Jennie’s post on the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire reminded me of a Twitter conversation I had a while ago with Richard Gadsden where we discussed the possibility of creating a major women’s cycling race in Britain.
One of the reasons for the Tour de France coming here in 2014 is because cycling is one of the fastest-growing sports in Britain. Bike sales are up, viewing figures for cycling on TV are high and cycling events bring out huge crowds to watch, whether they’re in a velodrome or on the road. Obviously, the sponsors want to tap into that market and the way to do that is to bring major races here. The problem is that – in men’s racing at least – there’s very little space in the calendar to bring races here. Aside from Grand Tour starts (and don’t be surprised if the Giro D’Italia or the Vuelta a Espana starts in Edinburgh in 2015 or 2016), there’s no space on the World Tour calendar for a race in Britain, and the UCI seem keener to create new races outside of Europe anyway.
There will be the Ride London Classic next year, and the Tour of Britain continues to attract a good field of riders because of its proximity to the World Championships, but unless World Series Cycling actually comes to pass and Britain gets one of the ten races, then there’s very little chance of a regular major race here.
However, it’s a completely different story when we look at women’s professional cycling. As is the case in so many other sports, it’s the men’s version that gets all the coverage and the money, while the women get the few bits that are left over, and as we’ve seen recently, also suffer the cutbacks before the men do. Nicole Cooke has spent large parts of her career winning races in the same style Bradley Wiggins has managed this year (she was World and Olympic champion in 2008) but gets a fraction of the coverage (and the sponsorship) that he does.
What this means is that unlike men’s racing, there are nowhere near as many women’s races, and there’s a huge dearth of them at the top of the sport. There are a bunch of small races, and ones a handful of stages, but only recognised Grand Tour – the Giro Donne (Giro d’Italia Femminile), and even that isn’t certain for next year.
It seems to me that Britain would be a good place to hold a high-profile multi-stage race, and professional women’s cycling is in need of the same. Doesn’t it make sense for the two to come together? The Olympic crowds turned out just as heavily for the women’s road race as they did for the men’s and I believe that you could both get the crowds out for a women’s Tour of Britain as well as getting the media coverage for it. Because it would be pitched as a Grand Tour, and thus at the top of the field, it could feature a lot of the tough climbs that the men’s race avoids – why not have a stage or two in the Lakes, the Highlands or across the steepest part of the Pennines?
Britain has a long tradition of women cyclists who didn’t get anything like the same attention as the men. Jennie mentioned Beryl Burton and I’ve already talked about Nicole Cooke, but there are others like their fellow world champion Mandy Jones or Yvonne McGregor who never got the recognition they deserved. There’s a new crop of great young British women cyclists – Lizzie Armitstead, Laura Trott, Jo Rowsell, Dani King, Lucy Garner and others – who are desperately looking for the opportunities that are easily available for their male counterparts. Giving them a major race at home, with a home crowd cheering them on and a media that’s already shown lots of interest in them, could be just what we need to kick off a real step change in cycling and attitudes to women’s sport in Britain.
Of course, it’s easy for me to say what a good idea this is, as I’ve not got the money to invest in trying to make something like this happen (though it is on my list of ‘things to give money to’ if I ever have a EuroMillions win) but what would be the steps to make this happen? What sort of funding and backing would be needed, and where would it come from? The original Grand Tours and major cycle races came about mainly because newspapers wanted to make a name for themselves and generate exclusive content that their rivals wouldn’t have. One hundred years on, perhaps we should be looking to websites that want to make a name for themselves?