After several years of only managing a passing interest, this year I’ve been avidly following the Tour de France coverage on ITV, and I must admit I’ve loved it. It’s been a pretty special race, and for me the familiar riff of the accordion in those opening credits and the unfolding excitement of the three-week drama has brought back a nostalgia for this sporting soap opera that first captured my attention as a kid. Of course, there are so many more ways to follow cycling now, but the mix of history, reportage and the excellent commentary pairing of David Millar and Ned Boulting on ITV4 have really made it for me. The only thing that has slightly spoiled my pleasure has been the long delay between the scheduled show at 7pm and the online availability on the hub.
The first Tour de France I recall vividly was the 1989 Tour which came down to that dramatic 8 second victory on the Champs Elysee for Greg Lemond. I had just turned 12 at the time and already had a keen interest in bike racing. Watching the story develop over the weeks to finish in that dramatic time trial (in which Lemond was the first to use those innovative ‘triathlon bars’) lit a fire under me that fuelled my love of the sport for many years to follow.
After several short trips to France racing in the summer holidays, during my final year studying at Loughborough University I chose to write my dissertation as a comparative study of the development of Cycling in France and Britain, using the Tour de France as an obvious place to start the story. I recently rediscovered this weighty tome and re-read it with fresh eyes, as you often do when looking back at something from your own personal history.
Written in 1998 it focussed on the socio-cultural factors that established cycling as the National sport in France at the turn of the 20thcentury, becoming a national fête symbolic of progress and modernism, and setting the model for the Eurocentric professional road cycling scene that’s was to follow. Set alongside this were the political, ideological and class battles that characterised the somewhat repressed early development of British road cycling, closing the discussion at the point at which the new era dominated by lottery funding began to cause British cycling to really take off. Hedging my bets in my conclusion I state:
“Road racing in Britain missed a clear opportunity for development in the 1950’s, and the promising national climate at the present time may provide the last opportunity for the traditional forms of the sport to modernize as we move towards the millennium”.
Hardly optimistic, and I seem to have finished up firmly on the fence about what the future would hold.
Looking back at the prospects and perspective British cyclists had back then, it’s incredible to realise how impactful they have been on the world scene since, not to mention how many ordinary people have been motivated to include cycling as part of an active lifestyle, either by commuting to work or by getting involved in the burgeoning sportive scene.
Compared to where the sport was those 20 years ago we have come a long way, but most shocking to me in re-reading my work now is the complete absence of any mention of women’s cycling whatsoever. How was it that I could have written 40 000 words on the subject of cycling culture and barely made mention of the complete absence of women? (Well actually I did mention it briefly in the ‘limitations’ section at the back, but still).
Over the decades that I have now been involved in, or on the edge of cycling I have developed a certain detachment to several aspects of the sport to protect myself from the disappointment and pessimism I first felt then in my early 20’s. When in 1999 I spent a season racing ‘full-time’ in France supported by the Dave Rayner fund, I found the experience disheartening. Wisdom and age has taught me that most of those emotions were due to my own difficulties dealing with the relative isolation and my lack of self-confidence at the time. But piled on top of these personal factors was the distinct difficulty in seeing a natural progression for me as a female rider towards the semi-professional ranks. Whether I had the ability to ever reach much further than I did is questionable, but the point remains that I couldn’t really see a way forward at that time, and never pursued the options beyond this one season.
1999 was the first year that Lance Armstrong won the Tour after his return to the sport having beaten cancer, and it was also the year that followed the ’98 Festina drugs scandal. At the time, I was excited by the appearance of this second American to really make his mark on Le Tour, but surrounded as I was by the French, the overall sense was that the story was too good to be true and Armstrong had to be doping too. The father of the family who I was staying with often joked that he could give me some drugs if I wanted to do better (he was a farm vet), and it didn’t feel like a very positive time to be declaring myself a keen cyclist, perhaps especially in France.
Many years later the French instinct about Armstrong has been proved right, and even a casual eye on the French sports press shows their attention has turned to suspicions around the ‘marginal gains’ that have contributed to the recent dominance of Britain’s team Sky (now Ineos). Drugs and cheating have always been a part of professional sport, and particularly cycling, and the view one might take of this is often influenced by the mythology and story telling that becomes attached to the cheat in question. I’m sure I’m not the only one who recognises the hypocrisy in heralding Tommy Simpson (‘The gentleman’) a hero while Lance Armstrong (‘The American’) will go down as the most infamous cheat in sporting history. Different times, different stories, and all part of the messy attraction that makes cycling so special.
Any informed sports observer can see that the size of the team budget has played perhaps the biggest part in the lasting legacy of team sky (as it often does in professional sport), and that we can at least a little bit call out the French as being poor losers at their own game. Hopefully the virtuous and heroic display this year from Julian Alaphilippe and others will renew optimism in the French that they can soon have a winner, and the story of the young Columbian who won (at least in part) assisted by a freak mud slide is eloquent enough to go down in cyclist history as a ‘classic’.
As for the visibility of women’s cycling to the ordinary spectator, historically it has been pretty non-existent outside of the Olympic track successes of the likes of Vicky Pendleton, Laura Kenny (then Trott), Jo Rowsell and Dani King et al. London 2012 did a lot to raise the profile of many of our Sports women, including our cyclists, and I shared in that excitement as I watched the final road race sprint between Mariane Vos and Lizzie Deignan (then Armistead) along the Mall with my Dad.
Young British female cyclists growing up now have visible and inspiring British and international role models to follow, and perhaps hopes of a semi-professional/ professional future in their sport for those brave enough to go after it. Many of our British Cycling stars came through the system via the funding attached to Olympic medals available on the track, but others have been forging their own future in the hard-fought races of Belgium and Holland, forming a female ‘foreign legion’ of their own as they find their way and set in place opportunities and networks of progression for the future. The Dave Rayner fund has continued to offer support to increasing numbers of young women choosing to immerse themselves in the dynamic cycling culture of Belgium and Holland where the racing experience available still offers the best chance of success, and perhaps some of the most exciting opportunities.
So, in some ways women’s cycling is following in the footsteps of the men’s side of the sport, but for those of us who love the unfolding drama of a stage race on the road it still has a way to go. This year’s 6thedition of ‘La Course’ saw Amanda Spratt’s brave attack beaten in the last km by the on form and still unstoppable Marianne Vos. Spratt and Vos respectively were wearing the same pro team kit as their male counterparts in the Mitchelton Scott and CCC Liv team colours contesting the men’s Tour. And Vos’s win at La Course came off the back of four stage wins in the recent women’s ten day Giro Rosa, now well established as the stage race highlight in the women’s road cycling calendar. Online coverage of every stage was available with Voxwomen.com, enabling keen followers to keep up to date with developments, just as we can for Le Tour de France. Disappointingly for mainstream telly, the one day ITV4 coverage of ‘La Course’ wasn’t even worthy of the 7pm highlights show, being bumped to the ITV hub because of the exciting time trial of the men’s tour on stage 13.
My personal view is that shouting louder that women’s cycling needs a Tour de France in the model of the men’s tour is not the way forwards. I’m not sure we’re ready for a three-week tour, and to be honest, I’m not sure we want one. Because of its history, a women’s tour de France will always be overshadowed by the well-established men’s race that celebrates 100 years in the yellow jersey this year. It’s worth remembering too that when I was growing up watching the men’s tour, there wasa women’s tour de France, but we didn’t get to see it, and ultimately the women’s tour was considered damaging to the brand.
At the time of writing my dissertation in ’98 ‘Le Tour de France Feminin’, had recently lost its legal battle with ‘Le Tour’ proper (male), renaming the event ‘La Grande Boucle Feminine Internationale’. I’m not aware of what happened in the years that followed but it would seem tragic to try to resurrect the project at all costs when our outstanding female cyclists are trying to be heard on what theywant for the future.
So often in sport women have been forced to compare themselves to men, as if by being the same they are proving themselves equal. To me this is no more ridiculous when considering the development of men’s and women’s cycling than it would be in comparing men’s and women’s physical performance. We don’t expect women’s football to be the same as men’s, but the recent world cup proved that it can be equally as exciting and popular when we see it in its own right. What’s more it’s no co-incidence that the American women are leading the world in women’s football (soccer) since they have not had to compare themselves to, or fight against, a historically dominant men’s equivalent. The prominence of ‘American football’ in U.S. sports culture has allowed the women to develop their own ‘beautiful game’ and own it for themselves, and I’m hopeful that women’s road cycling can emerge as a new and exciting sport alongside the historic men’s scene in its own right.
Several commentators much more knowledgeable than me have suggested the British OVO energy women’s Tour could lead the women’s world calendar, which together with the well established Giro Rosa could spearhead the development of women’s stage racing. And some of the newer ‘classics’ like the strada bianchi have come at a time when women’s cycling was ready, and so are beginning to establish themselves alongside the newer men’s classics on the calendar. The story of women’s cycling development is being written now, and it doesn’t have to compare itself to men’s cycling to be justified.
So I’ve been wondering if (20 years on) I had to write 40 000 words on women’s cycling culture now could I do it? Possibly. Would British women be a part of that story? Absolutely they would. Would money and opportunity and patriarchy and class and race be a part of all that? Definitely. As to what conclusions I would draw about the future of women’s road cycling, I think that because I’m British I might be cautiously optimistic.