The first week in June was Women’s Sport Week (#WSW2015), and it was closely followed by the most-watched women’s football World Cup in history, so what better time for our cycle blogger to take a closer look at the recent resurgence in women’s procycling.
A little background
You don’t have to read too far into Nicole Cooke’s excellent autobiography, The Breakaway, to realise that women’s procycling has been much maligned over recent years and, indeed, past decades.
Professional cycling has always been a difficult place to make a career, with constant logistic and funding issues even for the men. By its very nature, cycling is an expensive sport, requiring costly equipment and huge travel expenses.
Hence, it has always relied heavily on sponsors. With no other revenue stream, sponsorship has formed the very fabric of professional cycling. (The leader’s jersey in the Tour de France is even yellow to match the colour of L’Auto, its original newspaper backer.)
‘The Lance Effect’
With the gradual exposure of the doping that pervaded men’s cycling in the 1990s and 2000s, in combination with the recent global economic crisis, sponsors have fled the sport. In fact, this began far before the Lance Armstrong saga; wave after wave of doping allegations (primarily in men’s racing) decimated the sport and its reputation.
The effect disproportionately affected women’s cycling, which was not as well-established as the men’s edition. The fact that the UCI Women’s World Cup peaked with 12 rounds in 2006, falling to 8 by 2012, and that the women’s Tour de France was cut in 2010, gives a flavour of the decline during this period.
Resurgence in Women’s Cycling
In 2013, Brian Cookson was elected president of the UCI, and established the Women’s Commission with a remit to:
“realise the potential for; the participation of women in the sport of procycling and for recreation, transport and health, development pathways in cycling as a sport and as a career, a framework for professional female cyclists and commercial success in women’s cycling.”
The Commission is headed by former cyclist, Tracey Gaudry, who was also elected as the first female UCI vice-president. Many are hopeful that this will mark the turning point in the sport’s recent fortunes, adding institutional force to the aspirations of pressure groups, such as Le Tour Entier, and the financial clout of new sponsors, such as Wiggle and Honda.
The Women’s Commission has not been slow to act, with the World Cup back up to 10 events, and a “very motivated and efficient” working group with representatives from the riders and team managers, as well as the field of sports economics.
The recent UCI Women’s Team Seminar set out a plan that even has Nicole Cooke talking positively, with proposals for a WorldTour to replace the current Word Cup, including new stage and one-day races, a two-tiered team structure, and steps towards a sustainable minimum wage for female professional cyclists.
There is a recognition that women’s procycling has for too long been the lesser cousin of the men’s event, but a realisation that success will only come when it is enjoyed and reported because it is great, and not just because it is Women’s Sport Week.