Nicole Cooke gave a withering assessment of British Cycling’s record of sexism in a committee hearing at the UK Parliament, calling it’s running of the sport as one, 'run by men, for men'. She also stated that the governing body had become accustomed to doing what it wanted without accountability, and accused them of blatant sexism.
On Tuesday, Cooke appeared by video link in front of the Culture, Media and Sport committee. The primary aim of it was to add to the long-running subject of combating doping in sport, but over the hour-long discussion Cooke was asked at length about sexism in cycling.
“British Cycling has got used to not being accountable to anyone. They’ve got used to doing what they want and nobody will ask what they’re up to,” Cooke told MPs, adding later that, “There were numerous examples of the conduct of British Cycling and the decisions that the World Class programme made that were sexist.
“You just have to listen to how they talk about things. It goes from Team Sky being set up to have the first British winner of the Tour de France. They don’t mean first British because I won the Tour de France* in 2006 and 2007 [Emma Pooley also won the event in 2009 -ed]. They mean by a man and that’s what counts in their eyes.”
Cooke went on to list a number of issues she believe demonstrated inherent sexism in British Cycling, including refusing to set up an under 23 development programme with National Lottery funding alongside the one that was created for the men, and a failure to organise an Olympic test event for the women ahead of London 2012.
British Cycling acknowledged Cooke's testimony, issuing a press release that stated, "While there is still a way to go, British Cycling is absolutely committed to resolving the historic gender imbalance in our sport.
"Since 2013, we have established a women's under-23 academy, a women's road team training base in Belgium and we are close to a 50:50 male/female ratio in terms of riders on the World Class Programme. British Cycling is also proud of the record of our elite women – at London 2012, the first Games to feature parity for the genders in cycling, and Rio 2016 they won a combined 28 medals."
"There is always more that can be done and we strive to make continual improvements to ensure that cycling is reaching out to women and girls of all ages and abilities. And, with the media recently moving to increase coverage of women’s sport, we believe these improvements will accelerate."
Cope and funding imbalances
The discussion of sexism during Cooke's testimony stemmed from the decision to send Simon Cope, who was at the time the women’s coach, to France to deliver a medical package to Team Sky at the end of the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine. Cope spent five years as the coach of the women’s road and endurance programme.
Cooke told the MPs that in 2009 and 2010, she had seen Cope regularly as he was looking after the under 23 team at road races. However, by 2011 the programme was stopped, and their paths crossed much less frequently.
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In 2011, in the build-up to the World Championships in Copenhagen, Cooke says she had organised a training camp with Cope for the women’s team. However, it was vetoed by Shane Sutton, with all the resource going into the bid to put Mark Cavendish into the rainbow jersey for the fledgling Team Sky.
In a 10-page document issued to the MPs ahead of the meeting, Cooke explained that she had spoken to UK Sport between 2001 and 2003, with the help of her father, about having the organisation take control of the management of the distribution of funds for British Cycling. However, UK Sport CEO at the time Richard Callicott, and Director of World Class Performance Programmes (WCPP) Liz Nicholl, current UK Sport CEO, were reluctant to do this and they handed full control to the national governing bodies.
“With British Cycling, they have a huge amount of funding. A huge amount of power and they’re not kept in check. Based on personal interest and projects and that has become the norm and that’s where the problem is,” she said. “I think that the structures at the board and CEO level could be reviewed. From UK Sport a greater oversight into how those funds are allocated over the various programmes to ensure that there is funding.”
*The women's Tour de France was called La Grande Boucle Féminine in the years Cooke won. It was previously known as Tour Cycliste Féminin, but was forced to change its name by ASO, the men's race organisers. It was considered one of the women's Grand Tours.
Inherent sexism in the rules and regulations
Cooke’s criticism was not just reserved for management on a national level, and she dished out some harsh words for the UCI, saying that some of their regulations embedded sexism into the fabric of the sport, citing shorter races for women as one such issue.
“I think there are some fundamental things at the top of cycling starting at UCI and the Olympics that still make sexism designed into cycling,” explained Cooke. “At the Olympic Games there is a team sprint event, and for the men, it’s three riders and three laps of the velodrome, and for the women’s it’s two. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be the same for men and women**.
“There are other things within the UCI structure that are inherently sexist. The men’s Tour de France is three weeks long, and the UCI brought in a rule to put in a top limit of a maximum 10 days for women’s race and, in some cases, they’ve limited to the number of stages. There are things like that which are holding women’s cycling back.”
The UCI introduced event parity for men and women in the Olympic Games for the first time in 2012, and in 2016 made the individual pursuit equal distance to the men's. But women still have shorter events within track racing, cyclo-cross, and road racing.
For 2017, the UCI extended the maximum length of a stage at Women's WorldTour level to 160 kilometres and the average length of a stage during a multi-stage race to 140 kilometres. Below WorldTour it is 140km maximum and an average of 120km - the same limits for junior men. Most stage races are limited to six days unless they get special dispensation from the UCI, with the Giro d'Italia one of the few races to do so.
When asked if there was any technical reason for such disparity or if It was just sexism, Cooke said, “I think it’s downright sexism. It’s designed in. Women have done two-week stage races. I’ve certainly raced more than 10 days so there’s no reason we couldn’t have a three-lap sprint at the Olympics.”
Cooke also stated that a minimum wage should be introduced into women’s cycling. “Very quickly, there would potentially be some teams that would fall away and not want to operate within that structure. But, given that in my career I had four teams that didn’t pay me and I had to take to court to pay my wages, I don’t think that we’d miss those sorts of things."