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Women in sport: Breaking the cycle

Cycling is an incredible sport, offering so many disciplines and opportunities, but it’s still male dominated, with sexism entrenched in the most high profile competition – the Tour de France. Car manufacturer Škoda is taking a stand with a women’s cycling academy. Kath Hudson reports

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 2019 issue 3
Thirty-seven women were shortlisted for selection into the programme and attended a day of testing
Thirty-seven women were shortlisted for selection into the programme and attended a day of testing

It is the oldest and most prestigious professional cycling race in the world, but the Tour de France shuns female pro-cyclists. For the last four years, in an attempt to give female cyclists a presence, break down gender stereotypes and encourage equality in sport, a 13-strong women’s cycling team – Donnons Des Elles au Vélo J-1 – has completed all 21 stages one day ahead of the men.

Last year, Škoda got on board to amplify the message, but this year it went one step further. The car manufacturer teamed up with cycling royalty, Dame Sarah Storey, to create a cycling academy to coach a team of five women to ride with the J-1 team at this year’s Tour de France.

“There is a disparity in the world of cycling between the men and women, and now it’s time to act,” says Škoda’s communication manager, Lisa Kirkbright, who has spearheaded The Škoda Driver’s Seat Initiative (DSI) Women’s Academy. “The aim is to create a pathway to elite road cycling for women, giving a leg up to those who are committed.”

“Currently, the pathway to elite level is more difficult for women: there’s one female race to three men’s races, so there’s less opportunity for them to get their rankings up. As a result, the number of women racing at elite level is only 10 per cent,” she says. “Added to this, there’s a disparity in prize money and media coverage. Škoda wants to help girls get to the top by giving them the full armoury needed to tackle the male dominated world of cycling.”

Škoda takes action
Female riders between the ages of 17 and 25 were invited to apply to the Škoda DSI Cycling Academy and 37 shortlisted cyclists were invited to Lee Valley Velopark for the selection day, in June.
“They were properly beasted by Sarah,” says Kirkbright. “They did a 12 minute endurance test, measuring power and cadence; a three minute power output and cadence test; a six second peak power test and then two flying laps on the outdoor track to look at bike handling and position.”

Some of the hopefuls were cyclists, some were race cyclists, some triathletes and one had an England cap for netball, but all of them had a passion to make it into the elite arena. “We narrowed it down to five so that we could really focus on them,” says Kirkbright. “Sarah was their mentor and they received media and social media training, and coaching in everything they need to know to be a modern athlete, such as self promotion and gaining sponsorship.”

Storey’s mentorship is second to none: as Britain’s longest serving international athlete, she’s gearing up for her eighth Paralympic Games (the first four were for swimming). After giving birth to her second child in 2017, she won two golds at the 2018 Paracycling World Championships and two golds and a silver at the 2019 Track World Championships.

An added bonus of the programme is that if any of the chosen riders show sufficient potential, they will be offered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the Storey Racing team. Launched in 2017 by Sarah and Barney Storey, this currently comprises 12 riders, from Youth A to senior level, as well as three paracyclists, across the disciplines of road, track, time trials and cyclocross.

Storey says that Škoda’s aims match with her own: “Škoda is a strong advocate for gender equality in professional cycling and I’m proud to support them. The Škoda DSI Cycling Academy is about promoting women in our sport, creating opportunities and clearing a path to race on a professional level.”

Škoda will wait to see the impact of this year’s campaign before deciding the future of the academy, but Kirkbright is hopeful it will continue in the future years. “We want to deliver something good and purposeful, which will hopefully continue in future years,” she says. “Other sports are changing faster than cycling and gender inequality has no place in the Tour de France. As the England women’s football team has proven, women’s sport is exciting and watchable. It shouldn’t be treated as second best.”

Cycling revolution

Former European cyclocross champion and world champion medallist Helen Wyman is working tirelessly to get more female representation in cyclocross. Last year she launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay entry fees for national races for 100 U23 women.

The Helen 100 focused on U23 women, as Wyman feels it is really important to keep this age group engaged in sport. “By paying for the riders’ entry to Nationals this season we were able to create a community feeling,” she says. “We were able to fund every U23 woman who applied to us and had a record-breaking 91 U16 women at Nationals.”

Further to this, Wyman organised the first ever junior female international cyclocross race in Belgium last year for U16s and U18s. She is now looking for sponsors to expand this into a series of four, with an overall classification.

The Helen 100 supported U23 women
Mountain biking

Women’s cross country and downhill mountain biking is booming at elite level, with the races every bit as exciting as the men’s, and the riders just as skilful. According to the defending UCI cross country world champion, Jolanda Neff, mountain biking does much better on the gender equality front than road cycling: “It’s a pioneering sport; at elite level men and women race on the same day, on the same track, with the same prize money and same media attention. All the teams are mixed and stay at the same hotels.”

However, at regional level, females are still overwhelmingly in the minority. In this year’s south west cross country series, some of the races have had no women over the age of 40 participating. Females account for around 15 per cent of the main race and 25 per cent of the U10s/U12s race.

However, the U8s category has a more even split: optimistically this could suggest the change is coming from the bottom up, as more men take their children riding and bring their families to races. What’s heartening is that the standard of riding is good among females who race. They’re giving the boys and men a run for their money.

Elite women riders frequently do their bit to encourage more women to ride, including coaching and guesting at training days. Neff hosted Joladies Bikedays at Gstaad in June, where women met for a day on the bike to ride and receive coaching from herself and other female guides. Last year Neff also organised a number of the top riders on the circuit to collaborate on an inspirational video showing that mountain biking is for everyone. Watch the video at:

Jolanda Neff says mountain biking is pioneering gender equality in cycling
British cycling

• In 2013, British Cycling (BC) launched the #WeRide initiative with the aim of getting one million more women into cycling by 2020. It reports it’s on track to hit this target.

• This year has seen two more BC campaigns: #OneInAMillion, which aims to raise the profile of women’s cycling and a collaboration with This Girl Can on a cycling campaign to reach a wider female audience.

• BC’s women-only HSBC UK Breeze programme has attracted 250,000 attendances, with 10,000 rides in 2018.

• More women are taking part in long distance sportives – up from 17.6 per cent to 25 per cent of attendances.

• 22.7 per cent of BC qualified coaches (1,200) are female.

• Five of BC’s 11 board members are female, including a female chief executive, Julie Harrington.

• 17.9 per cent of cycling club members, which are also BC members, are female.

• 520 out of the 2,200 affiliated BC clubs hold women only session as part of their activities.

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