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Some ideas for developing women’s cycling – UCI and Federations

If you visit this blog, you’ll know that both Dan and I have lots of ideas for the different ways women’s cycling could be developed.  It’s not just about money, and providing new races (though I support that absolutely) – here are some ideas I’ve been thinking of recently, about how national Federations and the UCI could make some relatively small changes that could make a real difference to the sport.

Better support for riders who have problems with teams

Every now and then we hear stories how some riders are not paid by their teams, treated appallingly, etc, although these stories surface after the fact, with riders saying they couldn’t talk publicly, or complain to the UCI, at the time because they will get dropped by teams or blacklisted, and can point to riders who this has happened to.  I’ve heard that one current team is on the third year of not honouring contracts – and in her retirement statement, Nicole Cooke talked about having to take four teams to court, just to get her contracted pay.  I can’t imagine how hard it is to do that, dealing with the court in a different country and language.

It’s really important that there are routes for riders to complain, and whistle-blow, without fear of repercussion – and that teams should be penalised and denied UCI ranking if they don’t honour contracts.    There needs to be representation for riders, like there is for pro men –  at both Federation and UCI level. The Feds can really help here, bringing the issues that face their riders to the table, and provide legal support for chasing contracts etc – an individual rider may not have clout, but a Fed certainly has!


Change the structure so there are clear development routes

I’ve written about this before, but the moment, there’s only one level of UCI teams for women, with the same rules for teams that govern the men’s Continental level.  It’s hard for new fans and sponsors to be able to look at the list of UCI teams and know which are the big, professional ones like ORICA-AIS and Rabobank-Liv/Giant etc, and which are the tiny national-level ones who just happened to have the finances to register.

I’d add a pro layer in – with a minimum salary and more freedom (e.g. at the moment, Conti teams have to have more riders below an arbitrary age than above).  This would be voluntary, and of course, if a team didn’t pay their riders, they shouldn’t be allowed to renew at this level,  but this would be “pro”, and the level below this would be the Conti, or development, layer.  I’d add a new level of races to the calendar too, so that some races could choose to only open to Conti teams, and provide opportunities for the lower-level teams.  There should be more to going “pro” than just having to money, too – and it would make it clear to riders, fans, the media etc that there are obvious levels in the sport.


A more nuanced calendar

Last month, I did some research into the calendar, and I have strong feelings about how races are allocated UCI status.  My research is here and here, with a lot of my thoughts.

One thing I think that could help with stability is for new races wanting UCI status to have to be able to demonstrate they have commitments to run for at least 2 years – especially those that pop up in the Olympic qualification period.  I’m not convinced that races should be allowed to get .1 status in their first year – and I definitely think that if a race cancels in one year (eg the Tour de Languedoc Roussillon), the organisers should have to provide extra evidence they can run in the following year.  And when there are fiascos such as this year’s  Tour de Languedoc Roussillon, the UCI should put out statements about the actions they’ll take to prevent similar situations in the future.

There are real issues with some countries and regions not having any UCI-level races – such as Australia – or only 1, as in the USA.  Part of this is that the current UCI structure doesn’t represent local racing cultures, especially around Crits in races – the existing rules limit how many Crit stages there can be.  A more nuanced calendar, with room for an extra layer of racing that embraced Crits could be really valuable – we have the UCI .HC category, so things can be added.

(The UCI distaste for Crits is an interesting one, given that they provide excellent value for spectators, are relatively cheap and easy to run, and very tv-friendly.   Given that the women’s races have such arbitrary limits on their distances etc, it’s weird to limit crits too)

With the UCI calendar being so random, there are issues for riders from who swathes of the world.  With no UCI races in the whole of Oceania, it’s especially hard for riders from the region to get spotted.  It seems as though some riders – recently Loren Rowney, Kimberley Wells etc, can attract attention in the Australian December & January races, and get signed as a result – but that relies on teams having open berths close to the season start.  But I think some of those great Australian “pre-season” races could get UCI status.  We have UCI races in October, November and February, and we’ve had Road World Cups in Melbourne, so I can’t see why there can’t be some in December/January too.

In countries like the UK, where public funding supports a men’s race – for example the Tour de France Grand Départ – I think there’s a real argument for supporting a women’s race, too.  Whenever I write about things like British Cycling, someone will tell me that BC has no reason to support women, because “most of the members are men”.  Quite apart from the fact that if this is true, it represents issues with the Federation, it also misses the point that BC is publicly funded too, and if they’re going to take money from women, in terms of tax or Lottery cash, they surely should be providing a full level of services for women too?  I’m not necessarily saying I want all of the races to be same day/same course – but like the women’s Tour of Britain starting next year, there should be an equivalent – and that race deals with tv companies should make the tv cover the women for a minimum amount if they want the deal.


Learning from experience

I’ve worked on some really big public sector and charity projects over the years, and one thing I truly believe in is the necessity of learning from experience.  If I were running a Fed or the UCI, what I’d want to do is learn from riders and race organisers, to try to improve the sport.

There can be various ways to do this – regular surveys, named or anonymous, and especially interviews with riders leaving the sport, or with races that collapse.  I’d want to look at what helped them, and got in their way, and take that on board.  There are lots of reasons riders will leave – eg riders like Vicki Whitelaw who left cycling to start a family, or riders who leave injured – but there must be things to learn from riders and races.  Formalising what people know can only be a good thing, and can really help develop things.  I loved it when Cycling Australia started their athletes’ commission, and had open calls for opinions – and one thing that could help is for the UCI to ask Feds to collect and collate rider opinions, allowing Feds to hold them to account over responses and resulting changes.

I also have a fantasy project that would work with young riders to show them how they could develop skills while they’re cycling that would help them in the workforce – or maybe just describe what they do in different ways.  Riders who tweet and blog, for example are managing their own brand; riders who work with sponsors (either their own personal supporters, or the team sponsors) or who publicise races, have skills that are very transferable, and that’s something that Feds can help with.  Federations should have a responsibility not only for developing riders’ cycling, but giving them strong exit strategies at the other end, and support for them as a whole person.

One difference between male and female riders seems to be opportunities to stay in the sport after their cycling careers are over.  For men there are opportunities as team staff, in the media, within Federations etc, and I’m interested why this doesn’t seem to be the case for women.   I think there’s a role here for Federations, to actively promote ex women riders into team/Fed roles.   Women cyclists carry just as many  skills and experience as the men do, and could offer a LOT to the sport, but it feels like there aren’t opportunities out there.  It seems pretty win-win to me – the learning from the riders isn’t lost, and high-achieving women/girls who might be hesitant to get into cycling full time, because of the lack of cash, and long-term career plans could see that if they’re injured/when they retire, they can still have roles around the sport?

I am interested in how the roles of Directeur Sportif in women’s cycling teams, whether trade team or National, seems to be used as a learning curve for men to get into DSing for men’s teams.  I think about how, eg, Chris Newton was given the role of DS for the Great Britain team in 2012, when he had had no experience of women’s racing.  He was a fantastic track rider, and had been a track coach, but with his own road experience limited to the GB domestic level, it seemed strange that he was given the Olympic team as his first road DS experience.  The same thing has happened in USA Cycling, when former BMC rider Jackson Stewart was given the women’s national team to DS, on no experience, when he said himself in interviews that he was seeing it as a way into DSing for the men’s sport.

I don’t really understand why, if Feds are paying former riders with no experience of DSing to learn the ropes, why they’re picking men and not women?  Women’s cycling is very different to the men’s, and surely it makes sense, if they’re giving jobs to ex-riders, to give them to people with experience of the races and riders?  There are some great examples – Cycling Australia’s DS for the Trophée d’Or, where Amy Cure beat some serious stars to win Stage 5, was 2004 Olympic road race champion, Sara Carrigan; and the Canadian National Team has Denise Kelly for their DS.

It’s not just DS roles that teams and Feds can involve riders in.  We have some great women’s teams owned and run by women – Kristy Scrymgeour’s Specialized-lululemon has been lighting up the podiums for the last two seasons, and Rochelle Gilmore‘s new Wiggle Honda has been a lot of fun to watch.  Scrymgeour, of course, used to run the PR/marketing/media for HTC men’s and women’s teams – while in the men’s peloton, the teams with the best excellent social media have women behind that success.  There are so many roles former riders could take up, and where Federations have links to both men’s and women’s trade teams, I’d love to see them help former riders stay in the sport.


Media and tv

As you can tell, from the fact Dan and I have a women’s cycling blog and podcast, and I blog in different places about the sport, and am on twitter, I’ve really interested in the role of “home made” media in sport.

I think the women’s peloton has such an incredibly diverse range of personalities and stories, it can be used to attract people into cycling in general.  I love how women riders do their own work to develop the sport, through blogs, tweets etc.  If I were a Federation, I’d publicise some of these – maybe a monthly round-up of rider’s own media, or regular spotlights.  The women’s races are so much fun, and there’s video out there of pretty much every race – so putting aside a bit of resource to collate some of that when riders do well in races would be an easy way to show what’s out there.  The bloggers do this in our own time, so we know this is something that is very achievable – you just need good bookmarks and twitter lists.  A Fed could send out a monthly newsletter of links, and that could be sent to the press lists – more media brings more interest brings more money, and publicising the riders’ own blogs helps them on lots of different levels.

This year I’ve been really impressed with how Cycling Australia have been publicising the National Road Series.  They’ve sent a single camera to the races, and combined showing the gorgeous locations the races take place in with letting the riders tell the stories – of what’s happened and what’s coming up.  These are all on their youtube, and this means people all over the world can follow them.  USA Cycling did a deal with the Tour Tracker, so their national championships were streamed live, with excellent commentary – so even if Feds aren’t as developed as the Italian or Dutch, whose nationals were shown live on tv, they still can help fans watch, in different ways.


Make sure there’s development in all communities

I recently wrote a blog about issues that worry me in cycling, and one thing I’m always bothered by is why cycling is so damn white, when Europe/the USA/what I know about Australia etc aren’t – and that “diversity” in the peloton is expected to come through internationalisation.

When I wrote about that, some British people tweeted me to say that this isn’t a problem with British Cycling, it’s that Black & Minority Ethnic Communities (BME) in the UK are poor, and that’s why GB, with 11% Black and Asian population, can only find white cyclists, because it’s a sport that requires a lot of money.  I found it really hard to respond to this argument calmly, on a number of levels.

Firstly, while there are issues about some BME communities and deprivation, I absolutely know that there are very definitely middle class BME people, and not all Black people are poor!  But even if this wasn’t the case, I am NOT happy with the idea that national funding to support sports rules out kids who aren’t from wealthy families – and the fact some cycling fans seem to suggest it’s ok baffles me.

It’s also strange in terms of what it means in the history of cycling.  It’s traditionally been a working class sport in Europe, a route out of poverty etc, and we’re not talking about the costs of, eg, horse riding.  Sport all over Europe manages to involve and engage children and young people from all communities, so why is cycling different?  If there are kids with talent, the cost of providing them with a bike is surely a great thing for Federations to do, not just from reasons of equality, but because if they’re ignoring kids because they don’t have money, they’re potentially ignoring future Worlds and Olympic champions.

I don’t want there to be any kind of colour bar in the sport I love, or any kind of bars due to family wealth, social class etc.  I would hope that Federations have policies to ensure that ALL communities are given ways into the sport, and diversity in all forms is a major goal.

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