Cycling is most definitely a man's world and has been since the inception of the bicycle, as in all areas of life there have been those that don’t agree with the status quo, those who stand up and say no! That’s not fair and I’m going to change that.
It’s International Women’s Day and we celebrate this day every year by showing how we appreciate Women across social media with hashtags such as #IWD #Womensday #empoweringwomen etc., but this doesn’t seem to translate into the real world.
Embarrassingly the men's and women’s prize money for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which was raced last weekend in Belgium was published and went viral on social media. The men’s winning fee was £16,000 and the women’s was £930. Now I understand that this is a business model and fees come from the amount of viewers which Advertisers can get in front of via TV coverage.
Prize money is only the tip of the iceberg and only affects the top rider of a race, TV coverage is where improvements need to be made to then make the sport more lucrative for sponsors and advertisers.
I’m going to look into those riders who have fought and struggled each generation for the next generation of female bike racers to be treated fairly, Starting with previously supported VeloChampion rider Nicole Cooke.
Nicole Cooke (MBE) is one of the most decorated riders in British Cycling spanning most disciplines in the sport. She won the Women’s Senior National Cyclocross Championships at 17 the youngest rider to do so at the time then went on to win her second senior women's title at the 2001 British National Road Race Championships that same year. She won four world titles in the junior road race in 2000, the mountain bike, time trial and road race in 2001.
All this was before she turned pro with Spanish-Ukranian Team Deia-Pragma-Colnago. She won races all over Europe, but all wasn’t plain sailing. Sharing a house with Rochelle Gilmore, founder of hugely successful Wiggle-High 5 / Honda riders, they had issues with wages not being paid, bikes not being supplied and medicines being offered.
The list of races Nicole took part in is incredible, but what is even more incredible is the amount of races she won at elite level. She raced her first Tour de France at the age of 19, only to lose energy towards the end. I could list the races, but the list would take up this whole blog, so just think of the races Bradley Wiggins won, Geraint Thomas and other notable male riders and Nicole has probably won them and more, in fact Nicole was the first British rider to win a Grand Tour.
My next Cycling Heroine is Helen Wyman, close to my heart as I would like to call her a friend if somewhat distant. Now living with husband Stef Wyman and their son in France, Helen has done more for the sport of Cyclocross for young girls coming through the ranks than any other rider and spent 4 years on the UCI Cyclocross Commission.
You will have heard the saying behind every successful man there is a strong woman, well with this duo it’s the other way round. Stef has supported Helen throughout her career as a mechanic, carer, driver, businessman and promoter.
Helen was born North of London and trained as a physio in Preston, a gritty town in the North West of England. If you did not already know, it’s a pretty good place to start racing Cyclocross, although some may say Yorkshire is the hot bed of cyclocross in the UK, which to be fair it is. Helen started racing at the age of 14, but soon found her love in cyclocross and quickly found success and eventually turned professional at 23.
Cyclocross took Helen to America to Race for Kona. Cyclocross even more so than road racing was a niche sport when Helen started, TV coverage for the men's racing was laughable, so you can imagine that coverage for women’s racing was non-existent, which in turn meant sponsorship was hard to come by. Throughout Helen’s career Kona has been her sponsor and both rider and sponsor have been loyal for the majority of her career. Winning 10 National Championships and 2 European championships and a Bronze medal at the World championships in 2014.
Helen raced on the road too with trade teams and her own development teams, managed by herself and Stef most notably the Matrix-Fitness-Vulpine team, where she raced the Women’s Tour Series and won in 2011. Since 2019, Helen has signed with Experza-Footlogix a Belgian cyclocross team as rider and mentor and continues to dedicate her life to making progress for the sport towards equality for female riders.
There are many more women in our sport that I would like to talk about that are doing great things to progress the sport for future generations, but for my final female rider that deserves to be spoken about is Beryl Burton (MBE), probably the greatest racing cyclist the UK has ever seen.
Like the hard men of the Belgian classics Beryl was brought up in a hard, working class family. She worked on a Rhubarb farm near Leeds for most of her cycling career and working life often doing 12-hour shifts.
Beryl had a motto “anything lads can do I can do” and she did, in fact she did it better. She set a record for the women’s 12-hour time trial that eclipsed the men's record for over two years. During that time trial there is a famous anecdote of when Beryl passed would be winner, Mike McNamara after completing 235 miles with 2 hours to go, Beryl went on to take the record by half a mile.
Beryl raced as an amateur for her whole career and turned down a professional contract with Raleigh to continue riding with her club teams Morley Cycling Club and later Knaresborough Cycling Club. Beryl never won a World championship in her specialist discipline (time trialing) only because there wasn’t an event to compete in and the same thing happened at the Olympics. By the time an event was introduced in 1984 Beryl was already 47 years old.
Despite these setbacks because Beryl was a woman, she achieved more than seems conceivable, imagine if she had support of a national governing body or support from well established trade teams. The same goes for Nicole and Helen Wyman and the umpteen female cyclists who might be very good club cyclists, but with some support could be World beating Champions.
We need to get behind these young and established riders, the talent is there, the entertainment we want to see in bike racing is there, we need to see it on the TV and through media channels, which will then make a sustainable business model for our sport (women’s cycling) to be a viable way of making a living at a professional level.
Progress is moving forward, but I personally think there is more which can be done.
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