The first rest day of the 2014 Tour de France provided an opportunity to catch up on some other things going on in cycling, like last week's Giro Rosa and this week's Thüringen Rundfahrt. These are the two most prestigious multi-day events in the women's cycling calendar but, in the big scheme of things, they receive little media exposure. By all accounts the Giro Rosa was a fantastic event; won by Olympic and World Champion, Marianne Vos.
We're forever being told that women's cycling needs to build its audience, so the decision to schedule the Giro Rosa and Thüringen concurrently to the Tour de France appears counter intuitive. Whilst the eyes of the sporting world are on Le Tour there is little appetite to watch any cycling elsewhere. It also seems counter intuitive that the Tour de France doesn't support a women's stage race, but this situation will evolve in 2014 with the introduction of La Course by Le Tour de France – a women's criterium race held on the Champs Elysees during the final day. ASO should be congratulated for creating La Course by Le Tour de France; it will be broadcast live globally and in a snap shot provide the exposure and profile women's cycling needs.
The flip side of creating exposure is developing the strength and depth in the women's pro peloton. To move forward we must accept the overall standard of women's pro cycling lags behind men's cycling and its peer group of sports. However, it's nonsense to suggest the physical capabilities of women are the key contributing factor - a quick glance towards endurance sports such as Ironman and Marathon running immediately debunks this interpretation. In 2013, the female winner of the Kona Ironman ran a faster marathon time than the men's champion. It's also nonsense to suggest that all of a sudden women should be earning equal prize money to men and competing in 3 week Grand Tours. It took the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) the best part of 40 years to achieve equal pay in Grand Slam events, but equal pay hasn't meant equal play. Demand for women's five set tennis isn't there (yet) and in cycling question marks already exist over the ability of the UCI World Tour to sustain 3 x 3 week Grand Tours.
So, where do we begin to reconcile these difficulties for women's cycling? It isn't simply the responsibility of teams and events owners to 'do the right thing' but thankfully one key building block is already in place – a progressive and forward thinking governing body. "Developing women's cycling" was one of 5 high priority recommendations of the 2012-2013 UCI Stakeholder Review, which soon established the first UCI female vice president and UCI Women's Commission. This was followed by increased investment into the television production of Women's World Cup events and the difference is tangible. Chapeau.
The UCI is in a powerful position to enforce change and it also has a moral obligation. For good reason, women's sport benefits from positive discrimination and the UCI are pushing on an open door of public, media and political support to accelerate changes to women's cycling. It's about Doing the Right Thing.
A Framework For Change
In all aspects of life Equality is widely viewed as a human right. However, a goal of equality between women's and men's cycling is a likely to be a red herring and lead to direct conflict with market forces. Men's cycling faces many challenges and the advantage of women's cycling is a lack of historic context. It's very much a blank sheet of paper. People will say the last point devalues past achievements but the bottom line is women's elite cycling has little awareness across the overall sporting landscape. A big disconnect when c40% of the world's population shows an interest in cycling and this interest is more or less gender neutral.
So, rather than Equality, we should look to Equal Opportunity as a founding principle to develop women's elite cycling. Applied fairly, how does this train of thought apply itself to a sporting framework?
Enabling Women To Train And Compete To The Best Of Their Physical Ability
The sporting potential of women's cycling begins and ends with its athletes. Currently, not enough female riders are able to realise their true potential in the professional ranks, to the detriment of the sporting product. This is disheartening.
Being valued and rewarded as professional athletes will increase the talent pool and provide more opportunities for more riders to earn a respectful living from cycling. Being a professional cyclist should be a positive career choice and it's depressing that the majority of female 'pro' cyclists are poorly paid, with a significant percentage of athletes requiring other forms of income to subsidise their career. This is a vicious circle as rest and recuperation is essential for professional athletes. There are no minimum wage rules for female pro cyclists. The average salary for top-level female pro riders has been reported at c€20,000 per annum. If we discount the big earners the average salary is more likely to be €12,000, with a significant proportion of riders racing for free (earning nothing).
By means of comparison the minimum wage for UCI World Tour cyclists is €35,000 per annum, with the average salary reported at €265,000 in 2012 (Ernst & Young). If we discount the big earners this figure would probably equate to €125,000-€150,000. For Pro Continental riders, the average wage is likely to be €60-80k.
In 2011 the UCI was asked if it could enforce a minimum wage for female pro cyclists. Pat McQuaid said "Not so sure. We have an agreement in men's sport, but women's cycling has not developed enough that we are at that level yet". Mr McQuaid was probably correct in his observations but this shouldn't discount the UCI's role – to develop a sporting framework for female pro cyclists that remedies this situation. In this respect the UCI have been guilty of prioritising plans for men's road cycling.
If the principle of Equal Opportunity extends to women's cycling then why not a minimum wage for women that is equal to men? This egalitarian vision would require grounding in a commercial plan, so how could this be achieved in 3-5 year window?
Planning Women's Events - Fish Where The Fishes Are
For women's cycling to better commercialise it requires a bigger audience and the biggest audiences coincide with the Grand Tours.
Building on La Course, women's races at Grand Tours presents an opportunity to elevate women's cycling and the UCI Women's Road World Cup. Just like the success of women's tennis owes much to the oxygen of the Grand Slams, the Grand Tours can be the key moments during the season when female competition is brought under the same event structure in front of large global (and predominantly free-to-air) audiences.
But hosting male and female competitions alongside one another is fraught with difficulties. Logistics, broadcast capacity and existing sponsor agreements quickly become stressed with the introduction of a women's competition. So the priority should be to provide exposure and profile at Grand Tours and not being measured by the duration of event. Creating new audiences for women's cycling at Grand Tours will enable women's cycling to channel these audiences to other events in the calendar, many of which need extra support.
On paper, there should be an opportunity to create a consistent and easy to understand multi-day event model for women at the Grand Tours, showcasing the key ingredients of road cycling. Initially it's likely that one-day events, like La Course, will be most practical with market forces hopefully incentivising event owners to increase this over time.
Events at Grand Tours would compliment one-day events hosting women's races. This already exists at major events like Fleche-Wallone (ASO) and the Tour of Flanders (Flanders Classics Group), where a women's race is scheduled prior to the men's event. This adds profile to women's cycling and builds the understanding that women can race on the same parcours as men. Those who watch women's cycling will testify it's an entertaining sport; typified by the many millions of viewers globally who witnessed Marianne Vos win Olympic gold in 2012.
The UCI are ideally placed to incentivise event owners to stage women's races by making sure this is part of the criteria to evaluate and award the status of a men's race. Staging a women's race shouldn't be mandatory but positively championed by cycling's world governing body.
Teams – Creating A Level Playing Field
It costs around €500,000 per annum to support a top level women's cycling team. This stacks up against €10-25m per annum for a men's World Tour team. Some World Tour teams support women's squads, but most don't. Why?
• The management of the UCI World Tour is dominated by men, so women's cycling simply isn't in focus
• Men's cycling is a financial arms race with c70% of operating budget being spent on salaries of riders and staff. Every € counts and the recent failure of Slipstream's women's squad is directly attributable to supporting the spiralling costs of the core men's team.
However, between 2009 and 2012 UCI World Tour budgets rose by 36.5% (Ernst & Young), so it is futile to suggest the money isn't there for UCI World Tour teams to support women's teams.
If the money is there to support women's teams being part of UCI World Tour teams, then the UCI can begin to calibrate the market. First of all the UCI could stipulate that all Men's World Tour teams own or are affiliated to a women's team. A minimum budget or % of a team's operating budget could be standard measures to implement this. Affiliating to women's teams to World Tour teams could help align infrastructure and sponsor contracts, as many women's team struggle with the basics of service courses and team vehicles.
Sponsors of cycling, whether technical or consumer brands would support such plans. Firstly, Technical sponsors want to be more relevant in a market with booming female participation. Secondly, females account for the bulk of household purchasing decisions.
This approach may sound overly simplistic but the approach needs to be when considering the complexity of changes planned for men's cycling. There was no mention of women's cycling in a recent UCI newsletter (01.03.14) which announced significant and positive reforms of men's professional cycling from 2015-2017. These included a recommendation that the top 24 teams each support an Under-23 development squad. Commendable, but surely this was a missed opportunity to lend support to women's teams and events? Directly influencing a framework for women's cycling based on the principle of equal opportunity for female pro cyclists should be a priority mandate of the UCI. These recommendations are fair, relatively un-inhibiting on men's pro cycling and support the over-arching goal to "Restore the credibility of cycling and the public perception of the sport".
In many ways women's pro cycling has the potential to be different and take a jump on men's cycling. For instance, live on board camera technology will be trialled during La Course and teams are more willing to share the data that provides cycling fans with the sporting insights they demand. In short, women's cycling is relatively unencumbered when it comes to innovating the sport. It's fantastic that ASO is committed to La Course for 3 years, but its development and success will be determined by the appetite of media and sponsors to get behind women's cycling. Women's tennis is the reference point. It's a shining example of promoting athletes as positive role models, marketing sport to female audiences, delivering commercial value for sponsors and delivering entertainment value from its events. The same can be achieved for women's cycling.
Steve Beckett is former Head of Cycling at British Sky Broadcasting and founder of www.BikeBrands.cc, working with teams, sponsors, federations and governing bodies across cycling.