When Orica Scott’s Van Vleuten was powering up the Col D’Izoard in Stage 1 of La Course, I was glued to the television in total awe of the power she and, equally, Boels Dolmans’ Deignan, were demonstrating and the pressure they were exerting on the rest of the peloton.
For me, an amateur road cyclist, it was truly inspirational.
Not only was I witnessing athletes operating at the top of their game, but I was also catching a rare glimpse of female cyclists being able to showcase their talent on a truly international stage, against the iconic backdrop of one of the most beautiful and grueling stages on Le Tour de France and with full television coverage.
Upon discovering that Van Vleuten had the third fastest time on Strava up the Col D’Izoard, only after Barguil and Bardet, I was even more impressed; surely this was evidence that women were as capable as men of not just tackling the big category – or even hors catégorie – climbs but out and out attacking them.
And then a family friend quickly extinguished any spark of hope I held that the status of women’s cycling might be elevated post Van Vleuten’s spectacular win. When presented with the Strava evidence, he replied: ‘well, that’s only because she didn’t do the 112 kms beforehand’.
It was his response and then the disappointing spectacle of the second stage that cemented my anger at the blatant gender disparity that still exists across this sport (and, of course, many others).
Diegnan needn’t have been so diplomatic in her soft critique of the organization of La Course; it was obvious to all who were watching.
First of all, the experimental pursuit style format of Stage 2 quenched any potential for excitement, as Van Vleuten’s substantial 43 second lead and Deignan’s decision to wait for her teammate meant that the race was decided in the first 90 seconds.
Second, for those cyclists hoping to gain more exposure, as they might expect from a fully televised event, they will have been bitterly disappointed. It was only a select few – the leader and the chasing group – who attracted the camera’s attention.
Third, the awards ‘ceremony’ looked more like a primary school prize giving with nobody knowing exactly where to stand or what to do, including the presenters themselves.
Simply put, these professional athletes deserved better on all three fronts –race format, media exposure and recognition of achievement. What La Course managed to do was shine a big spotlight on the inequality that still exists in the world of professional cycling.
It’s very easy to blame sponsorship (or lack thereof), but underlying and indeed fuelling this, are deep-rooted gendered attitudes towards sport and women’s place within this industry.
It’s not that the women couldn’t have done the full 179.5 kms. Evidence abounds, from professionals to amateurs, to indicate they could (I refer you to Suze Clemitson’s excellent article in The Guardian); it’s that they weren’t given the opportunity by the course organizers (ASO).
What did they do instead? They did like every other male rider in the Tour; they used their physical and mental strength to propel themselves up a big mountain. In other words, they did exactly what was asked of them in their job descriptions. That’s the criterion upon which we should be judging their performance, not how they stacked up against their male counterparts.
So, what can we do to change attitudes towards women’s cycling? Well, it seems obvious to say that we need to listen to the voices of the pro female cyclists. As they’re the ones living this reality, they’re the ones who know best what needs to change and how, whilst, at the same time, pleasing their sponsors.
But as I’m, regrettably, not a professional cyclist, I can only offer suggestions based on my understanding of the sport, the media filtered sentiments of the cyclists themselves and the sources of gender inequality in society more generally. So, with these things in mind, here they are:
- Turn La Course into a proper stage race, not simply an add-on to the men’s, but a major event in its own right, with all the organizational clarity and media coverage that comes with that.
- Reschedule the women’s grand tour, the Giro Rosa, so that it doesn’t clash with the Tour de France, meaning women’s cycling isn’t overshadowed by men’s.
- Encourage fans – both men and women – to talk about women’s cycling, support races, engage with teams, riders, sponsors and share stories on social media.
- Call on the professional men to support their female counterparts in the same way, using social media to increase the visibility of women’s races and exposure of women riders.
- Urge women to champion women in sport and female entrepreneurs to invest in and sponsor women’s cycling.
- Abolish the archaic and sexist tradition of beautiful women presenting men with prizes on the podium and giving young girls the impression that beauty not achievement is aspirational.
- Ask educators to take opportunities in their classrooms to raise issues of gender inequality. Debates about whether footballers get paid too much money need to be reframed as: ‘why don’t men and women earn the same amount of money for doing the same job?’ or, better yet, changed to ‘why does women’s sport continue to be devalued in the year 2017?’
- Get parents to reinforce this kind of critical dialogue at home while watching and talking about women’s sport. Raise our children to respect and value the hard work, commitment and achievement of athletes regardless of their gender.
I could end this post on a positive note by writing something like women’s cycling has come a long way. But I’m not going to. It’s likely that this diplomatic, grateful, gendered communication style is part of the reason we haven’t come far enough.
What I am going to write is that cycling, or any sport for that matter, has the potential to empower women by making them stronger physically and mentally and, in turn, by boosting their confidence. It’s this strength and confidence we need to tap into in order to change attitudes.
In other words, by changing our own attitudes we can change those around us and look to a future of fierce female athletes working together to continue to challenge the status quo.
If that’s not a reason to get more women cycling, then I don’t know what is.
About the Author: Krista, a University Lecturer not so long ago, now works with her husband in their property renovation business. Together they share a love of road cycling and she combines this with her other passion, writing. She shares her cycling journey at wifeydomestique.com. You can also follow her on twitter @wifeydomestique