Tuesday 31 July 2012

Armitstead on the issues facing women's cycling

Lizzie Armitstead
In an interview with Cycling News, Olympic silver medalist Lizzie Armitstead has hit out at "sexism and inequality" in cycling. That inequality exists is beyond doubt - it's common knowledge that many women even at the top level receive no salary at all while their male counterparts are paid a guaranteed minimum wage and the prizes awarded to race winners in women's cycling are, quite frankly, laughable compared to those in the majority of men's races. Many people will say that Armitstead is wrong in linking this to sexism and insist it's due to the harsh realities faced by the sport resulting from the simple fact that there is far less money in women's cycling. However, what the article doesn't make immediately clear is that she isn't saying that race organisers and UCI officials are overtly sexist (some of them may well be sexist, of course, but few of them would allow themselves to be seen as such) - she's saying that women's cycling's problems stem from a more deeply-rooted sexism, a belief in society that athletic competition between females can never be as exciting as athletic competition between men, and that the resulting smaller audience is why women's cycling doesn't get the attention it deserves. This  is a point of view that may not necessarily be correct; but it's a valid one shared by many and the UCI, as the body responsible for developing competitive cycling, has a duty to explore it.

Armitstead believes that one possible solution would be "forcing ProTour teams to have a women's team." That is certainly an option, and seems a good one at first - many people also support the idea of forcing race organisers to hold women's races alongside their men's events. But would it work? Would teams devote the time, money and media to their female riders as they do to their men?

When whether Team Sky should sponsor a women's team, Armitstead hits the nail on the head - "I think Team Sky is missing an opportunity," she says. That is the real answer: persuading, rather than forcing, teams that it is in their interest to have a women's team. That way, they'll give them the backing they deserve. Force them to run women's teams and they'll do so resentfully, fielding athletes who have been given the cheapest minimum of coaching, riding bikes that are only a fraction of the value and quality that the men on the team ride. Result: in the eyes of the public, who in many cases will not understand the underlying issues, female cyclists appear less talented and less competitive than the men. Sky have had plenty of opportunity to put together a women's team and have a budget more than high enough to run several; it seems clear, therefore, that they have no interest in doing so (note that they do sponsor female track cyclists - who enjoy a higher public profile than female road cyclists).

So, how can they be persuaded that women's teams will bring them more glory and, crucially, more sponsors? The riders themselves are already doing all they can - they ride to their limits, even if they've had to work a forty-hour week in order to be able to afford to be at the races in which they compete, and they raise the issues facing their sport whenever they can, just as Armitstead is doing. There are a few team officials and managers doing a superb job too - Stefan Wyman, owner of Britain's Matrix-Prendas, is a glowing example and has recently written a series of informative articles on the subject (the latest of which can be found here); so to is Karl Lima, manager of the Hitec Products-Mistral Home - both have fought for many years to get a fair deal for the athletes on their own teams and in women's cycling in general. Rabobank is another admirable case and provides excellent support for its highly successful women's team.

"The race with the Dutch girl and the English girl" -
Armitstead and Vos follow Olga Zabelinskaya
It seems, then, that it's up to fans. We can do a very great deal to save and improve the sport we love, especially right now - it's notable that people who have previously had no interest in cycling at all suddenly know the names Marianne Vos and Lizzie Armitstead because of the Women's Road Race at the Olympics (or at the very least are talking about "the race with the Dutch girl and the English girl" - hey, it's a start). We can help to make sure they keep talking about it - all we need to do is tell anyone who will listen why women's cycling is as great and as fascinating a sport as it is, write blogs about it, Tweet anything we find about it, share our knowledge and enthusiasm, go to races and encourage others to do so too. That way, we pass on the love to new fans and increase the audience, which in turn makes women's cycling far more tempting to potential sponsors - and it's their money that will persuade the teams and race organisers to make space for the women.

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