The Cycling Gender Issue

By Will Tyrer

Sport has captivated the masses worldwide for much of modern history, as the excitement of competitors pushing themselves to the limit to take victory has sculpted modern culture. Of course, what shouldn’t matter is which gender the competitors are, but yet, to the traditional sports audience and media, it does. So how can we go about changing this, and levelling the playing field for all?

My first thought would be to tackle the existing arguments.

The age-old argument is, of course, the idea that women were simply naturally weaker, and sport was about watching the best of the best, the fastest of fast, and therefore, it wasn’t the same. Yet, if we look back to the 2017 World Championship Time Trial in road cycling, and take both the male and female winners’ average speed, we can see the discrepancy is just one and a half kilometres per hour. Therefore, it’s hard to suggest that perhaps the level of male racing is so largely supreme, and perhaps we should understand instead how social contexts of the time caused such a large prejudice to occur.

The Team Breeze Girls climb the steps to the podium of the Tour Series, one race with equal prize money -Photo by Will Tyrer

I personally, would put this down to access. If we had consistently allowed for all people to have access to equal training, racing, and coaching, then we would have had by now a truly equal racing sphere, one that would not take notice of distinguishing differences. However, due to the restrictions of women in most societies at the time of sport’s global revolution, they were not provided with this equality of opportunity. It is, therefore, this which has lead to a subconscious prejudice which remains in the 21st century, preventing women from having the lucrative TV money, the major brand deals and the luxury team experiences of the male cycling world.

Photo byWill Tyrer

It is this, which then leads to the shocking facts that 52% of women in the Women’s World Tour in 2016 were forced to work a second job. These were riders dubbed as “Professional” but yet, could not live off their own wages. The same number had also had to reimburse their team for equipment or other needs. The harshest fact of them all is the fact that 17% of the riders on a professional women’s team in 2016 had no salary, and were in effect living off bonuses or second jobs. Meanwhile, Chris Froome had an annual salary of £4,000,000, which is twenty times the average budget for an entire women’s team in the same year. This is simply inadequate for a sport in this century, and yet there is a certain degree of justification which can be done.

One could potentially argue that it is free to access sport due to the fact that it would be impossible to monetize over one hundred kilometres of open road, and while yes, this is true, that is not the sole source of income for any sport. We can actually see in sport an infinite loop of reliance which keeps the sport profitable. If we take men’s football, for example, the majority of the money comes from TV deals, as people at home will pay plenty of money to watch the best players in the world. Next comes the sponsors, who invest money into teams for visibility and therefore rely on the tv companies to make their brand known, but then allow for the teams to bring in players. Therefore, the teams rely on their players to bring in the bigger sponsors, and the players rely on the team to pay their wages. A full circle, without one link, the whole idea could effectively collapse.

Photo by Will Tyrer

Barring any bonuses or prize money, missing this is causing the issues in women’s cycling. Without TV deals, no sponsors will pay big money to be on a jersey, without sponsors teams can not afford to run effectively, without teams riders would be left unable to race, and without riders, TV would have nothing to broadcast. So, what can be done?

Well, the money comes from either the sponsors or the TV companies so we can look at each individually.

In terms of sponsors, my personal idea would be to create a requirement for every male team in the world tour to have an affiliate women’s team, which acquire a budget of at least 30% of the men’s. A process allowing for female cyclists to obtain greater access to equipment and coaching would begin, thus potentially allowing the women to reach a ‘high standard’ of racing which appeals to TV producers, and gets air time thus setting off the dominoes.

In order for media outlets to start the process, there are a couple of different alternatives that could be explored. First, the road community could look across to the broadcasting of cyclocross, which sees men’s and women’s races held on the same day with equal broadcasting rights, which has been successful in raising the profile of women’s cyclocross. Clearly, an issue lies in how you manage sharing the road effectively, a dilemma exposed in Het Nieuwsblad 2019.

Photo byWill Tyrer

Another alternative is simply making a bold investment by setting a large deal at races which already have somewhat guaranteed ratings, like RideLondon. In theory, this would increase both sponsor interest and prize money, and therefore set the process into motion, bringing the women’s sport to the fore.

Yet, it will always be hard to see if any of these ideas will be put into practice. However, we do know that the UCI will be introducing a two-tier system, complete with minimum wage for the 2020 season, as well as introducing a mixed event at the 2019 World Championships. Will these have the desired effect? Who knows, but what is certain, is that something definitely needs to be done to solve this gender issue.

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