A New Road Ahead for Women’s Cycling
By Sam Squiers
After 100 years of the Tour de France, the women want in.
There have been increased calls and a worldwide petition for the UCI and ASO (Tour’s owner) to introduce a Women’s Tour de France to race at the same time, same distance and with the same course as the men’s at next year’s event.
It’s a move that is a long time coming and cycling has been dragging the bike chain on women’s road racing. Up until now, women’s involvement in the Tour de France has been restricted to the podium girls who, after every stage, look good, smile, and kiss the cheeks of the stage winner.
There’s more to women’s cycling than a bit of kiss and tell. Other areas of cycling, such as the track, don’t suffer from the same gender bias as the road, just look at last year’s Olympics, the achievements of Australia’s golden girl Anna Meares was proudly supported and her long standing rivalry with Britain’s home town hero Victoria Pendleton read like a compulsory novel on our national reading list. Compare this with road racing where women’s events have battled for media coverage, legitimacy and as a result have struggled to stay afloat.
A women’s Tour de France has been trialled before. From 1984-1997 the Tour de France Feminin was held until the ASO forced a name change claiming it was a breach of trademark. The Grand Boucle was initiated but again it scrambled for sponsors and some years was forced to call the event off. 2009 was officially the last year that it was held.
The UCI hasn’t helped in the past either. It oversees the scheduling of the events and this year scheduled the re-vamped Giro Rosa (women’s Giro d’Italia) to start on the same day as the 100th edition of the Tour de France in a neighbouring country. Publicity 101 would have told you there was possibly no worse a date to start a women’s road race than in the shadow of one of the world’s most popular sporting events where the global media is focussed on just one race. Any other date would have assisted the girls in gaining some publicity which would have gone someway to helping sponsors get a bit more bang for their buck.
It’s a vicious cycle that without media coverage, women’s cycling struggles for sponsors and fans and without sponsors and fans they struggle for media coverage.
Last month’s appointment of Brian Cookson has already seen some positive moves. Within two weeks of taking over from Pat McQuaid, Cookson has already announced the formation of a new commission to help facilitate growth in women’s elite cycling. He also abolished the age limit of 28 for UCI Women’s Teams, something that riders and teams have been calling for for some time. Cookson is the former head of British Cycling and has been credited with much of Great Britain’s recent cycling success (back to back Tour de France Champions, rise of Team Sky and 19 Olympic Gold medals and 28 Paralympic Gold). He has also publicly supported the return of the Women’s Tour de France and oversaw the introduction of a women’s race into the Tour to Britain for next year, which will be the first women’s road race to be broadcasted.
Broadcasting the race is the secret to the sport’s success and don’t assume people won’t consume.
Sports can often underestimate the public consumption and media interest in women’s sport. Just a couple of months ago Australia won the Rugby League World Cup. Our women’s rugby league team, affectionately named the Jillaroos, beat New Zealand in the final at Headingly to take the sport’s biggest prize.
The NRL says it was pleased with the coverage it received for the Jillaroos and while it may have been bigger than in previous years, there was potential to get so much more. This was Australia’s first women’s rugby league world cup victory and it also ended New Zealand’s spectacular 12 year reign. It was a remarkable achievement yet the coverage was far from what they deserved.
Vision of the win was sent 24 hours after the victory, which in the news game meant it was simply too old. In this day and age of the internet and global access, it should have been available much sooner.
Cricket Australia has shown us how women’s team sport successes can be celebrated and acknowledged widely in the media. When the Southern Stars won the Women’s Cricket World Cup earlier this year, it led the nightly sports bulletins. The key ingredient to the media doing so was access to vision. It was broadcast on television and follow up interviews were shot by Cricket Australia and sent back to news outlets, knowing that they wouldn’t have a camera crew overseas at the event. Cricket Australia did this with both the Men’s and Women’s Ashes, sending back vision and interviews on a daily basis to media outlets and therefore ensuring coverage.
Cricket Australia says in February this year when the women won the World Cup, there were over 7000 media reports with a value of $8.1million. The NRL says the Jillaroos from May have had 426 reports with a value of around $1.3million.
At the time of writing this there were close to 94,000 signatures on the petition to introduce a Women’s Tour de France. The women don’t want to race with the men but have their own professional race run at the same time. Other sports successfully host men’s and women’s events at the same time. It makes sense when the world’s media is already there focussed on the event. In terms of the fans, people camp for days along the side of the road, it’s a readymade audience. The fans will embrace the race and the media will report on it, broadcast the event, more money flows from the sponsors.
Women’s sport shouldn’t be underestimated nor undervalued by the media but more importantly by sporting organisations themselves. This sex can sell.