Bridging the gap in women's racing

Bridging the gap in women's racing

This month Britain’s most decorated female Paralympian, Dame Sarah Storey, announced her pro cycling team, Podium Ambition, would fold.

In the middle of Women’s Sport Week, Storey said the team had failed to secure the sponsorship it needed, and would take a step back to “create something more sustainable”.

Some believe women’s cycling is at a crossroads, in crisis even, and though there are good news stories – the success of Wiggle High5 and Boels Dolmans teams included – teams without big money behind them still struggle to pay their riders enough to develop, and to win medals.

This year’s Prudential RideLondon Classique race offered female competitors the same prize pot as the men for the first time - £100,000 - making it the best paid women’s race, while the Tour of Yorkshire offered more cash for the winner of the women’s one day race than the men’s overall winner.

Women’s cycling is as exciting as men’s, with riders who train as hard, race as hard and are just as driven to win. Investing in inspirational women should be a no-brainer for the cycle industry, and yet, it’s not.

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While men competing at the very highest level of the sport are guaranteed a minimum wage, and TV coverage, women aren’t - a baffling concept in 2016.

A sponsor’s dream?

Take Podium Ambition, a team boasting top class riders, including Joanna Rowsell Shand and Katie Archibald, both of whom won Gold at this year’s Olympics.

Storey said Podium Ambition isn’t the only team, male or female, struggling to get the sponsorship it needs, and she’s not the only team manager struggling to make enough money for her athletes to concentrate on their racing full-time and progress in the sport. The issue is one that has plagued the sport since women’s cycling was recognised as a professional sport in 1984.

Victoria Pendleton, another of our most successful female cyclists, and a Gold medallist in the women’s keirin at the London 2012 Olympics, told BikeBiz she avoided road racing because of the funding disparity. BikeBiz caught up with Pendleton in Soho last month.

“People always said: ‘why don’t you go to road riding?’, because I was always a bit of a hybrid, I was never a pure sprinter,” she said.

“But the fact of the inequality between men and women in road racing is so extreme it would drive me to distraction; there was no way I could train comparative hours to my male counterparts, watch them get a million pounds and more contracts and live like a student myself.

“It’s just not something that appeals to me, in fact it’s something that makes me feel rage!”

Track cycling is more equitable, but still, Pendleton recalls winning the same races as her male counterparts, but a third of the prize money.

“You’re not going to sustain any kind of training or lifestyle, or have enough to eat on that”, she said. “You have to find sponsorship.”

Although she was successful with sponsorship contracts, some didn’t understand why she needed sponsors.

“I was criticised for over glamorising the sport, especially from females,” said Pendleton. “But I was like: this is making me a profile, and so I’m going to do it. I would like to have a mortgage, eventually, and I wouldn’t mind a pension to be honest, because this isn’t going to last forever.”

Like it or not, sponsors are a vital part of a woman’s cycling career, but sponsorship is dependent on the exposure a company gets for its investment.

Chris Boardman, Olympic Champion, TV commentator and British Cycling Policy Advisor, was one of the sponsors of Storey’s Podium Ambition team (Boardman bikes provided the bikes). Although he welcomes equal prize money, he calls it “token”, as it costs less than funding equal salaries.

Boardman put together a TV piece on the subject for the Tour de France, interviewing female pro riders, event organisers and supporters of women’s cycling, which Ned Boulting presented. They discovered nobody could agree on the way forward for the women’s sport.

“That was interesting in itself,” says Boardman. “You had one person saying you’ve got to have proper, minimum salaries so people can rely on it, then you’ve got Rochelle Gilmore [owner and manager of Wiggle High5], Brian Cookson [UCI president] saying the last thing you want is minimum salaries.”

“I think the only thing that got any kind of consensus was TV coverage [should come] first. Get the visibility, then your sponsors can invest, then your riders come along, so there’s several things you need, but the TV is probably the thing that pulls it all together.

“It means TV companies have got to stop doing articles on it and start covering it.”

Keith McRae, a mechanic turned women’s cycling promoter, who is currently trying to set up a women’s cycling team, agrees TV coverage is the key.

 “The lack of coverage is the biggest stumbling block to getting sponsorship,” he says. “If you cannot get coverage of national races, by national press, how are companies going to see the benefit and reward in sponsoring you?”

“On the domestic scene, often teams can only pay riders’ expenses, meaning athletes need to work to cover living expenses, which hampers racing calendars and training.”

While the men’s sport enjoys broad coverage, this can’t be said for women’s cycling.

McRae: “While TV coverage [of women’s events] is getting better, it is a long way behind what the men are getting; you can tune in to Eurosport most of the summer and see some men’s race somewhere in the world. Try and find a women’s race and you’ll be lucky to even get highlights on the TV.

“Some races are providing their own live steaming, often poor quality, but this is better than nothing.”

Boardman points out while it may not be financially viable for TV companies to cover a sport still in its infancy, an incentive has got to be made.

He said: “The UCI, whether they like it or not, they’re the people that they issue licenses to teams, they define the terms of those licenses, I think they’re in a position to say: you have to do something with this part of the sport, or event organisers: if you want this status or if you want top status, then you have to have a women’s event as well.

“[TV companies] will just go with what’s commercially viable for me right now and they won’t think: ‘Well if we do this and make a loss for five years then there’s a good chance it will become viable’, they just won’t do it. If the UCI says you’ve got to do it then they’ll just knuckle down and get on with it.”

Stefan Wyman, owner of women’s cycling team Matrix Fitness Pro Cycling, which boasts Laura Kenny (nee Trott) among its riders, says the structure, and what he describes as a lack of regulation of, women’s racing, is creating a “massively increasing gulf” between the top and the bottom of the field.

He told BikeBiz: “I have been involved for 12 years in the sport and I created the first women’s UCI team.

“I have seen the development of the sport, and I think women’s cycling is in one of the most dangerous positions it has been in.”

He said: “The top of the sport is great for teams like Orica Bike Exchange, Wiggle High5 and Bigla Cervelo, but there is no middle ground, no pressure [from up and coming teams]”.

While men’s racing is split into World tour, Pro Continental and Continental divisions, with only the first two professional, the only division for women is Continental, with the same non-professional rules as the men’s Continental racing. That includes no set minimum salary.

This, Wyman points out, means “the biggest team in the world can turn up [to a race which includes amateur riders trying racing for the first time] and drop everyone.”

Development is learning to win, he says, something up and coming riders cannot experience under the existing model. Wyman believes women’s racing needs at least two tiers, to help new riders develop and to put that pressure on top teams.

This, he believes, would help teams pitch for sponsors - if the requirements to become a top tier team are a minimum wage for riders and a budget of, say, £400,000, team owners can go to sponsors with that figure, and promise a set level coverage in return for that investment.

Wyman doesn’t agree women’s races simply need to be tacked onto men’s races, because women’s races are put on so early to clear the roads for the men that neither the TV crews nor the spectators are out on the course.

“What happens is we have photos of the race with no crowds behind it and then people say: ‘well there were no women out watching that race, there’s no audience for women’s racing, therefore we shouldn’t back it’.

“We’re splitting the media down. I want to see women’s racing being the main events.”

The solution? “I think women’s sport needs to find its own pathway it doesn’t necessarily have to follow the men’s. Women’s sport needs a good structure that’s strong enough to bring in its own sponsors,” he says.

Women are leading the way…

Within women’s cycling, Cyclocross superstar, Helen Wyman (married to Stefan), is among those fighting for equality. In her role on the UCI’s Cyclocross Commission she equalised Category 2 prize money and doubled Cat 1 pay out for women and has started her own development programme, New Wyman, to nurture younger riders. She’s still battling to equalise World Cup prize money, however.

Wyman has seen the effect of TV coverage on sponsorship first hand.

“There were 24 televised [cyclocross] races last year live on TV. That was huge [in terms of attracting sponsorship]. As soon as a company can sell us as a commodity they can promote, they make more money.”

The Strongher movement is being led by women cyclists from pros like Marianne Vos, to amateur riders, encouraging and inspiring more women to get into the sport, whether mountain biking, road riding or track cycling, from weekend events with pro riders like Manon Carpenter, to online forums providing advice.

Heather Bamforth, founder of the Racing Chance Foundation, a charity set up to promote women’s amateur cycling in the UK, believes more is needed at grassroots level to get more women into sport and give women’s cycling a bigger audience.

“There needs to be a big push in participation in women’s cycling so we increase the numbers racing and then by definition it becomes easier to attract corporate sponsorship, because you are then reaching out to a larger demographic,” she says.

Bamforth believes British Cycling has a role to play, to bridge the gap between entry level Breeze rides, a hugely popular countrywide network of women’s social rides, to competitive cycling.

A British Cycling spokesperson said: “Across sport, women’s participation levels are well behind men in almost every area. British Cycling recognises that this gender gap is something that we desperately needed to address.

“In 2013, we set ourselves the ambitious target of inspiring one million more British women to take up cycling by 2020.

“The current situation in Britain is positive: our strategy’s two-year update, released in the summer of 2015, showed that 254,000 women had so far taken up cycling as a result of the strategy. We are no strangers to setting and meeting ambitious targets, and we will ensure we do everything we can to hit the million mark.

“In order to get more women cycling, we are focusing on inspiring more women at grassroots level, providing opportunities to race, coaching opportunities to grow the numbers taking part in events organically. We are seeing more women take part at all levels so it is on an upward curve.”

“We would, of course, encourage the UCI to address this issue [of improving equality between men and women’s racing] but it is for the UCI to come up with a strategy.”

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