The long, hard road to equality and why Koppenbergcross is such a big deal

“In my eyes, this is a huge step. It is a very significant moment for women’s cycling. This allows women to make one step up the ladder towards equality. I spend a lot of my free time trying to advance women’s cyclocross and I hope this will lead to a chain reaction of races who do the same, as I know the support is there from sponsors, supporters and riders. To be a part of this development for the sport is fantastic for me. For the Koppenbergcross to be the first race in Europe to do this is very special.  I love the Koppenbergcross, to me it is the biggest race outside of the World Championships.  It is legendary.  To have an American sponsor back the race shows how significant it is around the world.  I can’t thank Twenty20 Cycling enough on behalf of all of the racers that take part next season.  I’m certainly already looking forward to the GP Twenty20 Cycling and hope to collect another cobble stone in 2014.” Helen Wyman

 With the last firework fizzled and the Bear shedding a single tear just as Mischa did in Moscow, the Sochi Winter Olympics are done and dusted. A successful Games for Britain – a first ever medal on snow! – and once again women lead the way, winning 3 out of those 4 medals. They’d already won 24 out of the 65 Team GB medals at London 2012 and exactly half the tally of 120 medals at the Paralympics. And a significant part of that huge Gold haul came from cycling – women ruled supreme on the track and Lizzie Armistead’s hard fought Silver on the road behind Marianne Vos was arguably one of the highlights of the Games, the women’s race handily outstripping the moribund men’s affair for sheer excitement and balls out racing.

So these are great days for women’s sport, right? The Olympic legacy has been translated into higher all round visibility for women’s sport, greater participation, more sponsorship and increased coverage, hasn’t it?

In a word, no.

Just two months after the Olympic flame was extinguished in London in 2012, the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation reported that women’s sport only received 5% of coverage and 0.5% of commercial sponsorship. In 2013 the Independent pledged to “make sure our pages highlight the best of women’s sport, as well as men’s” yet a quick scan of their cycling coverage has a brief piece on ‘La Course’ the women’s criterium to be staged on the Champs Elysees this summer and a snarky snippet on Victoria ‘Sponge’ Pendleton’s performance on Celebrity Bake Off sporting a fetching picture of the multiple Gold medallist in evening dress. About the cyclocross season and the achievements of Britain’s Helen Wyman, there is not an inch of space. The Independent’s commitment to equality crumbles in the face of the pressing need to report on Chris Froome’s sunburn, it seems.

And the picture is no better elsewhere – the Guardian, Telegraph, Times (all of whom employ some of  the best known cycling writers in the business) give risible coverage to women’s cycling. But hey, who gets their cycling news from ‘old media’? Everyone knows that new media is where cycling coverage is at these days – sites like cyclingnews and velonews are the go to places for up to the minute, credible news on what’s really happening at all levels of cycling, right? Sure, but don’t expect to get much coverage if you’re not an elite male road racer.

Something has happened in the world of women’s cyclocross that is every bit as significant as ASO throwing a one day sop to the bolshie women demanding a proper women’s Tour de France. For the first time on European soil, a C1 cyclocross race will offer the same prize money for elite men and women.

Just why this is such a big deal is particularly well explained in an interview cyclocross champion Helen Wyman gave Sarah Connolly at Podium Cafe – parity not only rewards new young talent making participation worthwhile, but brings increased visibility, progression and growth to the sport. There’s been something of a quiet revolution in cyclocross – not only was it the first sport to offer equal prize money to its World champions but its popularity is swiftly growing beyond 6 million fanatical Belgians  thanks to the UCI youtube coverage of women’s World Cup races.

The point is, this has been a grass roots movement – as Wyman says “the people who are racing, who are organising, who are proactive in making it happen are a small community, and we need to work together to make things happen.  This is one step showing how we can work together”, a way of showing the UCI Cyclocross commission what can be achieved when the will and the vision are there. On her blog, she speaks about the two ladders to progress – the political work of the commission and the grass roots work of “people getting stuck in – riders, organisers, the media and fans doing all they can to help the sport.  No one person holds the keys.” It may be a small community but it’s forced a change that has huge implications for the wider women’s sport.

Helen Wyman is that rare beast – a top flight British woman cyclist, multiple National and European champion, conqueror of Marianne Vos and World Champion medallist – who is almost unknown to the public, perhaps because her chosen discipline, cyclocross, doesn’t appear in the Olympics (though there are noises about its possible inclusion in the Winter Games). A lifelong cyclist who began racing at 14, Wyman says she rides cross because “playing in the mud and calling it a job is just the best feeling in the world”. Though the sport is supposed to have originated in France – and many of its skills, like portage (running whilst carrying the bike), were pioneered by road racers like Lapize and Christophe – it found its spiritual home in the flatlands of Flanders. The terrain suits the mud and madness of cyclocross to a tee, the dirt and action a powerful antidote to the more sanitised world of road cycling. Cyclocross relies on sharp individual skills and crazy fans for whom it’s more religion than sport. It’s dirtier and earthier than road racing and challenges the idea that cycling equals the Tour de France. The Koppenbergcross is one of the sport’s iconic races – like Paris-Roubaix, the winner takes home a granite cobblestone for their pains – which makes the decision to offer equal prize money a real milestone. It says that cycling is so much more than 3 weeks in July. It puts an external quantifiable value on women’s sport that sends a direct message to sponsors about its worth to them. And it’s a divine opportunity for women to ignore the diktat that all worthwhile female sporting endeavour must be glamorous and fragrant and to be rewarded for good honest muck and sweat.

So prize parity for women is a good, an important, thing, right? Some don’t see it that way. When the last bastion of tennis inequality, Wimbledon, fell in 2007 the committee were unanimous in their decision – even  John McEnroe said “It would be setting an example to the rest of society in general to have equal prize money.” Yet this enlightened attitude – that equal work deserves equal pay, as enshrined in European law – was challenged by Gilles Simon on the grounds that “men’s tennis is ahead of women’s tennis” and “men spend twice as long on court as women do at Grand Slams.” Apart from good old fashioned chauvinism the argument comes down to an assumed inequality of effort and lack of market appeal.

The first argument asks the wrong question. There is no doubt that women athletes train and prepare with equal rigour to their male counterparts – they spend the same hours in the gym and out on the road, they are equally as scrupulous in their diet and approach. The U.S. Lawn Tennis Association imposed the 3 set rule for women’s tennis in 1902 – over strong objections – and despite the fact that concerns about women’s robustness to play 5 sets have disappeared the rule remains. Similar Victorian concerns about the fragility of women to run long distances were only overturned in the 1970s when women’s distance running gained credibility, despite the fact that our physiology is well suited to the demands of running 10,000 metres and upwards. Women play the full 90 minutes of football and run marathons in times that would send those chauvinist Victorians to the fainting couch. But cycling remains mired in this ‘delicate flower’ mentality with women’s races routinely a third shorter than the men’s, though there’s a strong case to be made for equalising the distances downwards rather than upwards.

So why shouldn’t women race the same distances as men? As Kathryn Bertine, one of the movers behind the petition for a women’s Tour de France notes In fact I and every female pro cyclist is asked at least once in their career, “Oh do you race the Tour de France?” You know because simply they assume there’s ones one for women. People were shocked that there is not a women’s equivalent.” Emma Pooley adds “My real dream is to see us doing the same race on the same course…at the moment, it’s perfectly possible next year to run a three-week race with the men with slightly shorter stages.” There’s a good reason why riders like Pooley and Olympic Silver medallist Lizzie Armistead attribute the lack of opportunities for women to race like the men to good old fashioned sexism.

When Marie Marvingt applied to ride the 1908 Tour de France, she was refused on the grounds that it was a race for men only. ‘Breakneck Marie’ went ahead and did it anyway, starting each stage 15 minutes after the men and finishing the 14 stage, 4,448 km race. Out of 110 riders who were on the start line in Paris, only 36 finished. 36 men and one woman. There’s nothing to suppose that the highly trained, professional bike riders of the modern era aren’t more than capable of doing the same. When a female reader wrote to l’Auto in 1909 suggesting they create woman’s Tour de France the idea was dismissed because it would have meant ‘razing the mountains of France’. That this same argument is still in use in 2014 is startling. In 1912 the Union Velocipedique de France stopped sanctioning women’s races. In 1926 Sportive wrote that ‘sportswomen go on rides for fun, nobody can object to that, but that women speed like ‘giants of the road,’ no, a hundred times no!” Women’s cycling is still recovering from these antediluvian attitudes.

Another well worn argument is the perceived lack of depth in women’s cycling – where 150 men lined up for the Olympic road race in 2012, there were only 66 women on the start line. But if you’re Marianne Vos – arguably the best cyclist on the planet at the moment and one of the greatest of all time – why should your time, effort and commitment to becoming the best in the world be penalised because of the size of the field? When the X Games committed to equal prize money, both standards and numbers of participants rocketed. As Jane English argues “if women do not attain roughly equal fame and fortune in sports, it leads both men and women to think of women as naturally inferior.” As Thomas Paine realised “it is dearness that gives everything its value.”

But with the UCI still refusing to commit to a minimum wage for women riders, many are caught in what the pressure group Le Tour Entier describe as a ‘vicious cycle’ where “most women cannot yet make a full-salary living from cycling, and hence have to work and cannot train full time – there is also a high drop-out rate from the sport compared to men’s cycling, because of these financial pressures and the overall shortage of women’s teams.” Then there’s the perceived lack of market appeal – the market decides the level of reward, goes the old canard, because the men’s sport is so much more exciting. Try telling that to the millions who watched Vos beat Armistead on the Strand in a race that was as thrilling as the men’s race was disappointing. As Emma Pooley says “I’ve heard a lot of people say that the best race they’ve ever seen was the women’s race at the Olympics. A lot of our races are like that, but you don’t get to see it.” Yet the word from on high, from Pat McQuaid and now from Brian Cookson, that there can be no compulsion of sponsors to create women’s teams or races, that the sport must first prove its worth to sponsors, remains. What better way, then, to make a bold statement of that worth by pulling in sponsors who are prepared to challenge the ‘market must decide’ rhetoric by putting their money where their principles (and self interest) are and offering equal prize money? When Wyman says this is ‘huge’ she is absolutely right.

When Simon made his ill judged comments about women’s tennis being less interesting than men’s, Maria Sharapova pithily remarked “there are a few more people that watch my matches than his.” The argument that market forces should decide wages is another wrongheaded one. As Abbey Lewis points out “By Simon’s own argument, if he wins Wimbledon next year his prize money should be less than Federer’s was this year because he is less famous: a ridiculous situation.” As a discredited Texan once said “The Tour is a bike race, not a popularity contest.” On the sporting level, Lewis argues, there is no ‘business model’ but a simple moral equation of equal pay for equal work. Market forces only come into play when sports stars attain the fame and popularity of celebrities and start to net big sponsorship deals, although the Queens of British cycling, despite their high profiles, are never remunerated in the way their male counterparts have been. This argument works for many sports but for cycling the picture is a little more complicated. Sponsorship isn’t just the cherry on the cake, it is the cake – it supports teams and pays rider’s wages. In return it turns its riders into cycling billboards.

And here the cycle gets that little bit more vicious – put simply and crudely coverage = sponsorship = growth = more coverage. Take away that exposure and sponsors drop out, the money dries up and coverage disappears. Repeat until your sport drops off the radar all together. The situation isn’t quite that parlous for women’s cycling but a lack of coverage for women’s sports in general is cited as one of the biggest barriers to the growth of the sport. In evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s ‘Women in Sport’ enquiry, Barbara Slater, Director of Sport at the BBC estimated that women’s sport coverage had risen to 20% from the WSFF’s headline 5% figure. But that includes Red Button coverage and major events like the Olympics – of 9,000 hours of sport broadcast yearly, as few as 320 may be women’s sport. And the picture isn’t significantly different over the other major sports broadcasters.

Now factor in that Barbara Slater is the exception not the rule as a woman at the highest decision making level and the historic disadvantage of women’s sports worsens. There are around 700 members of the Sports Journalists Association – of those 10% are women and of those only 5% are sports journalists. It’s not only in articles that women’s sport is woefully underrepresented – research by the University of East Anglia showed that, over a 2 year period, of the 25,717 photographs that appeared in weekend newspapers, only 1,780 (6.9%) were of women. Women’s representation on sporting bodies still lags behind the 25% recommended by the WSFF. When the majority of decisions about women’s sport and the coverage it receives are made by men can that disadvantage ever be overcome?

No one is suggesting that coverage be ghettoized – that women only cover the women’s sport. It is attitudes that need to change, and profoundly. As Messner & Cooky point out, whilst it is a fallacy to assume that women necessarily approach sports coverage any differently to men, “there is some evidence that women sports reporters are less likely to cover women athletes in disrespectful ways, and more likely to advocate expanding the coverage of women’s sports.” There needs to be a commitment to cover women’s sports in ways that challenge the male hegemony that undervalues and sexualises competitive women.  And, as Messner & Cooky argue, thinking afresh about the demands of a diverse audience is a smart way to create a new demand.It’s all the more interesting, then, that cyclocross is leading the European charge for equal prize money – this is a sport whose participants love playing in the mud and is arguably far closer to most women’s lived experience of recreational cycling than the shiny high tech glitter of the road and track. 

Nor does or should it matter who watches women’s sport – when the BBC televised the Women’s European Football Championships the audience split was 70% male 30% female. To reverse the trend and create a virtuous cycle, Barbara Slater argues that “working with the governing bodies and striking up a really good partnership is very important – you want the top-quality sport; you want full stadia; you want a fantastic atmosphere; you want a sense of occasion.” But beyond that, there needs to be a profound cultural change – as Helen Wyman points out, the race organising committee behind the Koppenbergcross decision are male, but “they’re a pretty young, progressive committee and see there is a proper opportunity to do something big for women’s ‘cross.   They were the first race to listen to us, to see there was good publicity in it for them, and that it was the right thing to do.”

Though Leslie Howe argues compellingly for the redefinition of some traditionally male sports through a female perspective as a way to challenge dominant stereotypes and encourage those sports to develop in new and unexpected ways, both men and women have always had an equal ability to transfer potential energy into kinetic and propel a bike along a stretch of tarmac. Not for nothing did the American protofeminist Susan B Anthony call the bicycle the ‘freedom machine’ – “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” It’s been a long, hard road but women’s cycling might finally be about to offer it’s professionals the freedom to earn the same living from their sport that the men have long enjoyed.










One thought on “The long, hard road to equality and why Koppenbergcross is such a big deal

  1. Pingback: Podcast 2014 Episode 5 – What’s the Capital of Delaware? | Unofficial Unsanctioned Women's UCI Cycling Blog

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