When Australia’s Tiffany Cromwell won the 2013 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad classic she had every right to be delighted – and one reason not to be. She’d just cemented her name on the European scene with what was arguably the biggest win to date in her career, trouncing Megan Gruanier of Rabobank in the sprint to seal a brilliant victory.
The win brought her the spotlight her talent deserved and gained her a reputation for being a no nonsense rider who could mix it with the best in the sport. Surely, a win like that will have brought in a nice little pot in prize money? Well, not quite.
For her suffering on that cold morning at the tail end of February last year, Cromwell picked up an altogether underwhelming 270 euro. After splitting that amongst her teammates she might just have had enough for a glass of vino and a plate of pasta down her local trattoria.
Compare that to the 65,135 euro prize money taken home by Luca Paolini of Katusha, the winner of the men’s edition, and you can see that there is something of a disparity between the money on offer between the men and the women in professional cycling.
It’s not just in the classics that the yawning chasm between prizes exists. In the men’s Giro d’Italia last year, Vincenzo Nibali pocketed over 90,000 euro. By comparison, America’s Mara Abbott claimed a miserly 450 for winning the Giro d’Italia Femminile.
The minimum salary for a ProTour rider is 35,000 euro. A decent domestique will take home something between 50,000 to 100,000 euro per year, once win bonuses and prize money are take into account. A top domestique, for example a lead out man or a climbing specialist, will be making somewhere between 100,000 to 200,000 euro, and the top stars are looking at anything from a million up.
Amongst the women only a handful make over 100,000, with most being very fortunate to be pulling in 20,000, even with prize money thrown in. There is no minimum wage in place, meaning that the riders have to take what they can get. To be sure, if a woman wants to get rich, a career in professional cycling is not the way to go about it.
Speaking to BBC Sport last month, former world time trial champion Emma Pooley spoke out about the dismal prize money on offer in women’s cycling.
“I don’t do it for the prize money. I love sport,” she said, speaking about why she races bikes. “And if you’d like to print this I’d be very grateful, because I keep getting accused of being a whinger. I’m not trying to be whingy. I love sport and I know it’s a privilege to do it, and that’s why I do it – I’ve got the opportunity and I’m very grateful for it.
“But, occasionally, it seems strange when the prize money for coming third at a triathlon in the Philippines is more than the prize money I’ve ever won in a bike race. That’s nuts to me.”
Sarah Connolly, the woman behind the much respected and very sweary podcast, ‘The Unofficial Unsanctioned Women’s UCI Cycling Show’, was even more blunt when I questioned her on this subject.
“The women’s salaries are awful, in respect of them having no minimum salaries. A lot of these women could be making much more money – and having a much more comfortable life – out of the sport. They’re not there because they are being paid mega-bucks and have never done anything else, like some of the guys.
“A lot of them are studying university courses, or things like physiotherapy part-time while they ride, because they’re not going to be saving anything, and there aren’t the cushy jobs in teams [once they retire] that the men have. So, this means they are there through choice, because they love it – and that makes things interesting.”
Some will argue that the women simply do not deserve the kind of prize money and salaries that the men receive as they don’t attract the same sponsorship nor pull in the same revenue from television rights, which may be true. However, the fact is that women’s cycling was so woefully neglected by the UCI during the dark years of the Hein Verbruggen/Pat McQuaid presidencies that it is no surprise that it languished for so long in the doldrums.
Women, lest we forget, make up something like 50% of the population of the planet. Surely any half-intelligent man can see that that means a massive untapped market in terms of potential bike sales and UCI membership fees? Furthermore, the popularity of women’s golf, tennis and football proves that, when managed well and governed sensibly, women’s sport can be an extremely viable venture.
At the 2012 Jayco Bay Classic McQuaid nailed his colors to the mast when he used the platform to say the he did not believe women deserved a minimum wage because they “hadn’t progressed enough.”
Chloe Hosking, winner of the event that year, made her feelings plain when asked about McQuaid post-race.
“What can you say, Pat McQuaid is a dick,” she said.
Sarah Connolly was equally forthcoming when I asked her is the UCI had done enough in the past to help develop women’s cycling.
“Definitely not! We have a joke about how the UCI saw women in cycling – as podium girls, and to give birth to the adorable kids for race winners to cuddle on the podium,” she said.
“Some of the things Pat McQuaid was saying about women’s cycling after the 2011 Worlds were outrageous – that women didn’t deserve a minimum wage because the sport wasn’t developed enough – especially as he missed the irony that it was his job to do the developing.”
And what of the bike brands and the manufacturers? Are they doing enough to promote women’s cycling and to get more women involved in the sport at a grassroots level?
“Some of them are accurately discouraging us,” says Connolly. “When brands like Assos sell their jerseys with posters of models on their knees in high heels… Well, adverts like that are definitely not aimed at women.
“It can be hard to know where to start – and it’s a weird thing how the bike brands never look to actual fashion trends, but tend to default to pink. But you compare how for example Specialized and Liv/Giant talk to women, with the bikes, sponsoring teams in Europe, Australia, the USA, across MTB etc etc, and campaigns like the awesome ‘I am Specialized’, or Marianne Vos’ road-trip to Barcelona with a bunch of fans, and how that impacts on people buying things, and you wonder why others are willfully neglecting 50% of the market.”
So is it all doom and gloom, or are there any signs that the new leadership at the UCI, with the new president Brian Cookson at the helm, are making good on their promise to revitalize women’s cycling?
One of Cookson’s first moves was to promote Tracey Gaudry to become the first ever female vice-president, a move that won immediate applause from many. But are we seeing any effects from these changes?
Tiffany Cromwell believes so.
“I think Brian Cookson made the right noises saying we will do things for women’s cycling but it’s nice that we are seeing noticeable changes, it’s the first time in my career, and there seems to be more emphasis on the women’s side,” she says. “It’s great that the UCI is doing the highlights package for the women’s world cup, getting the race highlights straight up on YouTube, and selling the extended highlights around the world too.
“I feel like a lot more is happening and they’re getting more people involved. Marianne Vos is doing a lot with the UCI now and I think they’re interacting more with the top women athletes now to see what and how they can improve things.
“It’s only positives that are coming out now which I think is fantastic.”
One major development is that the women’s cycling has secured its first major sponsor in The Sufferfest, the producer of indoor training videos.
Founder David McQuillen is fully committed to aiding ansd supporting the growth of the women’s side of the sport.
“Our short history shows the commitment we have to women’s cycling and this new partnership with the UCI is a natural progression for us,” David told CyclingNews in April of this year. “Three years ago we created a cycling training video featuring women’s professional racing and since then we’ve continued to build on our content featuring the best female cyclists in the world,” McQuillen said.
“We have also sponsored several women’s teams and we were the first corporate backer of Half the Road, a new documentary on Women’s Pro Cycling. We are now looking forward to our investment supporting the UCI Women World Cup and continuing to assist with the growth of women’s cycling.”
Two other very positive developments come in the form of the women’s Tour of Britain and in the creation of a single day race that will be known as La Course, an event for women pros that will be held on the same parcours as the men’s on the last day at the 2014 Tour de France.
The Tour of Britain for the women will be ranked at the highest level and the prize money will be on a par with the men’s race. La Course will see the women’s peloton flying down the Champs Elysees in front of tens of thousands of spectators, and there too the winner will receive the same prize money as the men, 22,500 euro.
“That’s more prize money than the great majority of the women’s salaries,” notes Cromwell.
In a very real sense these developments are revolutionary, as they prove that parity is possible and viable. Women’s cycling at the Olympics the past two times around drew huge crowds, and there is truth to the observation that the women’s races are often more exciting than the men’s, as the shorter parcours allows for more attacking.
One of the very real positives to have emerged from the female peloton in the past year or two is the emergence of a united group of leading riders who are voicing their irritation at the neglect they’ve suffered in the past.
“I think they [the UCI leadership] were genuinely surprised about comments from riders like Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley, Giorgia Bronzini and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg – and it’s down to these amazing riders who refuse to shut up that we have change now,” said Connolly.
“As for now – the signs are good, and involving women [in dicsuiions] like Vos and Pooley, and Specialiazed-lululemon’s boss Kristy Scrymgeour is a great move – because they aren’t going to be fobbed off with half measures.”
Tellingly however, if we compare cycling to tennis we can see that things have taken a long time to get around to where we are now. It was 40 years ago that Billie Jean King sat down one night and drew up plans for a Women’s Tennis Association to push for equal prize money in the sport.
For women’s cycling in the USA, it finally happened – in 2013.
“We’re always asking, ‘Why are we not treated with the same respect as the men’s peloton? Why are we paid only a quarter of the prize purse?’” said the Women’s Cycling Association founder Robin Farina. “Who’s going to take the blame on these items? The UCI? USA Cycling? The races? No one’s really going to take charge of this unless we do it ourselves.”
Finally this seems to be happening not just in America but also in Europe. For far too long the UCI has neglected women’s cycling, and it is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue any longer.
From the prevalence of podium girls to pathetic prizes and a non-existent minimum wage, the authorities have done all they can to actively discourage women from taking up bike racing, with several brands continuing to exploit outmoded and sexist advertising practices to sell more products to men.
Journalists, magazines and websites have similarly neglected women’s racing, merely paying lip-service, if not completely ignoring the women’s side of the sport altogether.
A change has to come, it must, and so far the signs are good, much better than before. Quiet optimism may be justified, but there is still a long way to go yet.
this article originally appeared in RIDE Magazine in Australia.