Monday 1 August 2016

Sport Cycling for Men and Women, and the rest of us...

Another Tour de France goes by, and like in 2012 we're heading in to another Olympic games where, with luck, we'll follow up amazing British success on the Tour with a grand medal haul at the Olympics.

And as we see every year following the Tour,  two questions arise on social media. Is sport cycling a significant driver in every day cycling? And, why isn't womens sport cycling as big a deal as it deserves to be?

For the former question I am as ever in two minds - I don't think sporting success harms us if our goal is to get more people out riding. I recall during the London Olympics two little girls playing out in front of our house on their bikes, one of them shouting at the other 'I'm Laura Trott, you're Victoria Pendleton'. Ok, a small amount of confusion about how each might be competing, but its a great sign. Kids emulate fun things they see, and having high profile role models in cycling can't hurt. And, again, after the 2012 Olympics people in bike shops were telling me there'd been a certain increase in sales of high-spec road bikes and accessories after the Tour and Wiggins victory in the Time Trial. And thats fine - doesn't mean more people are riding every day but many a hobbyist becomes a utility cyclist in time.

But is there any wider impact than that? I don't know. Does there have to be? Isn't the fact that kids can now name major cycling stars enough for some of them to get on two wheels? Do we really need or expect sport cycling to have a bigger impact on how people travel than that? We don't criticise football because kids play the game but don't dribble a ball in front of them everywhere they go. We don't mock Greg Rutherford because kids will practice long-jump at school but not leap across roads. Yes, there's an impact of sport cycling on behaviour but I think the criticism of that impact not being even greater is based on inflated, unrealistic expectations.

As for womens sport cycling, I find it hard to express how much it annoys me that the ladies don't get the respect or even the races they deserve. In the days of Boardman and Obree when people in the UK were just beginning to discover sport cycling, I was the kid who responded with Beryl Burton in discussions where everyone else would say that Tom Simpson was the greatest British cyclist of all time (and even after all these years of British success I'd argue she's still got one hand on that trophy). In my ideal world there'd be great coverage of both Mens and Womens cycling, we'd see prize money being equal, and sponsors would be keen to support both. For my money the spectacle is similar, so the event should have similar status. 

I'm going to throw an idea into the ring here, this is very much just thinking out loud. Hear me out and rip the idea apart if you like. Is the fact that womens cycling doesn't reach the same audience predictable based on the format of the sport and the suffering of the competitors?

Three things came to mind while watching the closing parts of stage 9 of this years Tour, up the majestic, massive mountain Andorre Arcalis in driving rain, then hail, just when Froome was trying to attack in the most atrocious of conditions. Road cycling, especially the grand Yours, isn't like, say, running a marathon. The conditions are harsh, horrific on occasion, and the punishment taken day in, day out, is extreme. The duration of suffering endured, and the degree of risk, is higher in road cycling than in nearly any other non-contact sport.

That got me thinking about a blog article I'd read about something entirely different, a dissection of one of my favourite action films 'Long Kiss Goodnight' that talks about the risk involved in releasing action films where women are subjected to extreme suffering - the same kind of torture, when its James Bond, gets a lower rating when the film is classified for release. Audiences are, Angela there argues, more shocked when a woman is tortured than a man

And then I recalled Nicola Adams brilliant gold medal win in Womens Flyweight boxing at the last Olympics (if you know nothing about Adams, go look her up, she's great, and I do hope she repeats her win in Rio!), and discussions I had about that at work the next day. Many people, especially he women I talked to, didn't (and don't) like womens boxing, and if you ask them why they usually answer in a wrinkled up nose sort of way, they're turned off by the idea of it in a way they're not turned off mens boxing.

So I wonder, is the appeal of mens road cycling, of the grand tours where great riders slug it out on the highest mountain roads, laying down days of pain on their rivals in the most gruelling of conditions, is this sport more akin to boxing and James Bond being beaten up than it is to, say, Wimbledon Tennis or the New York Marathon? And as such, for womens cycling to reach the heights that the tremendous athletes competing therein deserve, does it need to be something other than that? And if it does need to be something other than that, what? Does the sport need to look at how the races are constructed? Does cycling need to consider backing womens road racing regardless and just hope to push through the reticence sponsors have to put the same kind of money in? Will peoples attitude to womens road racing change or harden if that happens?

I dunno. This is me thinking aloud, coming up with a different pesspective because just saying 'this isn't good enough' year in, year out isn't changing much. What do you think?


  1. I've also been thinking about the effect that "sport cycling" has on everyday riding. I really think I've got a blogpost in there as well, and my feeling is it's mostly negative. That's outside of Olympic years (love the little girls pretending to be Laura and Vicky!).

    From (badly worn) helmets to no comprehension that there's anything but a lycra-clad rider, there's a lot of negatives.

    I think the big thing for me is that children simply don't see it. Over the past few years of training thousands of kids, I've got a feel for how much they know about "sports cycling". Probably around 90% have never heard of or watch "sports cycling". To them, cycling is about a lark in the park, seeing mates on their own terms, and growing independence from parents.

    1. Yeah, sadly as soon as the Olympics is over the telly will recommence it's obsession with football, and the positives of other sports getting public attention will fade :(

    2. Yeah, sadly as soon as the Olympics is over the telly will recommence it's obsession with football, and the positives of other sports getting public attention will fade :(

  2. For Women's Cycling I think a minimum wage like in the mens is a must, the Women's Secret Pro articles have been eye opening that many don't get paid at all, and that must put off so many talented riders who just can't afford to do it for no/little money.

    I then also think Britain needs to lead the way in this, Women's cycling is more popular here than almost anywhere else. RideLondon and Tour de Yorkshire are already the best paid womens races, but I think the Women's Tour could be turned into another Grand Tour for the Women alongside the Giro Rosa, ok maybe not 3 weeks, but up to 8/9 stages. Ok we don't have the Alps, but Scotland, Wales and Northern England aren't exactly flat.... If France and ASO won't do it then we should.