Last weekend I was lucky enough to be able to get to the start line of what can only be described as a turning point in women’s racing. A bike race with a difference. A bike race with guts. And the best part about it? It was a British race.
The Women’s Tour de Yorkshire (WTDY) was groundbreaking for a number of reasons. It made the cycling world sit up and listen. A complete commitment was given from a number of key individuals who made this day so historical.
Women’s racing continues to struggle to reach the parity it deserves with men’s racing- but races like this signal a true turning point.
The WTDY has really shown what can be achieved in professional women’s racing when committment is given. A handful of these key factors are highlighted below in the hope that this model turns into a ‘copy/paste’. We need all the stakeholders involved in women’s racing to commit to achieving comparable WTDY and delivering even better races.
Ultimately the larger the interest, the bigger the return for all involved: riders; sponsors; the next generation of professional and amateur level racers; and from where I was standing, the watching public.
Sir Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, and the driving stakeholder in this period of change quoted to the Guardian “what I don’t want is for my daughter to say to me: ‘I want to be a professional cyclist’ and for me to have to answer: ‘how will you earn a living?'”.
Asda, a large supermarket chain, with its roots firmly planted in the North were clear on its commitment as the title sponsor, and what that meant for them and for women’s racing. They not only wanted to remain part of the legacy that was created after the 2014 Tour de France grand depart in Yorkshire, but they also saw the value in raising the profile of the women’s race.
Asda were perfect for this sponsor role by having the opportunity to play on their community angle. The scene was set, with local girl Lizzie Armitstead leading the majority of press interest.
The story won’t end in 2016 either- Asda have signed up for a 3 year sponsorship deal. Take note, large companies.
Prize fund disparity- this time in favour of the girls
Asda didn’t just ‘play’ at being a committed sponsor. They stepped up and put their money where their mouth was, and for 2016 a £50,000 prize pot was on offer.
Not only does this record breaking amount catch our eye, the fact that the first placed female rider took more than the first placed male rider. This was a real committment – and a ballsy stand- to addressing the huge discrepancies usually found between women’s and men’s prize funds.
Difficulty of course
The day before the race I spoke with each of the Wiggle High5 team, for various interviews to be published with online magazine Total Women’s Cycling. We spoke about the race day that lay ahead, and there was one consistent answer from each of the girls. They were excited about the opportunity to race a hard course, a course that the men would race on the same day. This was progress, and a real statement.
“Having a full length race is very important as the organisers believe that the women are capable of doing that kind of stage.” Lizzie Armistead, World, Commonwealth and National Road Race Champion.
The power of TV
Women’s bike races are not normally televised. Sometimes, providers may have the ability to televise the last hour of the women’s race, but the production companies may choose to televise the rather boring first hour of the men’s race which usually follows on the same day.
The WTDY was set to be televised and that was exciting, not only for the watching public, but also for the riders. Heartbreakingly, the transmission signal failed. Armistead launched an attack in the last 30km for the cameras, but sadly only those in the peloton and on the side of the road saw it.
Races are usually covered by key individuals on Twitter such as @_pigeons_, who find a way to watch or follow often obscure feeds. Not exactly easy to do. However in this instance there was absolutely zero coverage, except for the tweets coming from one person who was in the race convoy and those watching on the roadside.
Twitter went into overdrive. Rather than seeing this as a negative, this should be taken as a massive step forward. There was mass disappointment- the media lead up had clearly done its job of building up the level of excitement. It also raised awareness of the usual poor coverage of women’s racing. These women are Olympians, commonwealth medalists and the best in their sport. They deserve to be seen. There has been massive steps taken with the new format of the UCI Women’s World tour, where the UCI has placed media obligations on race organisers. But there is still a long way to go. If we can harness the media excitement that was built up for the WTDY and get that into the next lot of women’s races, it can only be an upwards curve.
What happens next?
We hope that the WTDY has now set the standard for professional women’s racing and what it deserves. Following this model, there is a real opportunity to further commercialise the sport which can only make it better for the riders and the fans.
Women’s racing is exciting, full of drama, and needs to be seen. It also requires the more hardcore to keep making that song and dance about it. So get your dancing shoes on. There’s work to be done.