Wednesday 11 January 2012

Marianne Vos to race men?

Marianne Vos has been winning so
many races she's getting bored
(© Eddy Fever CC2.0)
As we all know, Marianne Vos won just about everything she entered in 2011; which is the sort of year that any cyclist dreams of having even though the Worlds slipped out of her grasp once more. The trouble is, 2010 was much the same. So was 2009, as were several years before that - and Marianne, while doubtless loving the victories, isn't only in racing for the glory: she loves the competition, as is made plainly obvious by the grin plastered across her face in all the races she enters.

Thus, she's getting bored. "It will not be a problem for Marianne to motivate for the 2012 Olympic Games and World Championships in Limburg, but I am worried about the subsequent period," says Rabobank manager Jeroen Blijlevens, winner of eleven Grand Tour stages during the 1990s. "It's not like Marianne, after the national cyclocross championships, to say that she was having no fun, so we have to be careful that she doesn’t lose her motivation."

But Marianne's at the top of her game - she's arguably already the most successful female cyclist of all time as she approaches her 25th birthday, indisputably the strongest and most successful of the current generation, so where does she go from here? She's standing on the highest rung of the ladder, wanting to go higher... but the ladder ends here. Actually, there is one place she could go; a place where the competition is stiffer and where her opponents would be stronger. Men's races.

"Riding in some smaller men’s races could make her stay motivated on the one hand," Blijlevens adds, "but could also make her continue to make progress, because I think she can get much better - the men could ride her to the next level."

Vos' progress aside, what would be the likely outcome, other than quite a few of the boys revealing how they react when they get whupped by a girl? One initial opinion among Twitterers is it'd be disastrous for women's cycling, the fear being that the top 10% of the women's peloton could be creamed off to ride in some future mixed racing series and thus leave the women's sport without its greatest - headline grabbing - stars. That would not be a good thing. But, what are the chances of that happening? Not much, it seems. For a start, there's the simple fact that apart from Vos, who is an exceptionally talented rider, very few women would want to race against the men for the simple reason that, while Pat McQuaid was entirely wrong when he said women's racing isn't as developed as men's, the vast majority wouldn't remain competitive. Secondly, how likely is it that the UCI would permit mixed competition in anything other than one or two races?

Vos is very good, but she's not unbeatable. That's the best
argument against anyone who would claim the prospect of
her competing against men is indication that women's
(image credit: Mogens Engelund CC BY-SA 3.0)
What we're talking about is primarily a stunt and it's one that will get noticed, especially if Vos wins a men's race (and there's every indication that she would). A high percentage of the cycling press ignores women's cycling entirely, or at the very least relegates it to page-filler, but which of them could resist a headline like  "Marianne Vos victorious against male rivals!" That'll apply to readers too; perhaps even make those who fall for attitudes like those of McQuaid, those who heard the (male) commentators at the Worlds describing the Elite Women's road race as boring and haven't ever bothered to take a look for themselves, start thinking to themselves that if Vos is so good she can ride against the men then women's cycling must be pretty good after all. Then, perhaps, they might make the time to have a look and new fans is precisely what the sport needs if it's going to bring in new sponsors and new revenue, the first step to getting the athletes the equal pay and prize money that they deserve.

There will of course be those who say that if a cyclist such as Vos needs to look elsewhere, women's cycling can't be very good. The best comeback to that is her failure to win the World Championships over the last five years, and that - if it happens - she won't be leaving women's cycling entirely and only racing men. This is proof that there are other female cyclists who can beat her, that there are other female cyclists who are as good as her.

There's a risk, just as there is with everything, but the potential benefits are vast.

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