdF. (That’s great, but there’s still more to go – let’s have more climbing stages too!).
And then there are riders like Amber Pierce, who set up Click Thru Thursday to encourage fans to help women’s cycling by giving the sponsors love and showing them the Return on Investment is a great one – and all the women giving up their time to sit on the UCI’s committees, including Emma Pooley and Specialized-lululemon boss Kristy Scrymgeour on the Women’s Commission, Helen Wyman achieving great things on the Cyclocross Commission (and working on hilariously brilliant off-Commission initiatives, such as getting USA money to enable the Koppenbergcross to be the first (non-Worlds) Euro CX race to offer equal prize money for women & men) – and of course, Marianne Vos working closely with the UCI on what feels like everything.
Thankyou, to all the riders
I want to take a moment to thank all the women riders who campaign, fight, blog, make media etc etc. Every time they do this, they are taking time away from training and working on their own performance or sponsorship, and I’m hugely grateful to them. I have only scratched the tip of the iceberg in terms of activist and active riders, there are SO many more, and I really appreciate that they give up their precious time. And especially when doing so costs them more than just performance. When I think about how, eg British Cycling have called Emma Pooley and Nicole Cooke “difficult” in the press after they’ve spoken out (eg just one example of head BC coach Shane Sutton criticising Pooley) – and as Cooke described in her retirement statement, how that impacted on her. (I cannot wait for Cooke’s book The Breakaway, which is due out on 31st July, I suspect it will be explosive!). And as I mentioned, the pressure put on Longo Borghini, in Toscana. There are real consequences to speaking out, and I love that riders are not content to sit back (and equally, I don’t blame the riders who are in more precarious situations and can’t afford to go public, or give up time to the media etc. I support their decisions as much as I support riders who can/do)
When I was thinking about how women’s cycling has changed since I’ve been writing about it, and how I’d describe it in a tl;dr version, I came up with this:
For years I’d get contacted by parents, mostly dads, who’d ask me heart-breaking questions – telling me how their daughter loved watching the Tour de France with them and saying matter-of-factly that “women can’t race bikes, daddy”, or the dad whose 3 kids loved riding, and when they all three said they wanted to grow up and be like Mark Cavendish, his two sons told his daughter of course she couldn’t be Cav – and asking me for examples of riders who could be rôle models for their daughters, or videos on women racing, so their daughters could see that this sport they loved had a place for them too. That doesn’t happen any more, because these dads know that their daughters can grow up to be the next Vos, Armitstead, Pooley, Laura Trott, etc etc, and can watch racing on tv with their girls. One of the most inspiring things I saw at the Friends Life Women’s Tour was parents bringing their kids, girls and boys, to cheer on their stars – 8-year-old Millie, who was thrilled to meet Vos and Helen Wyman, and talk about her bike, or the young boy at Stage 4, who won the flag designing competition, and was beaming all over his face at meeting the Wiggle riders. Now THAT’s an amazing change, and while there’s still a long way to go, memories like that can only inspire us to create more change – more! Now! Again!
I know I’ve left off a ton of examples, and riders and teams who’ve made a difference, so if you want to share how YOU think women’s cycling has changed for the better in the last few years, and of examples of people/organisations who’ve made a difference, please do add them to the comments, or let me know on twitter, and I’ll pull them into a follow-up post. Thankyou!