Classics season is upon us. The true hard men and women of the peloton will again shine. It's a celebration of grit and history against the elements. And again, one race has chosen, above all else, to promote itself with the use of gratuitously sexualised imagery. It's time for the cycling community to say, enough is enough.
In 2011, E3 Harelbeke has used an image of black silhouettes of cyclists riding on the back of a naked woman, and in 2014 it was one woman 'riding' a 'bike' made of three other women as a means for 'promotion'. There was an artsy image not unlike those that track darling Victoria Pendleton had at the height of her career. At the same time, there have also been finishing line images from the previous edition to promote the race. In 2015, the image depicted is particularly troubling.
"Who will pinch them in Harelbeke?" The shot is of a podium girl's skirt, a breeze exposing her derriere, and a cycling glove-clad hand ready to go in for the grab. There can be no mistaking what the image is referring to. Two years ago, Peter Sagan thought it appropriate to grab hostess Maja Leye on the podium of the Tour of Flanders. He later apologised.
Race spokesman Jacques Coussens would have us believe that the promotional poster is "fun and playful". Also, he argues that in the social media furor that followed the image's release, that it was misinterpreted.
Following the Sagan incident, I wrote a piece for Cyclingnews slamming his behavior and those that defended him. In response, I received plenty of hate mail not limited to death threats in the weeks that followed. The experience was not a lot of fun, but not for one second did I regret asking my editor to publish the piece. Two years on, and in the wake of this latest example of cycling's often misogynistic attitude, I again suggest that it is time for the UCI to take a stand.
Women are capable and fierce sporting competitors, and they are a significant portion of the avid global sporting event audience. As influential household partners, they control the majority of consumer spending. Giving respect to women is not only the right thing to do morally, but it is increasingly being seen as good marketing practice. The message apparently has not yet made it to Harelbeke.
Cycling is not the only sport that has not quite gotten the message. Rising Canadian tennis star Eugenie Bouchard was asked by an on-court interviewer at the recent Australian Open to "give us a twirl" and show off her outfit. Admittedly, she later said the request was "unexpected" but she was not offended, but headlines spread around the world, denouncing the interview.
The Chicago Blackhawks finally caved under the pressure of fans and eliminated the disgusting tradition of having the arena's organist play "The Stripper" as women competed in the "Shoot the Puck" contest during the game's intermission.
Casual sexism is not a good look and increasingly, this outdated and cringe-worthy attitude is being called out for what it is – and not just in sport. Look up the "everyday sexism" campaign started by writer Laura Bates in 2012 - it was just one of several social media efforts to change attitudes. Proctor & Gamble's "Like a Girl" campaign in this year's Superbowl is a direct result of the shift. The revolt by prominent female actors over the ridiculous 'Mani Cam' [where jewellery-clad fingers are walked down a red carpet] at film awards shows, and the #AskHerMore campaign are a result of the backlash against everyday sexism as well. Around the world, the pressure is on to rid the media of these entrenched misogynistic images and attitudes, and yet the organisers of the E3 Harelbeke persist.
Even men's magazines are putting their hands up to reject 'pickup artist' or PUA editorials, and instead are publishing articles as GQ did such as 'The new rules: how to be polite to women without pissing them off.' There are numerous blogs and videos authored by men denouncing these attitudes and taking responsibility for creating a less hostile world for women - even President Obama joined in with his "It's on us" campaign.
We need to embrace an inclusive atmosphere for women in sport in all aspects, from fans to competitors, and there have been some encouraging steps towards equality for women within cycling. Recently, La Course by Tour de France put the women on the sport's most prestigious stage; the Tour of California added a four-day stage race to take place in conjunction with the men's race; there will be a race for women at the Vuelta; there is a Women's Commission within the UCI, and also an increased push for the broadcasting of races. Let's not forget that Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and the Tour of Flanders both have women's editions in their races.
There can be no doubt the sport's governing body is actively working for positive change, but in the case of a repeated offence, such as with the E3 Harelbeke, perhaps it is time that regulations are introduced in regards to the advertisements for sanctioned events that bear the UCI logo on its promotional activity. UCI President, Brian Cookson was quick to react to the poorly photographed Bogota Humana team kit last year, saying on Twitter that: "It is unacceptable by any standards of decency".
Given cycling's push towards equality, is the E3 Harelbeke's ad truly representative of where our sport is now? I think not. Making light of Sagan's actions nearly two years on certainly remains unacceptable by any standards of decency, to borrow Cookson's phrase. His very public action in calling out a questionable kit design on social media was enough to make clear that cycling in the modern era was unwilling to perpetuate sexist attitudes. Let me suggest that this latest promotional activity by E3 Harelbeke should receive no less from the UCI President.