Photograph of Emma Pooley winning La Fléche Wallonne in 2010 from Cycling News
The hot topic recently, lighting up blogs and fuelling the ping pong of Twitter debates, has been the inequalities endemic in cycling. The hand wringing, the scratching of heads, the unfathomable truths; how can it be that female riders are paid so little compared to men, why is women’s cycling practically ignored by the mainstream media? What can be done to correct these injustices? How do we move towards a fairer sporting world where everyone can live in harmony and draw a decent living wage from professionally pursuing their calling in the services of the great God of Sport?
No money, mo’ problems
Men’s professional cycling has been around for quite some time – the culture, folklore, infrastructure, fan base all well established. And yet it remains a minority sport in pretty much every country in the world except for maybe a couple of northern European exceptions. Only a handful of men, in an extraordinarily competitive and poorly rewarded profession, make a truly comfortable living, and even less end their career in the knowledge that their financial future is secure. Many teams – aside from the likes of Sky and Katusha – struggle for funding, many smaller races fight for their existence in the face of backers withdrawing funding.
And it is with this backdrop that we have calls for parity with men’s and women’s cycling – more money, more airtime, more column inches. It’s a noble aim, but with even the men’s sport poorly funded in all but the highest stratospheres, is it really feasible?
‘Aint no business like show business
Professional sport is not really sport at all; it’s entertainment paid for out of the marketing budgets of commercial organisations. The brand name on the team’s jersey is the reason any rider makes it to the start line. In fact, it’s the reason the start line exists in the first place. It may be painful to admit it, but the sport we all love only exists in its professional form because it helps a company sell floor tiles (Quick Step) or liquified gas products (Liquigas).
And so cycling is subject to the same principles of any business – supply and demand, profit and loss, taking care of the bottom line. If this whole system starts to break down then so does professional sport. Times change, the public’s tastes are fickle, the world moves on. Just as we’ve seen many professions throughout history become extinct, it’s conceivable that someday in the not-so-distant future, professional cycling will cease to exist.
Away from the spotlight
So women’s professional cycling is under funded, many riders not even paid, their races go practically unnoticed. I imagine this puts it on a par with most sports – whether they be male or female. How many obscure disciplines pop up during the Olympics? Where do all these people come from? How on earth do they possibly cope without the warm glow of the media spotlight shining on them for all but a few weeks every four years?
I wonder just how many professional athletes there are in this country who make their living solely from playing sport? And should this matter? What’s wrong with being an amateur? If no one is watching, no one is paying for entry to your sporting event, no TV cameras are trained on your performances, then just how are you expecting to earn your living?
Women’s cycling fails to feature in the mainstream press, and even in the cycling media, simply because there is a lack of demand. There is obviously debate to be had as to why this should be, but the media are in the game of selling a product and appealing to the widest possible audience. It’s why Premiership football dominates the newspapers back pages – cycling in any form rarely gets a look-in. It would be great to see more women’s racing on the TV, but who’s going to pay for that? The costs of filming the Tour de France for example are huge, and only possible due to the incredible popularity of the event. Obviously filming can be achieved on a smaller budget, but it means no live coverage and a more limited perspective on the action.
Welcome to our world
Most people reading this blog will not be paid to ride their bikes, though many of us would love to. Many of us train hard, having to juggle the demands of a job and family. Not only do we not get paid, but cycling is not a cheap sport to compete in, it can be a real drain on our financial resources. But do we complain? Do we despair at the injustice? No, we get on with it. In fact, we love it.
Getting paid to ride your bike, or indeed to earn a living pursuing what most consider a hobby, is a real privilege, and certainly not a right, no matter how good you are at it. And that goes for both men and women.
What matters is participation. Get rid of the professionals and our sport will still survive. Because the sport is about us, it’s about the weekend warriors, the 4th cat veterans, the elite women, the men riding Premier Calendar events while working a full time job. The joy of cycling is hopping on your bike and enjoying the freedom, suffering, over coming the odds and the terrain.
Locally, women’s cycling is noticeably on the increase – there’s almost as many women lapping Richmond Park at the weekend than there are men, the London Womens Cycle Racing league returns for its second year and is likely to see increased participation and support. I’d rather see ordinary women and girls discovering the wonders of cycling, than caring about whether a minority of athletes are paid to ride their bikes, or whether it is proportionally represented on Eurosport. But who knows, as participation at the grassroots grows, the demand to watch professional women’s racing may grow too?
But if you’re picking up a bike with ambitions of fame and fortune, then you’ve chosen the wrong profession. Cycle because you love it, not because you want millions of people to watch you do it.