Terms like “gender parity” and “gender neutral sponsorship” may be accurate terms to use, but the choice of words does not of itself change the inequalities between the men’s and women’s pro cycling worlds. I suspect that sometimes those terms are used as it makes the subject more comfortable to discuss. These differences are not only in the area of funding, but also those of the organisations involved, and the opportunities they provide for riders and teams to race.
Several of the UCI World Tour teams such as Mitchelton-Scott, Sunweb and Movistar have incorporated women’s squads into their teams. One day during the recent OVO Tour of Britain, whilst the Team Sky riders were out on the road, I took the opportunity to ask Sir Dave Brailsford, the Team Principal, whether Sky had any plans to set up a women’s team.
Given Sir Dave’s reputation for detailed analysis of every situation or opportunity, if he says an issue is important, then he has probably examined it in some depth. If as a result of their deliberations this winter, Sky do decide to promote or sponsor a further opportunity for the pro teams to race; this could do far more to promote the sport than merely forming another team.
One glaring omission in the calendar which, with Sky as a title sponsor, an entrepreuneurial promotor could fill, is a stage race in France for the women pro teams. The organisers of the Tour de France make a fortune out of promoting the race and grudgingly, very grudgingly, provide only a one-day race, La Course, for the women’s pro peloton. The date, location and type of stage used for that race can vary as the whim takes the organisers, with little consideration of the rest of the calendar. The last climb and the finish of this year’s La Course was as good as any of the Tour de France stages.
To highlight this inequity in recent years a group of female cyclists, Donnons des elles au Velo Jour-1, have cycled each stage of the Tour de France one day ahead of the actual race.
In Spain there is La Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta – again a one-day race.
One area in which the UK leads the world is in giving equal prize money to both the men’s and women’s races.
A representative of OVO Energy, The Tour of Britain Title Sponsor for both the men’s and the women’s races, made the equality of sponsorship issue personal. In an interview he questioned how he could explain to his daughters that the efforts of the women riders were worth less than that of the men. His solution was to sponsor equal prize money for both races. The OVO CEO labelled the decision, which more than doubled the women’s prize pot, as a “no brainer”.
In 2016 The Tour de Yorkshire was the most lucrative race on the women’s calendar, with a first prize for a one-day event that was greater than that on offer to the winner of the men’s three-day race. The women made the point that parity was not just about money, but about the type and duration of the races.
The route of the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire will not be announced until December – probably the 7th – but it looks as if the women’s race will be just two days whereas the men will race for four. The prize money will be the same, making the women’s race more lucrative in terms of prize money per day raced. I believe that final clearance from the UCI may still be required, but it is expected that the women’s race will take place over two of the stages the men are racing, but leaving earlier in the day. Not perfect but perhaps moving in the right direction. It will be one of the few women’s races anywhere in the world with complete broadcast coverage on TV.
Some in the women’s pro peloton have argued that more events should be developed, that are, as equally testing as the men’s races, but unique to the women’s race calendar. Like so many things, this kind of event would need to secure media coverage as a passport to further funding and sponsorship.
All of this brings us back to Sir Dave Brailsford. Sky is part of a larger media group, and the team they sponsor is probably one of the few organisations with the clout to get the TV coverage and make something happen. So come on Team Sky, play your part.