this article originally appeared in The Roar
Changes are being rung in under the new presidency of the UCI by Brian Cookson – from confiscating computers and hard drives from MacQuaid’s people right after his victory to setting out a roadmap for the sport’s recovery – but one of the toughest challenges facing the governing body is the rehabilitation of women’s cycling.
Though it may be somewhat natural to think that any pro athlete is relatively well paid, for the women that push their pedals for cash, nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, the vast majority of female pros have to negotiate their own contracts, seek out personal sponsorship alone, struggle with the uncertainty that their scheduled races will even be held and generally fret over paying their bills, never mind putting money into the bank.
Here’s a little fact that illustrates this point: the Giro d’Italia forks out €90,000 to the overall winner while second place takes €50,000 and third place €20,000.
The winner of the women’s Giro received – wait for it – €450.
That is not a typo. There are not two, nor even one, zero missing from that figure.
The winner of the women’s version of the Belgian Classic, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, received just €360.
Once these winners have shared their ‘loot’ out amongst their teammates, they may have enough for a celebratory dinner – at McDonald’s.
Cookson though is making strides in the right direction, and when Brian Cookson appointed Australian Tracey Gaudry to the post of vice president, he was making a clear statement of intent.
Gaudry, who became the first ever woman to hold the post, is known as a former professional cyclist and, interestingly, is a member of the Anti-Doping Review Violation Panel to report to the Board of the Australian Sports Commission.
Gaudry has been brought in by Cookson for several reasons, the first being that he considers her to be ideally suited to carry out the duties required of the vice president of cycling’s governing body, and also to specifically tackle the problems facing women’s cycling.
Gaudry is no stranger to the challenges faced by the female peloton, one of which is the cancellation of races due to lack of financial funds.
In 1999 Gaudry won the Tour de Snowy in her first year as a pro rider, a race that was canned in 2003 due to the lack of sponsorship.
Gaudry is currently working on the setting up of a Women’s Commission that she says reflects the UCI’s new desire to diversify.
“We will have 6 or 7 members of both genders, Europeans and non-Europeans, from all disciplines, former and current athletes, National Federations, women coaches, organisers, teams and broadcasters,” she says in an interview on the UCI website.
“The Commission will be set up by the end of the year and we will present our strategy for the coming 12 months and beyond at the next Management Committee meeting in late January.
“In order to develop women’s cycling it needs, among other things, better visibility,” she continued. “But I want to specify that we will have a transversal approach: we will work with all the commissions [road, track, and so on] because the rise of women’s cycling must involve everybody. It is not something that concerns just one department.
“For the first time, there will be a woman in each commission, which is another clear sign from the UCI. We will take on board the proposals that the other commissions make to us and we will make propositions.”
The shortsightedness of the traditionally male-dominated UCI has led us to this point where there is a real and drastic need for measures such as this one.
Indeed, how and why there has never been a Women’s Commission is something that beggars belief. In a world where some 50% of the population is female you would imagine that the governing body of a sport that is suited to all would actually do something to get women on bikes, rather than neglecting them so forcefully all these years.
Speaking of male and female professional cycling, Tiffany Cromwell said to me in a recent interview that “you really can’t compare the two, they are completely different.”
Cromwell went on to state that the women accept that the two strands of cycling have differing histories, but also said that in many ways, the existence of most female pros is not that different – through their entire careers – to young, aspiring amateur men who live in team houses and in rooms above cafes at the start of their journeys.
Just about every female cyclist bar the very best riders also have to work or are studying, preparing for a later career, knowing that they will never become rich, or even well-off, from their cycling careers.
“We do it because we love it,” said Cromwell. ‘You might make a little bit of money but you’re not going to retire off of that. You don’t want to think about it. It’s how it’s always been, it’s sad but I guess we can show the beauty of the women’s side rather than comparing it to the men’s.”
And there, in a nutshell, is the answer to those who bemoan the lack of distance covered in women’s racing or the lack of brute power on display. What the women bring to the sport is different, and it is a difference that should be appreciated, not bemoaned.
Indeed, in many ways the shorter races that are a feature of the women’s side of the sport lead to far more exciting racing than many men’s events.
The sport needs to encourage women to ride, develop new races with UCI funding and outside sponsorship, and bring in television companies to help further support the enterprise.
Right now there is a female rider who may well be the greatest rider the sport has ever seen – men or women – and yet we barely see her. Mention Marianne Vos to casual followers of the sport and many will never have heard of her.
We may be getting somewhere though, thanks to Cookson, Gaudry and the spirit shown by the women riders in their pursuit of their dreams. In many ways, it is they who are the true carriers of the flame of passion and love of this great sport, simply because they do not do it for the money.
“You have to think about how lucky you are,” said Cromwell. “I am riding my bike every day, I travel the world and see beautiful places, and my passion is my job. There are not many people who can say that.”