On pitchforks, patience, demand, and the Tour Down Under

We’re at the first stage race of 2017, the Santos Women’s Tour, and it’s time for the first women’s cycling polemica of the season.  It’s a familiar cry, “why can’t we see more of the racing?”, with a lot of people going further, with “why can’t we watch live?”, and the familiar response that seems to chide fans for wanting more.  I have feelings about this, as you can imagine.

Let’s start with some background.  The Santos Women’s Tour (SWT) is a four-stage race alongside the men’s Tour Down Under – two crits, and two road races (one under 80km long).  It’s the first UCI road race of 2017, and has a great field that have been Down Under for winter sunshine, training camps, non-UCI races like the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic and the Aussie Road Nationals, as well as the UCI-ranked Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race on 28th January.  It’s always exciting, seeing the teams in their new iterations (and new kits), and with the loss of the Tour de San Luís and the Ladies Tour of Qatar, the status has risen.

Now, although it’s nominally part of the Tour Down Under, they have different race organisers, though the sponsor, website and social media present them as two sides of the same coin – and the races are both owned by South Australian Government, which has used the Santos Women’s Tour as evidence of their commitment to promote women’s sport.  So it’s a surprise to see the men’s and women’s races treated differently.  The Pre-TDU People’s Choice Classic, the men’s crit that’s on the same course and day as the SWT Stage 2 Crit, for example, was streamed live, with two highlights videos on the Tour Down Under YouTube (one 4:21 long, and the 1:19 finish video), plus a “fan cam”, and 1:57 long winner’s interview, while at this point there’s only a 1:47 long video covering Stages 1 & 2 of the women’s race combined.  For context, compare that to the 1:34 video of the Undies Run at the race.

Now, we are promised an hour-long highlights programme of the women’s race – but that would be shown until the first week of February, three weeks after the race is over, by which time cycling-attention will have moved away from Australia.  It’s a strange choice, to sit on footage for so long, an understandably hasn’t gone down well with fans.

In fact, looking at the cycling twitter, you’ll see a lot of dissatisfaction with the lack of coverage of the race, with a lot of people being super-disappointed that where we can see the men live, the women get bare minimum coverage.  Here are the first two paragraphs in an article on Cyclingnews about the state of the coverage, ‘Santos Women’s Tour leader Amanda Spratt calls for patience with progress’.

Broadcast options for the Santos Women’s Tour are limited to a one-hour highlights package on the fifth of February on Australia’s Nine Network, which means the first UCI women’s race of the season has been best followed in real time on Twitter. The official race feed (@SantosTDU_live), a handful of teams and a few journalists (including the author of this story) provide live race tweets for fans hoping for updates out of Australia.

Women’s cycling fans were quick to raise the pitchforks in response to this news. However, Santos Women’s Tour race leader Amanda Spratt called for patience with progress.

I don’t want to get into Spratt’s views here, because of course she has a right to think everything’s great (though I can also see why a rider might not want to criticise a race they’re winning).  However, I think it’s interesting that CN is defining the fan outrage as ‘raising the pitchforks’ – interesting, but not uncommon, and I want to talk about that.

***

Personally, I never expected the TDU to show the whole women’s race live, and I totally understand why they don’t, though of course I’d love to see it.  The arguments of cost, and broadcaster willingness etc are valid, to me, although I don’t understand how they still stand for SWT Stage 2, when there were already all the fixed cameras set up on the course, and the men’s Crit was live.  To me, not showing Stage 2 is an issue of will, as the infrastructure is right there, especially when YouTube, LiveStream and FaceBook make it easy to stream live events (the women’s and men’s Mitchelton Bay Crits, for example, were streamed live onto the SBS Cycling Central facebook, and you can find links to the replays here).

But what I don’t understand is the lack of any other meaningful highlights, or the scarcity of race social media.  I’ve worked on a number of different races now, so I’ve got first-hand experience of what’s possible (and the difficulties) – my expertise is livetweeting from a race/team car, but to me that should be the bare minimum level of provision.  It’s really easy to provide pre-, post- and in-race photos and quotes on twitter, putting up video of the race finish on twitter, or live on platforms like Periscope or Facebook, finish photos, audio and video interviews and so on.  None of this costs anything, except the time and battery of a person with a phone, and access to wifi.   And highlights are inexpensive too, these days.  I’m hugely grateful to ORICA-Scott, Wiggle High5, and Rapha for their films of Canyon-SRAM, each of whom have given us at least 5 minute clips of each stage on their YouTube, mostly put up same-day – but if teams can find the resource for these, I don’t understand how the race can’t.

To me, the biggest frustration that the discussion seems to be viewed as “all or nothing”, by people on both sides.  Much as I want it, I don’t expect to get every race live, though I’m definitely excited that last year we got more live women’s cycling than ever before.  I can understand why some races, with great highlights and media feel like they can’t win, if they’re bashed for not having the cash for the livestreaming, especially when they’re doing their best to persuade broadcasters themselves.  But equally, I’m exasperated when asking for more general coverage is countered with the arguments about the cost of live broadcast, because I will never believe I live in a Manichean, either/or world, where it’s either live racing or a clip of under 2 minutes covering 2 stages, especially when I am seeing so many more options from so many more races.

That “pitchforks” metaphor may just be unfortunately phrased, but I can’t tell you how many times people have told me on twitter, on the blog, in real life, that I am wrong to want more for women’s cycling.  And I never understand it.  When I first started talking about the sport, I was always told there wasn’t the demand for women’s racing to be shown, and now the demand is so clearly there, we’re chided for being impatient.  I have to admit, having this argument over, and over, and over again is exhausting me, and there are only so many times I can go round it before I throw up my hands and walk away.

But in the other hand, it’s also really important to see the demand in the context of where we are – 2017, the post-Olympic year.

Without a big racing event like the Tour de France, women’s road cycling is bound much more closely to the Olympics than the men’s side is.  And in my experience, the last three Olympic road races have bought in a huge swathe of new fans – 2016 was no exception, with the drama and disappointment of Annemiek van Vleuten crashing out of the lead, Mara Abbott being caught in the last kilometre, and the three-up sprint for a Dutch victory, despite AvV’s crash.  It had everything, and it’s no surprise that it’s brought a whole new wave of fans who want to see more of these amazing athletes.

These fans might be people who are used to men’s cycling, or they might be completely new to the sport, but that’s a lot of new voices asking why we can’t see the Santos Women’s Tour – and they deserve a meaningful response.  Telling a relatively old fan like me that I should be patient is one thing (though it’s always going to get a push back), but it’s less good for talking to people new to the sport, especially if they’re also fans of sports with more equity for women, like athletics, swimming, triathlon, skiiing, tennis, and on and on.  Cycling as a sport should be embracing these new fans, and welcoming their interest, and implying they shouldn’t want more than the minimum and be patient, or categorising them as raising the pitchforks, isn’t helpful.   And “Live TV is expensive” is a weird argument, when the Crit and the final men’s TDU stage are shown live – clearly a decision has been made to show them.

***

Now, when female Australian pro riders expressed disappointment and frustration with the fact that the coverage for the women’s Aussie Road Race National Championships was very much reduced, while the men’s race was broadcast live, they weren’t given this response in the cycling media, or online. I do understand that riders’ views are given more weight in cases like this, because they are the ones who are making the sacrifices for their careers.  However, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss fans’ views out of hand, and I’d love for the race organisers to address the issues being raised, and not just treat it as “it is what it is”.  I’d love the cycling media to ask harder questions, too, or at the very least, be sympathetic to the old and new fans alike.   I can see how they might think “Not this again” – but have some sympathy for the fact that if they’re bored of this conversation, ‘old’ fans are even more frustrated.

And of course, I love that Cyclingnews and Ella Cycling Tips are covering the race, with stories, interviews, photo galleries and more (please do click through those links, and show them you do too, and click on all the stories).  Big props, as I said, to all the teams giving us video, race reports, tweets – and thanks to Kirsty Baxter for her photos and Cyclingnews’ Jessi Braverman for the livetweets.

It’s going to be an interesting year.  We’ve lost some important races, which more importantly, were shown live – but race organisers need to brace themselves for the fact fans will be demanding more this year.  That 4-year-phenom of new fans who are eager to love the sport, and want to see the races, NOW!, combining with existing fans who’ve seen what other race can do, and have been told “be patient” for too long, means that the Santos Women’s Tour is the first race to face this response, but of course it won’t be the last.

And above all, this is a positive thing – all this demand!  When I first got into the sport, I was routinely told “no one’s interested in women’s cycling”, and wow, isn’t it wonderful to have all this proof that that’s not true?  There’s this huge audience out there, getting bigger all the time, and that’s wonderful for the sport.  Here’s hoping races can take all these opportunities, and use them to grow the sport.

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