It was a Sunday. I remember it well, because I had a distinct feeling of de ja vu.
Just the day before, the Olympics had kicked off and I spent what felt like the entire day with my family, planted in front of the television. The media had convinced themselves that it was a dead cert, but those who were in the know knew that there is no such thing in road cycling. And so everyone was devastated, when after 6 hours watching GB cycling give their all, Mark Cavendish missed out on the first Gold medal of the Games.
It was a particularly hard one to rationalise to some of my close Olympomaniac friends, who were already foaming at the mouth for medals. All they knew of road cycling was that Britain had just provided its first ever winner of the Tour de France. To lose the road race on British soil was unforgivable. You’d have thought that poor old Cav, surely more disappointed than the entire population put together, had committed high treason. No doubt BBC producers were absolutely gutted. Sue Barker’s eyes said it all – not anger, just palpable disappointment that the fairy tale start had not gone as planned.
With the men coming up short, the next day brought in many eyes the next best thing, the women’s race. The women’s road race, although over the same course was noticeably different. First, the number of entrants was markedly low compared to the men. 66 from 36 nations, instead of 144 from 63. Secondly, the competitors only had to go up Box Hill twice, instead of nine times. Thirdly, and most importantly, whereas the men’s race had been dull and tactically boring, the women’s race was full of individual attacks, punctures and crashes, and some seriously heavy rainfall. It was bloody brilliant. Lizzie Armitstead went on to win Britain’s first medal of the Games, a gutsy Silver.
It was quite clear, to anyone who had a brain what had just happened. Women had just provided an infinitely better sporting spectacle than their male counterparts. It was exciting, edge of the seat stuff. This led me to wonder – why hasn’t women’s cycling got a higher profile?
If I were to ask who the best cyclist of recent times is, before this doping scandal you might have said Lance Armstrong. Chris Hoy perhaps. Maybe even Wiggins? Armstrong’s successes were only ever in one event, not that that matters now, cheat as he is. Chris Hoy is amazing, there is no doubt about that, but his success is limited to the track. Wiggins has had success on both track and road, but his success cannot yet be defined as dominance.
The answer is of course, a woman. Marianne Vos, the Dutchwoman, has won a World Championship and an Olympic Gold medal on the track in the Points Race, a World Championship in the Scratch Race. On the road she has won two Giro d’Italia Femminile titles, a World Championship and the 2012 Olympic road race Gold. Oh yes, and she has won the World Championship in Cyclo-cross (a kind of gruelling cross between cycling and cross country running) a staggering five times. And she’s only 25.
Unfortunately, this success goes largely unrecognised, not only by fans but by the cycling establishment as a whole. Female cyclists have very little economic security – with no minimum salary in place. Their male counterparts earn at least €30,000. British cyclists Emma Pooley and Lizzie Armitstead are convinced that women are second class citizens within the sport. A failure by men’s pro tour teams to provide any sister teams has meant that the teams are lacking in funding, and the sport stays under the radar. The non provision of equal standard races is also a huge problem. Prize money for the winner of the Tour de France is €450,000. The women’s equivalent was only four days long, with 66 riders. It folded in 2010. The possibility of running women’s events in tandem with the men’s is roundly ignored. It makes female tennis players crying foul of inequality at Wimbledon seem completely and utterly trivial.
Many argue that there is a vicious circle that exists within women’s cycling – that until the standard improves, sponsors will no bring money, and until sponsors bring money, the standard will not improve. The climax of the women’s Olympic Road race on the Mall shows this to be untrue. The excitement is already there, and audiences will enjoy it.
The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) has announced that it will attempt to heighten the profile of women’s cycling over the next few years, with UCI Road Commission president Brian Cookson pledging to put women on a level playing field.
What is needed now is for a broadcaster and Team Sky to take a punt. A broadcaster should see this as a clear cut opportunity to climb on board the success story that is cycling in this country and start to televise the women’s road races. ITV4 are perfectly placed to do so, already making themselves the channel of choice for cycling fans. The BBC could do worse than to get involved – Hazel Irvine is already their choice for cycling and a fantastic female anchor. Wiggins has mentioned that he would like to see a women’s Team Sky. If a broadcaster and a high profile pro tour team were to take the plunge together, then it would certainly be a genesis for improvement. Women’s cycling could no longer be ignored.
It is high time that women were given the money and screen time that they deserve. London 2012 showed us a glaring inequality that can’t be ignored any longer.