Until Thursday night (5 December), it felt like 2013 was a good year for women’s cycling.
We finally had a seat at the adults’ table of the sport’s governing body, Aussie pros were being recognised and efforts to improve participation locally like Breeze Rides were hitting the road.
There was lots to celebrate:
* change at the top, the International Cycling Union (UCI). Former pro Tracey Gaudry is well known in Australia as CEO of the Amy Gillett Foundation. In December 2012 she was elected President of the Oceania Cycling Confederation, a position that carries a seat on the UCI Management Committee. That committee now has a woman. And it’s only taken 112 years.
Change followed. Brian Cookson became UCI President in September and Gaudry became one of three vice presidents soon after. In November, Cookson announced that UCI would have at least one woman on each of its 18 Commissions.
Change starts with the decision to change. And it can be rapid, if we so choose.
Those commissions now include American Helen Wyman (cx), Dutch star Marianne Vos (road), Canadian Tanya Dubnicoff (track), Kiwi Sarah Walker (BMX), American Georgia Gould (mtb) and Swiss Karin Moor (trials). The Women’s Commission includes Australian team owner Kristy Scrymgeour, Karen Bliss and Katie Compton from the US and Brit Emma Pooley. The Athletes Commission includes our very own Anna Meares, plus Vos and Gould, while Gaudry appears on others.
Within a couple of months, UCI had also dropped the age limit (of 28) for women in teams and added sprinting, climbing and youth jerseys to the women’s world cup events. For a quick wrap-up, see the UCI interview with Tracey Gaudry. That’s a pretty impressive start.
* Recognition. In November, Caroline Buchanan scooped the pool at the Cycling Australia annual awards, following her dual world championships in BMX and Four Cross. She was fifth in downhill at MTB and trials worlds as well.
Two world titles in the same year was a first for any Australian cyclist, but with great results from many riders this year, I wondered how the largely male following of Australian elite cycling would vote.
On awards night, Buchanan took out all four awards for which she was eligible – elite female mountain bike, BMX cyclist of the year, the pinnacle Sir Hubert ‘Oppy’ Opperman Medal and the SBS People’s Choice Award – the fan vote! I was so pleased. Days later she was named joint Australian Institute of Sport 2013 athlete of the year, with rower Kim Crow.
* Promotion. We also saw track star Anna Meares launched as the face of South Australia’s Motor Accident Commission ‘be safe be seen’ campaign in November. Then she set another world record last weekend. As she does so often.
* Media. We’ve also seen world-trackie-now-commentator Kate Bates and other women join the talk fest on the SBS Cycling Central couch. The Bike Lane even put women on screen; have a look at Chloe McConville at the colourful table here.
* Local racing. Melbourne cycling clubs have been working hard on increasing their appeal to women and fields have grown.
The Tour of Bright featured three grades this year while numbers were up at crits and cyclocross. I have a soft spot for cross in particular; it’s fun, low cost and local, but even better, it’s inclusive. In Melbourne there’s skills sessions for women (and men) and nationally the people behind cross decided on equal prizemoney from year dot. Nice bunch of riders too.
All together, it looked like progress for women’s cycling, in spite of (or perhaps catalysed by) some well publicised sexist incidents over the past two years. Let’s have a look at some of those.
One of the biggest involved former UCI President Pat McQuaid, who told a press conference on the morning of the 2011 women’s world championship road race that he opposed the idea of a minimum wage for female pros. He wasn’t opposing a high wage; just any minimum wage at all. There was no plan for change, just reasons it couldn’t be done.
The podium presentation for the rainbow striped jersey that afternoon was particularly cringe-worthy as the world’s top women cyclists were presented with flowers by the ubiquitous ‘podium girls’. For a women’s podium. How totally McQuaid.
At the post-race presser, the cycling media asked the pros to comment and they naturally weren’t too impressed with the head of their world sporting body.
McQuaid got some support on cycling forums, which like the sport, are mostly male. The women were even accused of making a poor case, as if Vos and Bronzini should race for the rainbow stripes with a 30-page wage dossier in their jersey pocket. It was a useful window to the depth of disdain for women, and the reason Buchanan’s fan vote win just two years later was so heartening.
Eleven months later, UK cycling clothing brand Limitless Performance released a video it hoped would go viral. It did. It featured women styled as poor cyclists with ill-fitting helmets and clad in body paint for gratuitous objectification. We’ll come back to the body paint.
Cycling Tips did a story on it and LP was blasted on social media for dissing women, perpetuating stereotypes and disrespect.
This year we saw Peter Sagan pinching the bum of a podium ‘hostess’ at the Tour of Flanders, simultaneously disrespecting both the woman and race winner Fabian Cancellara. It was stupid given the attitudes to women that many are trying to change, but he apologised and everyone moved on. The public is very forgiving of a well crafted apology.
At the Giro in May, Bradley Wiggins had his problems descending in foul weather, but it’s his post-race presser that gets him a jersey here: “I descended like a bit of a girl really after the crash… Not to disrespect girls, I have one at home.” While the remark offered an unguarded window into his view of women’s descending skills, it’s especially remarkable given that his foundation supports Rochelle Gilmore’s Wiggle Honda pro team.
So the message from clothing brands to Tour winners has been that women can’t ride and it’s OK to insult them. All these incidents generated criticism in the cycling world, which would seem to make sexism a high risk strategy in a small market like Melbourne.
So how in hell did Total Rush’s re-launch on 5 December happen?
Total Rush is an established top-end bike shop in Melbourne. Selling Specialized, it owns hot pink as a corporate colour on local roads, sponsors both men’s and women’s race teams and runs a monthly shop ride for women.
Around 130 people were invited to celebrate a recent refurbishment last Thursday night. Inexplicably, the entertainment included body-painting two topless models in hot pink ‘kit’ and posting the photos on social media. The fallout was predictable, not for the breasts as some observers assumed but for the insensitivity of a titillating voyeuristic stunt that diminished rather than elevated women’s cycling.
One of Total Rush’s sponsored riders is the eloquent Bridie O’Donnell, who said she told the owner beforehand that the idea was ‘sexist and unimaginative’. Clearly that advice was ignored.
Cycling Tips reported the furore, Kate Bates nailed it as “#badcall but #notbadguys” and O’Donnell offered a useful video blog which indicates she was heckled for her association. While it’s encouraging that so many men criticised the decision, it’s not cool to abuse a rider.
It’s also hard to believe it was done solely for the publicity, as the Cycling Tips headline suggests. If so, it would have been recognised as a high risk strategy and an apology drafted in advance. Possibly even a promotion as appeasement.
But it took until Saturday (7th) for Total Rush to offer a statement. And far from contrition for linking decorative topless women with cycling, the statement seemed to proffer fundraising on the night and Mercedes Benz’s use of the same stunt as mitigation. Yet the Benz stunt lacks cycling’s context of sexist confetti.
The move was termed ‘retail suicide’ and a boycott was urged, but I suspect they’ll survive. Little good comes of business failures.
Total Rush’s friends closed ranks quickly, negative comments were deleted from its social media pages and it moved on at light speed. Indeed, with the Total Rush women’s team in the Tour of Bright being captioned a ‘spunky crew’, perhaps it’s not an error at all but a brand value.
But if a shop like Total Rush can get it so wrong after McQuaid, Limitless Performance, Sagan and Wiggins, just how deep runs the antipathy to women in cycling? Why are so many men not listening? And how much more of this rubbish do we have to put up with?
Or maybe we just smile sweetly for the camera and stick with 2013 as a good year, because the pink incident generated more criticism than support. Maybe that’s what change looks like too.