Why does the UCI get away with treating women’s cycling so badly?
This week has been frustrating for women’s cycling. There have been three big stories that demonstrate the difficulties the sport is in – but you’d never know that, from looking at the cycling media
Last Sunday was the Tour of ChongMing Island World Cup, where the result was decided not by great racing, but by a human error, when the last corner wasn’t marked, taking the peloton off course in the last kilometres and allowing an opportunistic attacker, Tetyana Riabchenko, to win solo. Reports differ as to exactly what happened (here’s the ORICA-AIS report) everyone describes it as an unfortunate mistake by an otherwise excellent race organiser, and of course the peloton may not have caught Riabchenko – but it’s incredibly frustrating that one of the rounds of the World Cup, one of the most prestigious competitions of the year, ends this way.
Then there’s the Tour de Languedoc-Roussillon fiasco. I find it really hard to write about this calmly, but you can read what I wrote about it yesterday, or Ben Atkins‘ excellent piece on Velonation. Basically, it was due to start yesterday, but teams were told, with less than 24 hours notice, once they were either there or en route that it was cancelled – and then a shortened race might take place, that there may or may not be police coverage. All this with a frustrating lack of communication with teams, bad accommodation and terrible food – Annemiek van Vleuten and Iris Slappendel tweeted photos of the lunch, breakfast and another lunch provided for pro cyclists to race on, and Van Vleuten blogged about the whole debacle (in Dutch or google translated). The current situation is that the race will go ahead starting today (Saturday), one stage shorter, but who knows what will really happen? Rabobank-Liv/Giant, and fellow Dutch team Boels-Dolmans both left the race in protest – other teams stayed, but with a proviso that if it feels unsafe to ride, they will go too.
And the third annoyance of the week was the Amgen Tour of California “Women’s Invitational Time Trial“. I had very mixed feelings about this from the start. The Tour of California used to run a women’s crit alongside the men’s race, but then cancelled that, and last year started this. It’s a very, very limited race – not even nationally ranked, inviting fifteen riders to race. Last year it caused controversy not only because of the very small field of 12 riders, but also because their initial idea was to bill it as “the Battle of the Sexes”, where the women would only win prize money if they beat men’s times, but also the amount of prize money from a fixed pot would be determined how many men they beat – so the prize money per rider would shrink, the more women did beat men! Luckily this mad idea – that women’s prizes should be all about the men – was dropped, but it left a bad taste in the mouth, and the organisers swore up and down this was just the first year, and they would work towards a real race that didn’t smack of a sideshow.
But apparently not. This year it was another “invitational” – only 15 women, only two of them not from the USA, including a triathlete and a cyclocross rider, with some major USA women’s teams missing from the startlist. I had an disagreement with Dan about this on our last podcast, because Dan thinks I’m being too harsh on the race, and that maybe it takes time to build up to a proper race – but I genuinely don’t understand how, when there are so many great examples of USA races embracing women’s cycling, and running fantastic men’s and women’s races alongside each other (the Sea Otter Classic, the Redlands Bicycle Classic and the Tour of the Gila spring to mind) and with far better prize money than in Europe, this can be the case. Not for the biggest USA race, the one with all the publicity and international coverage. All that aside, I understand why people want to support this race, even if I don’t…. and last night it was clear from twitter that people were really enjoying the coverage on Tour Tracker…. until they decided to cut away from the women before the race had finished – even on the text coverage! It’s inexplicable! They went to a blank screen, and then made sure they showed every single male rider, but couldn’t show the best women ITTers in the USA finish the race, and tell viewers who won – or give updates on poor Amber Neben, who crashed on the course, breaking her hip. And then AToC put up the video of the “full coverage”, blithely ignoring the fact it’s anything but. So disrespectful to the riders.
So, what does this mean for women’s cycling?
The ITT winner Evelyn Stevens had some pithy points to make about equality after the race on Velonews – and men’s winner Tejay van Garderen also spoke about the need to back women’s racing, in his press conference, but all three of these examples have something in common, something that explains one of the reasons women’s cycling is in such an difficult place – and that’s because the mainstream cycling media don’t talk about it. We’ll hear more about the AToC debacle, because the media are actually on the spot, but for news on everything else, I know about it because of twitter and information put out by teams. Here’s the ChongMing race report on Cyclingnews, for example, which says nothing at all about the debacle at the finish. This is enormously frustrating for fans, but more, it allows the UCI to get away with their terrible treatment of women’s cycling, because there is no media spotlight. The lovely Ben Atkins wrote about Languedoc, but he’s just one writer, and there’s a blog about it on Bicycling – there’s nothing at all about it on Cyclingnews, Velonews or Cycling Weekly, the biggest English language cycling sites. Ben chased the Languedoc organisers, the French Federation and the UCI for comments on the situation and none of them replied – but if they’re only being asked by one person, they can afford to decide that’s not important. The UCI has made no comment on the World Cup ending in an error, not even to say they back the result – and they’ve made no comment on a UCI ranked stage race cancelling at the last minute. Even I don’t expect them to comment on the Tour Tracker, but they have a very clear rôle in the other two races.
I don’t understand this at all. These are “clickable” stories – and I can see from the questions, comments, RTs and likes that I’ve had about all of these on twitter, and the numbers of hits on what I’ve written here and on Podium Café, that people are very interested and angry about what’s going on. I know there is a lot of racing on at the moment, but that’s always the case – and these stories are juicy ones – controversy about how a race ends, controversy about a race organiser, debate over whether teams made the right decision to pull out of the race, or to stay and ride, and an opportunity to shout about the UCI – that should be gold for the cycling media! And if fans like me can manage to find out and post information, why can’t the paid journalists? I absolutely love that riders and teams share so much information through twitter, blogs and facebook, but we seem to be in a place where it’s not enough that cyclists race, they also have to be the primary reporters on their sport, too!
It’s all very frustrating. As fans, we need to tweet and email our favourite sites, and ask them why they’re not covering the sport, tell the Tour Tracker that we’re disappointed in their coverage – or, if you have the inclination like PelotonWatch, write our own blogs, and show the – but we need to hold the cycling media, as well as the institutions, accountable for why women’s cycling is in such a difficult place, and demand change.
ANOTHER UPDATE! Bonnie Ford has written about the Tour of California issues, and how riders and teams have a mixture of gratitude and frustration, over on espnW (I really wish someone would give Evie Stevens a copy of the financial justifications for not holding a proper women’s race – what with her being a former Wall Street banker, and all!)
That was a long rant, and I don’t like to start the day on a negative note, so check back to the blog soon for some positivity and ways you can help the sport