Suze Clemitson on the Aviva Women’s Tour
It’s fair to say that, in Britain, we love our Golden Girls. Women like Nicole Cooke, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott have all ridden to Olympic glory. And when Lizzie Armitstead battled Marianne Vos on a rain sodden Mall in 2012 it ignited interest in the sport like never before. For the multitude of spectators who had been underwhelmed by the men’s road race it was a light bulb moment. Lizzie Armitstead, who lost out on Gold that extraordinary day, has emerged as the best rider – male or female – in the world in 2016 and hot favourite for the women’s road race in Rio. And those huge crowds, that massive support has never diminished.
If you want bang for your buck in terms of exciting, attacking bike racing then you need to get out onto the UK roadside in June and follow the Aviva Women’s Tour. Created in 2014, it’s already regarded as one of the best women’s races on the calendar and alongside the women’s Tour de Yorkshire – which boasts the richest purse in the sport, even surpassing the Tour de France’s La Course – it’s spearheading a renaissance in women’s cycling.
The new women’s World Tour calendar – of which the Aviva Women’s Tour is one of the jewels in the crown, earning the highest ranking – is bringing the sport to a bigger audience than ever before through better TV coverage and live streaming. But women’s cycling needs more – more sponsorship, more high quality racing and more exposure. When the promised start to finish coverage of the Tour de Yorkshire failed to materialise there was widespread disappointment. The appetite is there to change the cycle from a vicious to a virtuous one.
When I was interviewing women for Ride the Revolution I rapidly became aware of how much frustration there is at the lack of proper recognition for women’s cycling and how much passion there is for this beautiful sport. Women ride for love and for fun, as Roxanna Knetemann so simply and perfectly puts it. But I was struck by something Bob Stapleton – who ran the hugely successful HighRoad men’s and women’s cycling teams – once said: “Our values started with our women’s team. Women, in general, won’t get rich by racing, so they put a higher value on the work environment and how they feel as part of the team.”
Marianne Vos, the Dutch star who is one of the greatest riders ever to race a bike, strongly believes that men’s and women’s teams need to co-exist – to train together, learn from each other and share resources – to raise the profile of her sport. She wants to finish her career on the toughest cobbles in the world, riding a women’s Paris-Roubaix. Vos, like Britain’s Golden Girls, embodies all that is best in women’s cycling: intelligence, attack, fighting spirit. The sport has worked hard to be attractive to sponsors, on a sound professional footing for the teams involved and entertaining for the fans.
But anyone can ride the revolution – sign up for Strava and compete against everyone from your next door neighbour to the cream of the women’s peloton, or join a Breeze ride catering for women of all abilities and fitness levels. Bike manufacturers like Trek run regular ‘Ladies Nights’ to encourage women to get more active in all aspects of cycling from riding to bike maintenance. And there are more of us out on our bikes than ever before – training, commuting or simply for fun and fitness – given confidence and encouragement by the exploits of our homegrown cycling stars.
Yes there are still issues and problems confronting the sport, as the latest revelations of sexism at British Cycling confirm. That professional women riders continue to overcome being treated as second class athletes to produce world class performances is testament to their mental toughness and commitment to succeed. And the landscape is changing as parity in prize money and quality coverage becomes the norm not the exception. Looking back on Ride the Revolution I can see how much has already changed for the better. Of course there’s still a long way to travel – the fight for wage equality continues – but the news that emerges from the women’s sport is ever more positive. We’ve come a long way since Beryl Burton – arguably the greatest women’s cyclist ever – could complain “I was a double world champion in an international sport and it might as well have been the ladies darts final down at the local.”
There may not be a woman’s Tour de France – yet. But the Aviva Women’s Tour does a brilliant job of showcasing women’s cycling at its very best. And if you don’t believe me, go and see for yourself – it’s a brilliant day out, cheering on some of the toughest, most dedicated and talented athletes in the world.
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