Racing to Equality

An extract from Kicking Off by Sarah Shephard

“I asked renowned cycling journalist and author Richard Moore for his view on Team Sky’s reluctance to get involved in women’s cycling, as someone who has spent much time in the company of Brailsford and co. He tells me he is less surprised than most by the non-appearance of a women’s Team Sky, asking: ‘Why would they sponsor a women’s team when there isn’t, or hasn’t been, a very healthy women’s scene? If I was a sponsor getting into cycling, I wouldn’t sponsor a women’s team.

‘Having said that, if Sky’s mission is not just about winning the Tour de France but also about encouraging people to ride bikes and promoting the sport, then it’s hard to understand why they don’t have a women’s team.’

Where Moore does see signs of positivity is in the creation of the Women’s Tour, which was launched in Britain in 2014 by sports events and marketing company SweetSpot Group. The inaugural race secured sponsorship from Friends Life, was televised on ITV4 and Eurosport and was deemed an overwhelming success, with huge crowds turning out to line the route throughout the five-day Tour.

SweetSpot’s Director, Guy Elliott, believes that elite women’s cycling was a sport that had been ‘neglected both domestically and internationally’, and that having a standalone Women’s Tour in the UK was a big step towards putting that right. He says: ‘When you look at women’s sport, from the minute women enter adolescence they are treated as second best. One of the agendas we want to wrap around our Women’s Tour is that they’re not second best, so they should be treated in their own right as athletes.’

Richard Moore agrees that the Women’s Tour could be ‘a real game changer’ in terms of bringing in sponsors for teams, telling me: ‘If it’s televised every year and there continue to be the huge crowds, then if I was a sponsor with half a million pounds, I would probably think it is worth doing for that. You need those flagship events first before you can get sponsors coming in wanting to be involved.

emma pooley

Image by Peter Trimming from Croydon, England – Emma Pooley, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20514373

‘Sponsors get involved in sport because there’s something in it for them. Trying to persuade them to back a team because they should do it or for politically correct reasons are not very good ways of selling a sport. You have to give them a better commercial reason for doing it and I think that’s slowly what is happening.’

Another race that launched in 2014 with the aim of getting women’s cycling back on the map was La Course. A circuit race contested over 13 laps (91 kilometres), La Course takes place on the morning of the final stage of the men’s Tour de France and on the same stretch of Paris tarmac where the men end their own race later that day. It was the result of a determined effort from a group of professional female cyclists calling themselves Le Tour Entier (meaning ‘The Entire Tour’), who decided the time for change had come and launched a petition for the return of a women’s Tour de France. While the UCI remained adamant that a full Tour remained a logistic impossibility, La Course was deemed a sign that their attitude to women’s cycling was starting to change.

In an essay for the Independent newspaper ahead of the inaugural running of La Course, one of Le Tour Entier’s members, Britain’s own Emma Pooley, wrote that, ‘A women’s Tour next year would be an impossible leap: the media coverage, fan base, sponsorship and professionalism of the women’s sport has to develop gradually. But La Course is a radical step change in that development.’

While the race isn’t the most challenging circuit on the women’s calendar (apart from in the pouring rain when the surface becomes dangerously slippery, as happened in 2015), and doesn’t bring the winner anything as tangible as a jersey, a title, or a medal, it is of huge significance to female riders for one single reason: audience. The Tour de France is watched by millions worldwide, and thanks to its scheduling on the same day as the men’s race arrives in Paris, La Course is televised in 157 countries, giving it a greater reach than any women’s road race has ever had (except perhaps for the Olympic road race). For team sponsors, it’s the sort of shop window they might never have expected women’s cycling could offer.

Now two years old, the La Course effect is starting to take shape. In 2015 the second edition again featured one of the season’s strongest line-ups of teams and riders, while the prize money (£4,250 to the winner and £16,000 overall) was one of the highest on offer in women’s cycling. The success of the event is also starting to have a domino effect. In 2015 9781472913838the men’s Tour of Spain (the Vuelta) included its own La Course for the first time after race organisers Unipublic agreed to host La Course by La Vuelta on Madrid’s central boulevard, the Paseo de la Castellana on the final day of the men’s race. So it appears as though more eyes are being opened to the fact that women’s cycling has as much to offer as men’s.”

Kicking Off: How Women in Sport Are Changing the Game by Sarah Shephard is available to buy now at discount.

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