Home > cycling, Research, women's cycling > An incomplete list of British Cycling’s issues with women riders

An incomplete list of British Cycling’s issues with women riders

This week there’s been tons in the news about British Cycling and discrimination, particularly relating to allegations of sexism, saying a rider’s too old to race at 25, and most recently, discrimination against para-cyclists.  This started when British Cycling talked to the Telegraph about dropping sprinter Jess Varnish from the programme – which wasn’t a surprise, as she had voiced her frustrations about how BC had handled the Team Sprint, when GB failed to qualify at the 2016 Track World Championships.  Varnish’s issue then was the choices BC had made about the teams they put into races for the Olympic Qualifying period, and so BC’s sacking her was expected at the time.

She then responded, and what was surprising is that she’s alleged to have been told to “go off and have a baby”, and that at 25 she’s too old to improve.  It was followed by British Cycling’s Performance Director, Shane Sutton, denying that in the media – and some great pieces by former Olympic and World Champions Nicole Cooke and Victoria Pendleton speaking out in defense of Varnish, Varnish’s official statement, and an interview talking about a ‘culture of fear‘ at BC, an interesting comment from Lizzie Armitstead, a piece on the MTB issues from Jenny Copnall and then (Daily Mail link) Para-cyclist Darren Kenny and “multiple sources” talking about offensive language and behaviour towards Para-cyclists – which lead to Sutton’s suspension, and then resignation.

Update! Olympic Champion Rebecca Romero also talked about the toxic velodrome atmosphere

So that’s this week! But this is very much part of a pattern.  While big name men like Bradley Wiggins have come out defending Sutton, and track superstar Laura Trott doing the same, this is part of a LONG pattern of top-name women talking about their bad experiences with British Cycling and their approach to women’s cycling (whether they use the word “sexism” or not), and Shane Sutton.

While the mainstream media is focusing on the discriminatory language, the issues go much deeper, and the really surprising thing is that BC have got away with dismissing allegations for so long – of course the mainstream media are more interested because it’s an Olympic year, but there’s nothing this week I haven’t heard before.  In fact, for anyone getting anxious about what this will do to the British Rio track squad’s hopes, the question has to be “Why didn’t British Cycling investigate any of this earlier?”.

To illustrate, I’ve pulled together some of the issues that have been reported in the press in recent years. These are not everything – and I’d very much appreciate it if you can think of more, from any side – tell me in the comments, or on twitter and I’ll edit things in, with full credit (or not, if you’d prefer).  I’m not including riders who don’t have problems with with BC – and I’m not presenting this as evidence of sexism, just of the pattern that I think needed to be addressed years ago, of British Cycling dealing badly with elite women cyclists, and similar issues being raised over the years, especially around the women’s road programme being treated very differently to the men’s.  I’m including British Cycling media responses where I can find them, to show the public reactions.

Of course, I don’t want to dismiss riders who’ve had good experiences with Sutton and British Cycling because it seems like when his and the BC style works for a rider, and they’re doing well, it’s great for them.  That’s just as legit as riders having problems, and there are also of examples  of riders saying “it’s fine for me”, that I’d never dispute.  And although I roll my eyes and get frustrated when some men say they’ve never seen any sexism, so therefore it can’t exist, I completely understand that that could feel true for them, because people who haven’t thought about social issues in depth, or are benefiting from their privilege, can genuinely miss things – and people can genuinely not have witnessed things, if they weren’t around when they happened.

And I want to also praise Varnish for going public while she still very much wants to race, because it’s a horrible situation.  I know some riders worry that if they speak up, they’ll lose their chance to race at Rio, or World Champs – and I’ve heard rumours of Non Disclosure Agreements being part of BC contracts, and being signed post-career.  And I completely understand that lots of people wouldn’t want to put themselves in the line of fire, especially not in the media.

Finally, there are Daily Mail links in here.  I’m sorry about that, I try not to link them, but in this case they’re breaking the stories, and that’s impressive.

So, in no particular order…

Nicole Cooke

Cooke was the dominant rider of the early 2000s, becoming the first cyclist to win the Olympics and World Champs road races in the same year in 2008. Hopefully you’ll have read her piece in the Guardian responding to Varnish’s allegations, but if you know anything about Cooke. you’ll know this isn’t the first time she’s said anything about BC.  Her greatest hits include:

In those, Cooke talks about being labeled “difficult”, and that gets mentioned a lot in counter-pieces, eg this  from 2011, with Sutton siding with Armistead in a dispute with Cooke.  Sutton told he BBC Cooke “did not cope with success” in 2012 and has praise and criticism for Cooke in this BBC article from 2013.


Lizzie Armitstead

Current Road World Champion, and the most successful 2016 road racer, Armitstead may have disagreed with Cooke, but she’s also had tons to say about British Cycling over the years, including


Emma Pooley

Pooley is a former Time Trial World Champion, who’s also won all kinds of great palmares, including Road World Cups and the Tour de l’Aude Grand Tour.  She has a fantastic turn of phrase, and is great for journalists as she’ll answer all kinds of questions, which has got her into trouble over the years.  Pooley and British Cycling interactions include:

Update!  Pooley talked in the press about the lack of Team Sky again this week, and one BC rider wasn’t happy:



Victoria Pendleton

Pendleton’s another British history maker.  She won 8 World Championship titles and 2 Olympic golds, and rode with Varnish.  Of course Pendleton spoke about Sutton this week, but this was just part of her history of talking about British Cycling, which includes

  • Her book,  Between the Lines, talked a lot about British Cycling, including their reaction to her relationship with her coach (interviews around the book in the Guardian)
  • Sutton’s comments on how he feels disappointed by Pendleton this week, including talking about decorating her house at 3am, and how “I’ve held her in my arms in the track centre when she has capitulated”

Shane Sutton talked about both Cooke’s and Pendleton’s books in this edition of the Telegraph Cycling podcast, in 2014.  And in 2013, the then head of British Cycling, Brian Cookson, responded to a question about Pendleton, Cooke, Pooley and Armitstead’s issues, in a Guardian interview (I wrote about that interview at the time).


Sharon Laws

Laws came late to racing, and there was controversy when she wasn’t selected for the 2012 Olympics, (I asked her about that in this interview) and then in 2014 where she wasn’t selected to race the 2014 Road World Championships, despite already being there to race the Team Time Trial (including in articles above)


Dani King

King’s another rider who was dropped from the BC track team, and then was controversially not selected to race last year’s Road World Championships, again despite being already there to race the TTT.  She spoke about that here.


Katie Archibald

Archibald was criticised by Sutton in the press over her 2015 motorbike accident – and defended by riders including Laura Trott and Jason Kenny (it’s important to stress that BC’s issues with riders aren’t just for the women – Kenny hinted about being treated like children, and BMX rider Tre Whyte is fighting to be able to race the BMX Worlds).  Archibald wote about how she felt about the press coverage.


Aileen McGlynn

Three-time Paralympic gold medallist McGlynn won two medals in the 2012 Paralympics in 2012, then was dropped from British Cycling in 2013 and she says this is because she was considered too old to win medals at 40  (video interview about her losing the funding).  She had to self-fund to get to the 2014 Commonwealth Games – including getting a racing tandem from Glasgow Museums, which was later part of an exhibition at the Riverside Museum – and went on to win two silver medals, but she retired last year, saying that it’s partly because she can’t compete at World Championships without being part of BC


Wendy Houvenaghel

Back in the 2012 Olympics, Wendy Houvenaghel was very critical of British Cycling not letting her ride in the velodrome, though she was part of the Team Pursuit squad, so she couldn’t get a medal with the rest of Team GB, and specifically mentions Sutton. 9Thanks to Chris Garrison for links)


Junior and u23 European Road Championships

For years, British Cycling has had a policy of not sending women’s teams, or only sending tiny teams, to the European Junior and u23 World Championships.  These give valuable experience of racing at international level, and the u23 Champion gets an automatic, extra spot in the elite Road World Championships.  I can’t find media articles about this, but it’s a huge disadvantage to British junior riders, and feels unfair when their equivalent men’s teams are allowed to race.  I’ve heard rumours, unsubstantiated, that this year, the junior women’s team will only be sent to one of the European or World Championships, but won’t be allowed to race both.



The MTB issue are different, in that it seems problematic across genders, especially in regards Olympic qualification (or lack of it) – but it seems to be a big problem.  Superstar Tracy Moseley hasn’t been the only rider to ask things like this

Jenny Copnall

Copnall has been part of a group of riders campaigning to get British Cycling to let the national champion race MTB Worlds (the statement’s at the bottom of her column about BC this week for Singletrack and includes Copnall talking about being told to break UCI rules at MTB World Champs – she talked about this back in 2007 too)


Sally Bigham

“Iron Sally” is a Marathon MTB superstar – she had a really good interview in Privateer magazine in 2013 where she talks about how she disagrees with how British Cycling treat riders, and their lack of budget for basic equipment in Marathon Worlds.

Update!  It’s now online.


Big thanks to Dan, who helped me with googling, when my google-fu broke – and to my Patreon supporters, who fund me to do this kind of thing – you can join them too from as little as £/€/$ 2 a month!

  1. Mark Bentley
    April 29, 2016 at 8:38 am

    A depressing read but like you I was not especially surprised by the allegations.
    A couple of extra points to add to the list:
    1. Didn’t Lizzie Armitstead speak out about sexism in the sport when she won her silver medal at London 2012. I am not sure if she mentioned BC in particular.
    2. Wendy Houvenaghel was quoted in the print version of the Telegraph this week with some choice words about Shane Sutton. I think (sorry I don’t have the paper in front of me) she was quoted as describing him as a “narcissistic little bully”, hardly complimentary!

    Also as you have referred to above, British team selection for the road teams at Olympics and Worlds is rarely based solely on performance and, something that picked up in your interview with Stef Wyman, was the lack of apparent communication between him and British Cycling.

    For an organisation that trumpets marginal gains it is odd that a DS who has managed teams including most of the endurance track squad doesn’t speak to him. Where are these marginal gains for the women?

    On a happier note I will be in Otley tomorrow to see the start of the Tour de Yorkshire. Should be great to see Lizzie wearing her stripes and Emma Pooley making a comeback.

  2. Monty
    April 29, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    I’m impressed that there’s that much of a paper trail, since I mostly remember BC just doing as little as possible, then responding with a really bland quote if anyone did bother asking their press office. What I’d love to see (and I don’t know how accessible any of this info is although you might know people who have some bits of it to hand and would willingly supply it if asked) is a simple table, going back say the last decade or so, showing the major championships, that’s I guess Worlds, Europeans, and Commonwealth Games, at all levels, in all the disciplines that BC is meant to represent, and for both sexes, listing what the maximum potential team size was, how many Britain actually qualified, and how many they actually sent. Maybe even a breakdown of the last into how many had their trip paid for by BC and how many didn’t if you really want to highlight the inequalities, but I doubt you’ll find a source for that.

    • Sarah Connolly
      May 1, 2016 at 3:48 pm

      You’re not the first person to suggest that table, Monty – civetta did too, so if I have time this week, I’ll pull it together. How far back, do you think? 2008?

      Re payments – I know Stefan Wyman offered to pay to take a team to Euros one year, & BC said no, so I guess anyone who goes, goes under their banner and payment – I bet we’d have seen riders paying their own way if they could….

      PS Always great to see you turn up on the blog – I often think about you, and miss your insights and great conversation!

      • Monty
        May 1, 2016 at 9:51 pm

        I’d suggest that rather than wading trying to find that info, you instead put out a call on one of your podcasts, or blogs, or even on twitter for people to send you (anonymously of course) anything that they can remember. Then we can just mess around trying to fill in the gaps. The alternative of course is an FOI request, and let BC do it for you. Which would be even funnier if it worked, but they probably wouldn’t reply for a year or so.

        (And I hope to be around a bit more in the future than I have the past couple of years. Thanks for the sentiments.)

      • Sarah Connolly
        May 1, 2016 at 10:36 pm

        Actually, they have to reply to an FoI within 20 working days – that’s a bloody good idea. I can even make the template and ask them to fill it in for me. And having spent time last year in a temp job chasing after FoI things that were urgent and chaotic, it could be a bit of karma to send a perfectly formatted and laid out one, and get it back. There is the slight problem that BC have never ever replied to one of my emails, but it’s amazing what the words “Freedom of Information” do…

        (I was going to go via the Euro Cycling Union website, and results pages… But this seems super-easy – and I guess if they say they don’t have the information, and I can search it out online in a couple of annoying hours, that makes a good article too, right?)

        Anyway, I hope all is well with you, and everything’s great in your world. You taught me so much, and made me laugh so much, and I’ll always appreciate you.

  3. Julez
    April 30, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Nice work on the compilation, Sarah.
    Regarding your not wanting to link to the Daily Mail (and I don’t blame you), I use Do Not Link: https://skeptools.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/do-not-link-donotlink-ethically-criticize-seo-nofollow/
    Hope that comes in useful for you.

    • Sarah Connolly
      May 1, 2016 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks so much – that’s super-useful

  1. May 2, 2016 at 12:31 am
  2. May 6, 2016 at 3:43 pm

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