Armitstead’s success has meant her views on the inequality between men’s and women’s racing, including the lack of opportunities for women to race, the lack of Sky sponsorship and the like, have been heard more widely than perhaps they normally would. This is a good thing.
I know I’m treading on dangerous ground here. You know it and I know it - I’m a middle class, middle aged divorced white male which means I am supremely unqualified to comment on anything regarding women in sport. Or women. Or sport. Having said that, the cycling team I coach contains more women than men and my daughter is a keen sports woman who captains both the County u13 cricket and football teams so I’m a little more than an interested observer.
When it comes to bike racing, look at the typical programme for a day’s circuit race and there will often be age bracketed races for youth and junior riders followed by the Cat 3/4 and E1/2/3 races. In there you’ll usually get the women’s race (not necessarily at the end of the programme) but it will be in there. Most organisers I know feel it is the right and appropriate thing to do although they will quietly admit they worry about the number of entrants it will attract. As I write, the biggest and best attended one day race in the country, the Newport Nocturne, is struggling to attract women riders – 12 are entered so far. The race is schedule for the 1st September and can see crowds of up to 15,000 people – what better platform to promote women’s cycling?
Experience has shown there are relatively few entrants for women’s racing and it often ends up getting cut and combined with the 3s and 4s. Ultimately, it’s a numbers game: there are less of women riders so whilst the women who do race are often strong advocates, they are not backed up by their cohort. Circuit racing with a few riders is rubbish to participate in and rubbish to watch, whatever category it is.
Nicole Cooke’s gold medal at Beijing in the 2008 Olympics is worth as much (in every sense) as Wiggo’s at London 2012 isn’t it? What’s the difference? It may not be right or fair but it is nonetheless true that media interest is greater in men’s sport, more people consume it, watch it, read about it, participate in it and that’s what hardnosed commercial sponsors look at. Sky sponsors a men’s team that rides in the Tour de France because they’ll get more exposure than if they sponsored a women's team. The same applies to my lot – transplant cyclists – we are consistently one of the most successful teams representing GB on a world stage: can we find a sponsor? Can we hell.
Conclusions? Other than get your entries in for the Nocturne, none really, I wouldn’t dare – I’m probably in enough trouble already. The good news is that more young girls are coming into the sport: every branch of the sport as far as I can see. As number swell and interest grows, hopefully there will be more participation, more racing and consequently more chance of attracting sponsorship but grass roots participation is critical.
Rich Smith is a Level 3 British Cycling qualified coach, the current British, European and World Transplant Cycling champion and the author of ‘ReCycled, now available through Amazon and the Cycling Weekly bookshop.