Who’s heard of the Grand Tours, the Monuments, the Classics? The top of the sport where the riders are heroes and the crowds flock to watch?
Now who’s heard of the Giro Donne, the Tour de L’Aude, the Women’s World Cup?
I didn’t think so…
I read recently in Cycling Weekly, Britain’s biggest and possibly only weekly cycling magazine, that Emma Pooley, the World TT Champion, isn’t happy about the inequality between men’s and women’s cycling. It’s not a new complaint, it’s something Vicky Pendleton has also mentioned in interviews before. And it got me thinking, why is this the case? And what can be done to change the balance of power?
Inequality between men and women isn’t something new. It’s a man’s world we live in, with men holding most of the key positions of power in the world’s governments and the largest global companies. And in the world of sport it’s the men that command the largest salaries and the biggest viewing figures. But things are changing: it wasn’t too long ago that women didn’t have the vote and were seen as being not much more than maids and mothers. The world is changing, but it seems the changes are too slow for some people.
The common complaint of Vicky Pendleton is that she works in a male-orientated environment and that frustrates her. The question she needs to ask herself is why is it such a male sport? In my opinion, the answer is in the question. It’s a sport. You see, men like sports more than women.
If you don’t think this is true, go into a shop that sells magazines and flick through the men’s and women’s publications. The most obvious thing you will notice about all the men’s magazines, like Nuts and Zoo, is that they have women (usually with large breasts) on the front cover, either topless or in their underwear. This is a theme that will be continued inside with many more similar pictures. In fact, most supermarkets have now started to hide the covers of these magazines as they consider them to be a bit too revealing. Inside you will also find funny stories about nasty injuries people have had, some photos of nice cars, and some sort of sports articles. Usually it’s football but occasionally it’s other sports.
Now look at the corresponding women’s magazines. The difference is obvious - the covers show celebrities, while the insides are filled with fashion, celeb stories and diet tips. See any sport?
So, while Emma and Vicky are complaining, they are missing the key fact; women are not as keen on sport. They prefer fashion and gossip. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not something we should ignore. The reason being is that it means the majority of sports fans are men, which is a bit of a problem for women sports stars.
When men are asked for their role models or the people they want to emulate, it’s likely that footballers will be top of the list. Ask women the same question and the answer is more likely to be women like Cheryl Cole or Emma Watson. Why is this the case? Because they are successful, beautiful, and fashionable. It’s unlikely many women will say they want to be sports stars.
So. already the problems are mounting up. Women aren’t as keen in participating in sport as men, they aren’t as keen to watch it, and they don’t idolize sports stars as much as men do. And yet these top women complain that men are the problem, but how can they expect to be treated as equals when it’s women themselves that don’t seem interested by sport?
Equality is driven by money. If the people want to watch women, then the sponsors will soon realise it, more money will be pumped in and the closer to equality we will get. But men prefer watching men compete, and the women aren’t too bothered about watching the women, so where are the crowds going to come from?
I don’t want to seem negative about women’s sport, so lets get one thing straight: I’d love to see women have equality with men. Their races might be a bit shorter and a bit slower, but they have to train just as hard and be just as dedicated. And they have the added problem of pregnancy and child birth getting in the way of their careers. In some ways women have it much harder than men. Nor am I going to say that women’s cycling is universally crap. Of course, the strength in depth isn’t there, so it is possible for the same riders to dominate. Some races such as the Commonwealth Games road race are exceptionally boring, but at the top level some of the racing can be brilliant.
Go on YouTube and put in ‘Emma Pooley Plouay’ and you will find one of the greatest attacks you have ever seen. There’s no doubt Emma is one of the best cyclists in the world, male or female, but not enough people get to watch her to know that. Without regular TV coverage, the girl’s racing is always going to struggle. There’s no point to them putting on an exciting race if no one will see it. The big question is this one: do enough people want to watch a female race on TV?
So what can women do? Well, of course, as Nuts and Zoo show, the easiest option is to take your clothes off. In tennis, the players who get the most sponsorship money are the good looking ones like Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniaki. As I said before, most of the viewers are men, so they prefer looking at pretty girls than ugly ones. And it’s the same in cycling. Vicky Pendleton has done well because, as well as being the best in the world, she’s also very attractive and is happy to pose in her knickers. Liz Hatch, while not being one of the very best riders, is one of the most popular because she's hot and likes doing slightly revealing photo shoots.
On a recent VeloNation news article, one of the highest ranked stories going by Facebook recommendations was an interview with Lizzie Armitstead. Was it because Jered Gruber wrote it? It was well done as usual, but the author’s name was probably not a big factor because his other pieces that day weren’t as highly rated. Was it because of what Lizzy said? Well she did swear a bit which is good to see, it shows passion, but there weren’t any massive revelations in the interview. Or was it because there were quite a few photos of Lizzie, who is probably the most attractive top level cyclist at the moment? I think I just answered that question for you…
So now we’ve established that women’s racing is just as hard as men’s but no one watches it, and those that do are men, who just like watching the good looking riders. What’s the solution?
Well, I think the key is to make women’s sport appeal more to women because if the females aren’t interested then you have got no chance. If a guy says to his wife, 'lets go and watch a bike race', if he shows enough enthusiasm she will likely tag along. If some good-looking guys like Ivan Basso or Tom Boonen, or my girlfriend's favourite, my team-mate Jon Locke, are riding then she’s probably going to be quite keen.
If the same guy suggests going to watch a women’s race, he’s going to get a slap. ‘You just want to look at them birds in lycra, you pervert’ she will say. So the only way to increase the crowds is to get more women wanting to go and watch and dragging their husbands along, or to tag the women’s races onto existing men’s races.
Part of the problem the top women riders have is that they are in a Catch 22 situation. If they want to make money they need to do scantily clad photo-shoots, which, as a man - and as I’ve got longer arms than my girlfriend, making it harder for her to slap me - I going to say I’m all for. The trouble with this is the role models for women like Emma Watson and Cheryl Cole don’t do that sort of thing. The cool and fashionable women that the girls like to read about and idolize don’t do slutty things. Not many girls see page 3 girls in ‘the Sun’ and wish that was them with their tits out.
Some of the biggest names in women’s cycling, the likes of Emma, Vicky and Lizzie, are most certainly role models. And to say in one interview you want women riders to have more respect while at the same time doing photo shoots which appeal solely to men is a bit hypocritical. It’s their fellow females that they need to gain respect from, and they will do that by keeping their clothes on, having cool hair styles and wearing the latest fashions.
It’s not going to be easy for women to gain equality, but at some point one of the really attractive top riders is going to have to say ‘I’m not taking my clothes off’ and instead change things the hard way by going to the grass roots and getting more young girls interested in taking part in and watching the sport. FHM and Nuts are not the magazines where Vicky and Lizzie should be wanting to get in, it’s Heat and Closer where they should aim to be seen.
And Emma Pooley, I think you’re an amazing rider, but moaning isn’t going to help. Emily Pankhurst etc. didn’t change things by complaining, they actually went out and did something about it. So maybe women’s racing isn’t on TV enough, but there’s no shortage of cycling websites. So, Emma, I challenge you to write a blog here on VeloNation to tell us about your races and get us interested in what you are doing. I’d be happy to read it.
Let’s start a revolution! But Emma Pooley, Vicky Pendleton, Lizzie Armitstead, Lucy Martin, Becky James, Jess Varnish, Laura Trott, Emma Trott etc…you are going to have to be the ones that lead it.
Thanks for reading,