British Cycling to fight gender inequality
British cyclists were unquestionably dominant at the London Olympics. Yet even as Victoria Pendleton, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins racked up the medals, discontent with the opportunities available for female cyclists was on the rise.
Emma Pooley, who won silver in the time trial in Beijing in 2008, kicked off the debate back in July.
“Women’s cycling really does have a problem,” she told the Guardian. “It’s not a lack of enthusiasm or willingness, it’s just that races aren’t televised for the most part, so, for sponsors, it’s like night and day compared with men’s cycling.”
This lack of sponsorship, she said, leads to the cancellation of races, and less financial support for women’s cycling teams.
After winning silver in the road race to take Team GB’s first medal this summer, Lizzie Armitstead joined Pooley in criticising the situation. She told reporters that the sexism in cycling “can get quite overwhelming and very frustrating”.
Post-Olympics, a host of people involved in elite cycling have added their voices to the chorus. Tour de France winner and Olympic time trial champion Bradley Wiggins called women cyclists the “forgotten ones”, and double Olympic gold medallist Victoria Pendleton has bemoaned the relative lack of opportunities for women, despite working as hard as the men.
In September, British Cycling performance coach and Team Sky mastermind Dave Brailsford announced that British Cycling would be addressing the problem.
“We’ve got good ideas so we’re on the verge of making sure we roll something out,” he told BBC Sport. “When you look at the structure of women’s cycling on the road there’s a gender imbalance between the male and female side, there’s no denying that.”
There is indeed no denying that women cyclists face more challenges than men. British women are most successful on the track, where they train alongside the men at the Manchester Velodrome and benefit from well-established infrastructure and a world-leading coaching team.
When it comes to road cycling, however, women suffer from a chronic lack of investment and sponsorship. The average budget for a top men’s team is €9.5 million; for women, just €500,000.
Yet with the sport still basking in post-Olympics optimism, enthusiasm to tackle these problems is high. A range of ideas have been floated in recent weeks, including a women’s version of the phenomenally successful Team Sky. Directed by Brailsford, Team Sky made Mark Cavendish one of the best sprinters of all time, and carried Bradley Wiggins to his historic victory in the Tour de France.
Brailsford has pledged to implement long-term, well structured solutions rather than just “throwing money at the problem”: a good sign, since previous attempts have been short-lived.
There has also been support from fans. Twitter campaign #fanbackedwomensteam aims to raise £50,000 in fan donations towards founding a commercial women’s team. If nothing else, such an initiative disproves the idea that fans are less interested in watching women race.
Wiggins himself has compared the situation of British women cyclists today to that of Team Sky several years ago, and has said he would be willing to invest his own money in a women’s team.
The comparison with Team Sky is apt. Twenty years ago, the achievements made by British cyclists over the last few years would have been unthinkable. But thanks to sustained investment and planning, the sport is experiencing unprecedented interest and success.
In the current environment of renewed fan interest, Olympic success, and pledges of continued government funding, it is not difficult to imagine a similar outcome for women’s cycling given a similar level of investment. Watch this space.