On women’s cycling and the Hour record

Sometimes I drink a glass or two of wine and argue on twitter all night.  I KNOW, you’d never have guessed, but last night I waded into talking about the Hour record.  I’m clearly in a huge minority in not finding the Hour compelling viewing, or even interesting.  I guess it’s because of Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree , and the fact when I think of the Hour, I think of capricious rule changes and people achieving it and then having it wiped out, or people achieving it and being done for doping, and it’s bad enough when I can’t remember who won the Tour de France when, because of doping bans and such, but when records are set and then struck off because “we don’t like that position”, I just can’t get excited.  Plus, when it comes to track racing, my least favourite disciplines are the Individual Pursuit and kilo/500m qualifying rounds, that’s just my taste.

BUT I have found out I’m in a minority here – people who love the Hour LOVE it. Apparently the viewing figures are phenomenal and there’s guaranteed tv coverage forever for it (I doubt that last one, but journos and tv folk keep telling me it’s true, so…).  And I need to stress, if any rider wants to go for it, absolutely they should – if they want to put in the training, get the velodrome paid for etc, do it.  But what really rubs me up the way is guys (and it’s always guys) going on about “why aren’t women racing the Hour?”, “women should race the Hour”, and I want to talk about that in more than 140 characters.

1. “Women should”.  I think a lot of the guys saying this, in those exact words, or different words, don’t know how they sound.  I guess they’re getting excited about something they’d love to see, but it comes across so often, especially the “why aren’t women doing this?” in a different way.  To me, it sounds chiding, like they’re suggesting women don’t know what’s good for them, and these guys know better than they do what they should prioritise.

This rubs me up the wrong way – of course if women WANT to go for the Hour, that’s great, but it’s not something that just happens – someone has to pay them to train for it, pay for the velodrome etc etc – and when they’re training for the Hour, they’re taking time away from other things, whether it’s from training for Olympic/road/track goals, making money in the off-season (because unlike the men like Jens Voigt, the average domestique isn’t making a nice fortune out of racing) or just having recovery time.  I trust the riders to make their own decisions in this, if they make that choice, awesome, but it makes me frown, hearing guys implying the women are making the wrong decisions.

2. “Marianne Vos should”.  I’ve seen a lot of guys suggesting Vos should go for the Hour, and this one really confuses me, because Vos isn’t the rider I’d pick to crush Leontien van Moorsel’s Hour record – I’d pick a rider like Ellen van Dijk.  Vos needs recovery opportunities, and to change her position a lot, long time trials are her weak spot, but even more importantly, Vos is already doing a TON of work for women’s cycling.  When I see guys saying “Vos should”, it’s along the lines of saying she should because she’d bring a ton of publicity into women’s cycling.

This is so frustrating to me!  Last week Vos was in London, and over four days, she was at a round-table, talking about women’s cycling to an audience who applied through twitter, raced the Revolution track meet, and hosted a ride for women, again, who applied to ride with her online.  That got a ton of publicity – every cycling outlet I’ve come across has an “interview” (can’t tell if they got 1-on-1 time, or are reporting from press conferences) with her from this.  But even more importantly, there are so many great photos and happy tweets from real people loving riding, delighted to ride with this superstar.  Vos does a huge amount of work for women’s cycling, and it’s weird to me to see guys suggesting she’s not got her priorities right.

(I’m being asked “But Sarah, would it be different if it was women saying it?”.  I don’t know, I’m only seeing guys doing this “they should” thing, and they’re far more strident about it than when they say “Wiggins would be great at this” or “I’d love to see Fabian go for it”.  It’s so often phrased as “why aren’t they?” rather than ” wouldn’t it be brilliant if”.  The Hour record isn’t something that is zero cost, and I am interested in why it seems like so many guys feel like they know what’s best for the sport than women riders.  It could be a cultural thing, or a 140 characters thing – guys saying “Why don’t they do it?”, the UCI president saying he wants to see women do this, and they’re meaning “I’d be super-excited to see this happen, I hope some sponsor steps up and fund this”, while I (and others!  it’s not just me!) hear what they’re saying as “why aren’t women prioritising this thing I want to see, over their own goals”, and this isn’t happening in a cultural vacuum.  If it was phrased as “why doesn’t someone pay for this and make it worth women’s while?” I might feel a lot better about it all)

3. It’s either an achievement or it’s not.  One of the things I don’t understand is how the some of the same guys are saying it’s a huge achievement, you get into the record books etc, and when I ask who pays for training, say “oh but Voigt and Brändle did it at the end of the season, you don’t need to train”.  I genuinely don’t understand this.  Is it an amazing record that really means something, or is it something you do on the way out to retirement?

4. What are the rules, anyway?  Brian Cookson was on twitter last night saying he wants to see a woman race the Hour, and as a couple of people have pointed out, this contradicts what he’s said about it – he’s been explicit in saying the Hour only counts if riders are under the Biological Passport system of doping control – and the women aren’t under this.  I always wish there was more drugs testing for women, especially when yesterday we saw that the Brazilian women’s elite and u23 champions were banned for EPO use.  So would the rules be different for women?  Would the UCI let women or Para-cyclists into the passport system for the Hour?  If they did, why would they have more stringent drugs testing for this thing that has no real impact on cycling than they would on the racing?

OK, I should probably explain what’s the background to my feelings about this.

5. The idea there’s a ton of money that should be spent on the Hour.  This is really getting to me, and I admit I’m never going to be happy about it.  There’s an idea that there’s a big pile of cash just lying around to spend on women going for the Hour, and it makes a huge amount of of money.  I have to admit, I don’t understand the thinking behind this.  I spent too long arguing about the Hour last night, and I still don’t know who Mattias Brändle, who just broke the record, rides for (I just had to look up his first name even!).  Cycling media couldn’t spell his name right even while he was riding! But there’s this idea that “the Hour makes money”, and that teams have this cash lying around to spend on it.

I am dubious about this.  The women’s side notoriously doesn’t have the same money as the men’s.  We hear, all the time, that there’s not enough money to pay women minimum wages, or even a salary.  Races say they can’t afford to pay women anywhere near the same amount for, I dunno, winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen, as they pay men.  Top teams find it hard to find sponsors – and here’s where I admit I’ll never be satisfied, because if there are people waving giant chequebooks around (or whatever the modern equivalent is), why can’t they pay women better for the actual racing?  Why are media types telling me the tv coverage is guaranteed, when no one will show highlights of races like the Giro Rosa, or next week’s Track World Cup on tv?   I have to admit, the idea that the Hour would get tv, but incredible races that mean things to riders’ careers don’t, is depressing.

5. Why people are happy to argue with me all day on this, but ignore big issues.  I know this is unfair of me, people can definitely think about more than one thing at a time – BUT it’s so frustrating watching guys talk and talk and talk about women and the Hour rather than the wider issues in women’s cycling.  There are tons of guys who told me over and over how I’m wrong about all this – but when I tweet about, for example, how riders from Estado de Mexico-Faren allegedly only got paid their contracted wages for four months of the year, and can’t talk about it publicly yet because they’re still trying to get the money, I don’t get anywhere near the same reaction.  When Sue Powell and I ask why the UCI publicise the latest Hour attempt being held in their Aigle velodrome, but can’t find a velodrome to hold a 2015 Track World Championships in in four months’ time, people says oh, but that’s a different issue.  It’s depressing that when I see Brian Cookson on twitter talking women’s cycling, it’s that he wants to see women race the Hour, or that their kits are unacceptable, but it’s not that eg the Faren situation is unacceptable and the UCI is working on making sure it won’t happen.  I know, that’s unfair of me too – he’s doing his best, when the media is looking at the Hour, to bring women into it too – but I guess this is my bottom-line frustration.  The Hour is a side-show, something Voigt did as punctuation for his career, with no cash prize, no relevance to the big goals of the sport, and it gets this huge conversation, but these big issues are widely ignored.

Now, I know that’s unfair too – as my podcast-partner Dan says, it’s much easier to talk about something like the Hour for hours (heh) than it is to try to fix the issues like lack of pay.  And hell, of course everyone believes riders should be paid contracted wages, or paracyclists should be able to race, I know a lot of my followers are nodding when they read that, but don’t feel they have anything to add.  I know it’s not a zero sum game, that talking about one thing means you can’t talk about other things – but this is the background all these conversations take place in – and I genuinely believe that the more people who talk about the issues, the less they can be ignored, and that we can effect change.

So when people say “why don’t women…?”, “why doesn’t Vos…?”, I react in the context of all of this.  IF women want to go for the Hour, awesome, I’ll support them all the way, but I hope, dear reader, you understand why I’m not ever going to prioritise this, or see it as anything other than a sideshow, and get frustrated when it sounds like people are telling women riders what they should be focusing on,

(Who do I think would be good from the women’s peloton at setting a new Hour?  Ellen van Dijk, Lisa Brennauer, Sarah Storey, IF they wanted to.  Knowing our luck though, the rider who’ll do it will be Anna Solovey…)


6 thoughts on “On women’s cycling and the Hour record

  1. I was part of the debate last night with Sarah and like her this requires more than 140 characters. To put my reply into context I run a sports marketing and management agency specialising in cycling, so i’m always likely to look at things like this through that lens.

    First of all let’s talk about the ‘hour record’ itself. Simply put it’s one of those things that comes in and out of vogue, but due to it’s historical significance it always gets fans excited, even though it can be a pretty dull spectacle to watch. Currently it’s in vogue thanks to the UCI clarifying the rules and there being a number of high profile male cyclists expressing their interest to go for it. Not surprisingly because of this, and there now having been two attempts by men in the last few months, some people are asking when will we see a current female pro cyclist have a crack at Leontien van Moorsel’s record.

    So taking Sarah’s points, here are my counters or not as the case may be.

    “Women should” – Firstly, this is up to the athlete. No athlete is going to do this unless it fits into their schedule and doesn’t compromise the ‘day’ job whether that be as a road cyclist or a track cyclist. Men saying “women should do it” I believe are simply just expressing their excitement of the prospect of seeing it (the ‘hour’ has a big fan base as mentioned above) and aren’t saying it in a condescending way. Therefore the point here is one clearly of interpretation and not much else in my opinion.

    “Vos should” – As Sarah says she probably isn’t best suited to it and does do loads of other stuff to promote the sport as well, but again because women’s cycling doesn’t have as strong a road TT scene as the men where riders can have a career out of being a tester it is natural for people to gravitate to Vos as the biggest name in the sport. To put this into context the Revolution track meet last weekend built it’s whole schedule and marketing campaign around “Vos vs Trott” in a track omnium. Now anyone with any knowledge of the sport knew Marianne was going to get a kicking from Laura, and she did (Laura won all 6 events!), but did the thousands that came to watch care, no. What they loved was seeing two stars of the sport going head to head i.e. it was a PR side show, and a very successful and financially lucrative one for Vos and Trott at that.

    “It’s either an achievement or it’s not” – Simply it is, it’a World Record at the end of the day if you do it, and a very iconic one at that. How athletes approach it is down to them, but for riders in the middle of their careers it’s never going to be their no. 1 goal, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go for it, in the same way that every race isn’t your no. 1 priority.

    “What are the rules anyway” – We can argue until the cows come home what they should be, but at least the UCI has now spelt them out. With regards to the bio passport rule that needs clarification for the women’s attempts.

    “There’s a ton of money to be spent on it” and “the hour makes money” – Facts are that it isn’t costly to put the hour record on. In effect there are two costs, venue hire and TV production. The Newport Velodrome in South Wales cost £86 an hour to hire exclusively and it has capacity to seat 500 spectators. Therefore even a nominal spectator fee would cover costs. With regards to TV production costs they’re probably in the region of £10k but the broadcaster, most likely Eurosport would cover some if not all of that.

    In isolation any hour record doesn’t make money, but it follows the same model as professional road cycling in that in effect you are creating a showcase for the trade team’s sponsors, and here’s the crux. Jens Voigt’s attempt as well as being broadcast live on Eurosport received 20 million views via Trek Factory Racing’s website!! When you equate that into the value the Trek brand got (let alone the Jens Voigt brand) from that hour we are talking big, big, bucks, and it blows any costs out of the water. The ‘hour’ therefore probably has a higher return on investment for it’s sponsors than any other pro cycling event!

    So this is why I think it would be fantastic for women’s cycling. Currently we are not blessed with hours an hours of live TV coverage to showcase these fantastic athletes, and here’s an event that is currently in vogue, with promoters already saying they want to put it on, that would provide a return to sponsors of that athletes team that’s currently unheard of in women’s cycling. Yes, essentially what we are saying is that the ‘hour’ is a glorified PR exercise, but it always has been, and a fantastic one at that.

  2. As one of “the guys” what I said was:

    Hey @iamspecialized – Trek & Scott got an hour of unbroken coverage from hour record rides. Get @ellenvdijk on a Shiv for the women’s record

    What I would have liked to say was:

    Hey @iamspecialized – you published a press release saying that your were scaling back your sponsorship of Velocio so you can build a deep relationship with Boels-Dolman, and you said that means you were making a big investment in women’s cycling (even though it kinda looks like scaling back). Put your money where your mouth is. You have a great time trialist in @ellenvdijk. Wouldn’t it be super-duper-cool in 2015 to see her take the hour record on the women’s side, and Cancellara do it on the men’s side, all on your bikes?

    I couldn’t fit that in 140 characters.

  3. Simply put Sarah, you’re far too focused on what men are saying/doing about women’s sport. Instead, you should focus on how to make your sport, women’s cycling, more marketable. Ultimately the market will be the determining factor on whether your sport is successful, I would do everything necessary to make it so.

    • Well, I have my women’s cycling website, paid writing on various cycling sites and in magazines, my tumblr, my podcast and my twitter, but of course, if you have suggestions for how I should focus more on women’s cycling, I’d be very interested to hear them.

  4. I saw only a ripple from this conversation on Twitter and assumed the conversation was about some twerp saying women SHOULDN’T attempt the Hour for whatever reason, so it is nice to read this a few weeks later and be illuminated.

    I’ve been frustrated by Twifosi chatter lately–it drifts all too easily into this kind of lecturing or accusatory tone. I’m sure a lot of the guys saying women should attempt the Hour meant something more nuanced or hadn’t thought these issues through. But I’m just as sure a few of them are in the same lot that seems to think they can smell EPO in bloodstreams and that marketing works like The f—ing Secret, and I for one have no more patience for them.

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