Stefan Wyman Interview Part two: “Why should women settle for five or ten percent"
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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Stefan Wyman Interview Part two: “Why should women settle for five or ten percent"

by Ben Atkins at 8:49 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling
 
Matrix Fitness-Prendas manager discusses the future of the women’s sport and his hopes for developing his team

stefan wymanSince we published the first part of our long conversation with Horizon Fitness-Prendas manager Stefan Wyman, one of his former riders - Lizzie Armitstead - has won a silver medal in the Olympic road race, and two others - Dani King and Joanna Rowsell - have won gold in the Team Pursuit; smashing the World record in the process.

In part two we discuss some of Wyman’s ideas on the future of women’s cycling, including the increasing role of the men’s side of the sport, as his team looks to grow in the next few seasons.

The British national team’s reduced role in the elite women’s sport

Many have been critical of what they see as British Cycling’s gradual withdrawal of support from the women’s side of the sport since the last Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. There is no longer a national team - which was previously based in Belgium - to contest World Cups, and big races like the Giro Donne, but Wyman feels that there is less of a need for one nowadays.

“We have a lot of good riders out there doing professional races, with professional teams,” he said, “and I think that if - as a sport - we are to progress, we actually need to get away from people shouting and screaming about there being no national team out there, racing. Why should there be a national team out there racing, when we’ve got riders in professional teams?

“We don’t have team Great Britain in the Tour de France for men, we have Team Sky, which has got people from various nations and back up staff form all over the place,” he explained. “There is a worry that there’s not going to be a structure for people like [World junior champion] Lucy Garner, or [Martix Fitness-Prendas rider] Penny Rowson, or the others coming through, but I think that British Cycling did put in a very well-structured investment into women’s cycling, they’ve taken if forward to a different place, and they’ve added a huge layer of respect for women riders form the UK. Now they’re actively sought after by professional teams.

“I don’t think Lucy Garner’s going to need a national team for a couple of years to get by, when she turns senior next year. She’s going to go straight into a top professional team, and it’s the same for riders like Dani King from our team; if she wants to go out and ride World Cups then she’s not going to need to rely on a national team, she will be able to go to a top professional team, if that’s where her career needs her to go.”

Matrix Fitness-Prendas - formerly Horizon Fitness - is now in its third year, and looking to expand further into its fourth. With more support in the coming years, Wyman will be looking to lift the team back up to UCI-registered “professional” status, where he will be eligible to lead it into some of the biggest races in the calendar.

“We certainly hope so, we’re in talks with quite a lot of people,” he said. “We’ve really worked hard on the commercial return that we’ve managed to give people this year, and I think that finding new ways, and innovating, and working with new companies, has been really key to us.

“We’re definitely here for next year,” he continued, “but I think jumping to be a professional team next year might be difficult, but it’s very much on our radar that we want to return to the full professional scene, and be taking the team to the World Cups, and races like the Giro in the vey near future.

“I think that 2014 is going to be a really key year for us; that’s certainly where I target returning to be a professional team, and I think that, that working with the Commonwealth Games year, will be really important to us. Working with riders that are likely to be in that games, and giving them the best prep that they can get for that, is going to be something that’s really positive for us.”

To move ahead, the team needs further sponsorship, which he hopes will provide the necessary funding to join the top end of the sport. He feels that his team, with its long-running structure, would be a wiser investment for a potential sponsor than simply jumping in with an entirely new operation.

“Next year we need to be looking to add one more major commercially named partner, within our team, and significantly increasing our budget,’ he said. “I think that there’s a lot of people that come into the sport and think that they can just buy their way in; normally, unfortunately, those teams come in for a year and disappear, because they haven’t got the infrastructure. What we’ve done is put a good infrastructure into the team, and some good pathways for the riders, and I think that another year at this level - with a significant increase in budget - could allow us to make sure that, that off the bike structure is absolutely perfect for us to take the professional step the next year.



Should the UCI be forcing the men to support the women?

There are a number of people in the women’s sport that feel that, in order to develop the women’s sport - men’s WorldTour teams should be compelled to follow the lead of Rabobank and Orica-GreenEdge - and former team HTC-Highroad - to include a women’s team, but Wyman is not one of those.

“I’m completely of the other school of thought actually,” he said. “I think that the UCI shouldn’t force teams to do it, because women’s cycling’s quite unique, in where it is, and I think that it’s its own animal. I think that forcing people to back women’s cycling is completely the opposite of what we need.

“We need people that understand women’s cycling, and respect women’s cycling, and are willing to work and innovate to see how they get a commercial return from it,” he explained. “I think that the responsibility for that lies with many people, but that includes the teams, to show men’s teams that women’s cycling is professional in the way that it works; it lies with organisers to put on good races for us to put out good showcases; it lies with TV companies to come and record women’s cycling, and give it the time - in editing - that it needs, and actually getting commentators that know people’s names, and what they’ve done and their significant achievements.

“It’s a whole host of things, but I think forcing a men’s team to have a women’s team will just ensure that there’s a whole load of women’s teams that people don’t really care about, and I think that’s a really sad thing.”

With men’s team’s budgets running into the tens of millions, and top women’s teams costing a fraction of that amount, it would be a relatively small investment. Nevertheless, it is not something that Wyman wants to see forced upon them.

“In the past, I definitely thought ‘yeah, it’s only five percent, or ten percent of the budget, let’s do it, let’s try to get a weight of people behind this and get those teams out there,’” he explained. “But equally, why should women settle for five or ten percent of the men’s budget? The average salary in the ProTour men’s peloton is €255,000, I read earlier this year; that’s a huge amount of money, with that amount you could run a team well into the top five of women’s cycling.

“Women’s cycling should be aspiring to greater things than being spoon-fed five percent of the men’s budget,” he continued. “We need to work on getting our own budgets; we need to work on promoting our own sport in our own, unique ways; and we need to aspire a lot higher than that.”

Certainly it is something that Wyman would like to see more of, but only when a team genuinely sees a definite value in doing so.

“I think that when teams recognise - like GreenEdge - there’s a big opportunity for women’s cycling, and they’re going to be prepared to invest the money to get the right return,” he explained. “Of our budget, we have 50% plus as activation budget, to activate the return for sponsors, and we’re open about that with the sponsors that we deal with. That’s the kind of thing that GreenEdge and Rabobank understand; they’ve put great staff behind the riders, and behind the team, and they’re using the scientific side of the sport as much as they can.

“When people are forced into it [the riders] will get last year’s wheels, and very, very few riders, and a small, single race programme, that doesn’t necessarily suit the skills of the riders. That could be one of the most negative things that’s happened to the sport.”

Forcing women’s versions of men’s races could create sideshows and make existing promoters suffer

marianne vosThe same argument is put forward in terms of major races, with many feeling that WorldTour events should be compelled to follow the example of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and la Flèche Wallonne, in holding women’s editions. Again, this is something that Wyman would not like to see.

“I’m involved quite heavily in cyclocross as well [his wife Helen is seven-time British champion - ed] and this year the UCI required all organisers of the top category of cyclocross races to have a women’s race as well, which, again, in principle is a great idea,” he said. “But what it did was lead to women’s races being put on at nine o’clock in the morning, when there were two or three spectators on the course; the men are racing at three or four o’clock in the afternoon.

“You could go to a women’s race,” he continued, “do the race, clean everything, shower, drive home halfway across Belgium, and watch the men’s race on TV. It was so early; the women become such a sideshow, that it just became insignificant. Yeah, there was a race, but it wasn’t where the sport needs racing to go.

“I think the Tour of Flanders is a great race,” he added. “I think Flèche Wallonne is too - I’ve been lucky enough to mange teams in both races - but I think there is potential for the women to have, in future, their own great classics. There’s absolutely no reason why not.”

There is a definite role for the UCI in the development of the sport, he feels, but that role involves working with the enthusiastic, and hard working, people that are already involved in the women’s sport, rather than forcing disinterested investment from the men’s side.

“We are a long way off with some of these things,” he said, “but if the sport itself, and if the UCI, can get behind promoting some longstanding women’s races, that have actually gone out to change the level of races for women, then I think that the women riders should respect that, understand that, and will perhaps see that, that’s one of the great things for them.

“Sparkassen Giro was a great example of a race that’s not an outstanding level of event for men, but was very significant for women, because you had 50-100,000 people around the circuit,” Wyman explained. “You had huge town rides for local folk; there was support, evening criteriums and everything; it was such a great event. I think that events like that are so often overlooked because of the prestige of the men’s side of [things like] the Tour of Flanders.”

To force men’s events to field a women’s race could not only produce low quality races therefore, but also penalise those already in the women’s sport. Compelling the organisers of Milano-Sanremo and the Amstel Gold Race to resurrect their women’s versions could, in theory, push out the well organised and supported Trofeo Binda and Ronde van Drenthe World Cup races.

“That’s absolutely true,” Wyman said, “and I think what we need to do as a sport is to celebrate what we’ve got, and try to show how good the events are, the teams are, and the structures are; and try to encourage more people to come in and see the value of that.

“The World Cup system is very, very good, and I think that the only thing that’s a little bit of a shame is, over the last few years, we’ve got to a point where we’ve got an awful lot of national teams entering those races; which, in theory, is great, particularly when we’re making the sport far more globalised and bringing teams over from America and Canada, but it’s a shame there’s not a way to facilitate the professional teams from America to come to those races, and support them as a correct team.

“One of the ideals of the [men’s] ProTour was that you had this group of teams that were engaged in all of those races, you always had that team guaranteed to be at those events. I think in women’s cycling there’s an opportunity to do something like that. I’d much rather see a few less teams in a World Cup race, but they were better structured, organised professional teams, that were able to have a united policy.

“I think we need to encourage a top level of registration of women’s teams, and those people are engaged to go to all of those races, even if there’s some kind of financial assistance above what there is already to get them there.

It’s all well and good having a World Cup in China, it’s fantastic, but let’s get the best teams there, with their best riders, and make this a really good event. It’s a shame when we globalise the sport, and potentially take away from longstanding events, that we don’t make that event as good as it could be.

In the meantime however, Wyman will continue developing his own team, and hopefully - in a year or two - will be able to provide the rising stars of British cycling that he has in the Matrix Fitness-Prendas jersey with the opportunity to show themselves in the women’s sport’s biggest races.

“The most important thing for us is for people to know that we’re out there, and we in for the long haul,” he concluded. “The next two years are going to be really, really important for us, but also for women’s cycle sport, particularly in the UK.”

Read part one of our interview with Stefan here.

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