Where are the Women in Cycling?

The Tour de France ended on Sunday. 160 men sped around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and Chris Froome finished again in yellow. I’m not a big sports spectator in general, but pro cycling is truly a spectacular human endeavor. Now with the Tour of California gaining in popularity, we’re getting some of the greatest cycling talent in the world riding around our backyard. Peter Sagan, a personal favorite of mine, actually won it in May. As the sport emerges from the shadows of the doping scandals, there’s a lot to be excited about. But where are the women?

I started watching the Tour in 2004 with a roommate in college named Jeremy. His enthusiasm was infectious, and 11 years later, we still try to watch a lot of cycling together. He’s a bike mechanic and writes The Handlebar Chronicles. I thought he’d be a good person to ask (his comments are in italics).

It’s a very good question, the parity between men and women’s cycling.  It is true that many races have some type of associated women’s event, often of a shorter distance and time.  In fact, 2015 marks the second year that the organizers of the Tour de France also put on a single-stage race for women, covering the same course in Paris as the final stage of the men’s event and taking place the same day, before the men’s race. 

But coverage of these events is laughable.  I’ve watched dozens of international cycling events and I’m fairly certain that I’ve never seen a women’s race covered with any type of live broadcast.  Like most sports, the cycling world is motivated by corporate sponsorships, with companies paying big money to get their logo on a jersey so that it’s seen by millions when their sponsored rider makes a break away or attacks up a big climb.  So the lack of coverage really hamstrings women’s teams and their ability to attract sponsorship money.

However, I wonder if domestically a greater cultural demand for women’s cycling coverage might be prompted by changing patterns in the cycling industry, which, speaking from experience, I can say is also a male-dominated culture.  The current interest in international cycling coverage in the US coincides with a resurgence in road cycling as a recreational pursuit among Americans, and both phenomena are very much a product of the Lance Armstrong era (1999-2005).  For the large part, the consumers who were driving this resurgence were what’s referred to in the business as MAMILs: (white) Middle Aged Men in Lycra, who could afford to put down $5000 or more for the same road bike they saw Lance riding on TV. 

If you were a bicycle company or a cash-strapped bike shop owner, you’d put your efforts into orienting your business to these customers, while women cyclists were often left out of the equation and not made to feel welcome in bike shops. If you don’t feel excited about hanging out at the bike shop, where perhaps the Tour de France was playing on the shop TV, are you going to try to watch it at home? And US cycling companies compound this gender disparity by pouring money into men’s professional cycling, to get their bikes under big name riders.  Even in this year’s Tour, in which American riders had relatively little effect, a significant proportion of the peloton were riding on bikes from the American cycling market: Specialized, Trek, and Cannondale.  Meanwhile, women’s events and teams struggle for coverage and dollars.

I think the cycling market is changing.  I’ve spent the past few years working in bike shops that are more oriented towards practical cycling, for people who use the bike as a means of transportation rather than recreation alone.  While I don’t have any data to back this up, it seems to me from ground level that this is a much younger and more balanced market than the male-dominated recreational market.  With new types of transportation bikes being offered, such as cargo bikes, which are capable of carrying two or three kids, oftentimes it is a young mother who is eager to spend money on a new, high quality bicycle.  I wonder if as big cycling companies start to realize that women are much more a part of this new customer base, they might begin to push more sponsorship dollars towards women’s teams and we might see more coverage for women’s events.  Some people might say that sponsoring racers might not help sell bicycles for non-racing purposes.  I think a mother hustling across town on her bike to pick up her daughter or make her next meeting might just take inspiration from strong, clean (i.e. non-doping) female athletes climbing the slopes of Alpe D’Huez or sprinting down the Champs Elysees.  We’ll see.

I hope Jeremy is right.

In general, it’s a new era for women’s professional sports as we celebrate the US Women’s World Cup victory. Although coverage of those games was also seriously second-rate, they were tremendously popular.  Perhaps women’s cycling will begin to gain greater visibility and fans as well.

Without role models, girls won’t take up competitive cycling. Without new young riders, the sport will remain basically invisible. It may be a chicken or the egg scenario, but I personally hope that my daughter will one day be celebrating a woman crossing the finish in yellow at the Champs Elysée, televised live, all over the world.


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