It’s a conundrum that has puzzled and bewildered people in the bicycle industry for decades: how can it be that women make up 50% of the world’s population, yet the percentage of women who cycle is so low?
And it is not just bicycle racing we are discussing here, which is traditionally very much a male-dominated sport, but also about the number of women buying bicycles and using them in towns and cities for transport.
When it comes to cycling, women on the whole tend to avoid the sport. But there is some good news: women’s professional cycling now has more high-even races than ever before. Urban planners are starting to be more aware of the reasons why women do not feel comfortable cycling in cities, and designers have begun to consult more women to discover exactly that they want and need from bicycles and cycling clothing.
The peloton passing through a field of sunflowers during the 33rd Giro d’Italia Donne 2022. (Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images,)
Another interesting factor is the effect that Covid had on the environment, with a huge decrease in the number of cars on the road between 2020 and 2022. Less traffic meant safer roads, and this encourage record numbers of women to take up cycling.
Maybe, finally, the tide is turning.
PRO CYCLING & ROLE MODELS
Women’s professional cycling has made major strides in the previous years, such as events like the Tour des Femmes avec Zwift, but how close is women’s cycling to true equity or equality?
The Tour de France Femmes 2022 saw tens of thousands of fans come out to support the women’s peloton. (Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)
Every cyclist dreams of racing into Paris on the last day of the Tour de France, and for many women in the 2022 Tour, the dream came true. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
The just released Cyclists’ Alliance Annual Rider Survey shed some light on how women‘s cycling has improved in 2023, but also where there’s still work to be done.
The survey has been conducted for the last five years, and this year, 124 female professional riders responded. Of those, 44 percent belonging to Women’s World Tour level teams.
There’s no doubt that form those riders in the the Women’s World Tour conditions have improved. The viewing numbers for the women’s Tour, Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders and the growing number of fans on the road mean that the big sponsors are now flocking to them to provide financial support. Riders such as Marianne Vos and other stars are now making very good salaries.
But on the lower racing tiers, there’s still a lot of work to be done to bring about gender parity in cycling.
Let’s dig into some of the statistics and results shared by the The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA).
We cheered when women’s cycling added a mandatory minimum salary for Women’s World Tour teams, but there’s still a vast—and growing—discrepancy between salaries for men and women cyclists.
The good news: there are now 15 Women’s World Tour (WWT) teams, up from nine in 2021, so more riders actually are making the minimum salary of 27,500 Euro for salaried riders.
According to TCA, 13 percent of WWT riders stated they earned over 100,000 Euros yearly, while another 24 percent report earning between 60,000 and 100,000 Euros per year. That’s a 17 percent increase from the 2021 survey stats.
The bad news: Only 54 percent of riders surveyed can survive on what they’re making through cycling. Others rely on scholarships, second jobs, or a family/partner who can supplement their income. Go outside of the WWT circuit and only 15 percent of riders make more than $20,000 annually. Even more distressing, 23 percent of non-WWT pro racers make nothing. This is an improvement over last year, where 34 percent made nothing, but it is still not good enough.
Elisabeth Deignan-Armitstead of Segafredo, won the 2021 Paris-Roubaix but did not receive the same money as the male winner. He took home €30,000 while Deignan received just €1,535. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Less than half the riders have health insurance, and many teams provide minimal or no support for things like concussion testing. Two percent have a pension plan.
As TCA says bluntly, “There were athletes racing this year’s Tour De France Femmes who received no salary from their team racing against riders earning a triple figure salary.”
That may explain why a whopping 41 percent of riders would retire from cycling early in order to make more money elsewhere.
How to combat this?
It’s been said for years now, but it bears repeating: Improving coverage of women’s cycling, particularly for a TV audience, is the way to move the sport forward. More than half of the women surveyed listed that as the key way to progress: More eyeballs means more sponsor interest, which translates to dollars. TCA cites the Tour de France Femmes as an example of the interest that women’s cycling can generate, noting that 20 million people in France alone tuned in to watch the race. 5.1 million viewers tuned in for the race finish. Imagine the potential if more women’s racing was broadcast?
One of there truly wonderful things that has happened in the past few years is that due to the increased exposure of the women’s sport, young girls now have the role models they need to look up to and to inspire them to dream of turning pro.
Boys have had Eddy Merckx, Bradley Wiggins, and now Van Art and Van Der Poel. Little girls now have Marianne Vos, Annemiek van Vleuten, Giorgia Bronzini and many more. The importance of this cannot be understated.
Annemiek Van Vleuten of Movistar Team (centre) celebrates winning the 1st Tour de France Femmes. Katarzyna Niewiadoma of Team Canyon//SRAM Racing (right) was third, Demi Vollering of Team SD Worx was 2nd (left). (Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)
CYCLING FOR FUN AND THE LOCKDOWN
After decades of asking ‘how do we get more women cycling?’, in the end, it was a global pandemic that showed the way.
Statistics published by the US Department for Transport (DfT) reveals a 56% boost in women’s cycling journeys over the course of 2020, compared to a 12% rise among men.
In the US, stats produced by the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) found that just over half of all female cyclists began riding in the past three years.
These numbers are unprecedented, considering cycling’s historically male-dominated fanbase. Most cyclists want to see more people – specifically women – discover he benefits of cycling, and tapping into the previously disinclined 50% of the population feels like a good place to start.
Let’s look at how the lockdown provided the launchpad for women’s cycling.
Lockdown measures over the course of 2020 meant quieter roads. In the UK four example, car traffic was down by 21%.
Countless surveys have shown that women are more likely than men to be deterred from cycling by traffic.
A double decker bus in London takes over the bicycle lane.
For many women, it seems, that brief period of respite from the roar of heavy goods vehicles, cars, taxis and scooters was enough to get them on bicycles.
Whilst traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels, there are changes afoot that could help to keep the trend alive.
Cycling lanes in Copenhagen.
We need better cycling infrastructure, better cycling lanes, and safe places to park our bicycles in towns and cities.
There is strong evidence that more protected bike lanes alone can get more women cycling. Make cycling a safe, and attractive alternative to the car.
Underground cycle parking centre in Tokyo. (Credit: Ride On Cycling Magazine)
“I believe that through the pandemic, women especially appreciated the social motivation and connection on Zwift,” Joanne Taylor, communications manager for Zwift said. “Women also tend to use more social channels and communication to spread the word, share experiences and motivate each other. I believe that women’s cycling will continue to grow at a faster rate because women are so incredible when it comes to encouraging and supporting each other in what can be an intimidating or isolating sport.”
Bringing Women Into The Conversation
A study in Melbourne, Australia, canvassed over 700 women to get their views on cycling. Many women in the study expressed a desire to ride more, but said lighting on bike paths was non-existent, inadequate or turned off after hours, leading them to fear for their personal safety. This limited how much they were willing to ride their bikes in winter, or for other trips outside of daylight hours.
To compound this, women reported bike paths often detouring into dark underpasses. While underpasses protect bike riders and walkers from overhead traffic, they often feel hidden from public view and have inadequate lighting and limited escape routes.
In Australia, the majority of biking infrastructure is implemented by transport engineers, of which only 15% are women.
A significant proportion of trips made by bicycle by women around the world are with small children with them on the bike. This segment of women also complained about the construction of urban paths, one saying that “You can clearly see that they were designed by men!”
One suggestion offered by the commnitee that ran the survey was that urban bicycle infrastructure designers should consult with women’s groups to see what they need to feel that the bicycle is a safe alternative to driving a vehicle our taking a bus.
The fact is that our cities are designed for cars, not bicycles. This has to change, to ensure safer cycling and cleaner cities.
Bicycles and Cycling Clothing
More and more cycling brands are now offering women-specific bicycles and clothing. Previously, much of the women’s cycling clothing was not designed to fit female anatomies. Rather, jerseys and shorts in particular were simply offered in smaller sizes with minor changes. This follows the ‘Shrink It & Pink It’ philosophy of branding for women.
Many women previously expressed frustration with the fact that so many women’s bicycles were either full pink or at the least featured the colour somewhere, and the same was generally true for women’s clothing. Thankfully this has all changed in recent years. More and more female designers are coming into cycling and have responded to what their peers want, and to what actually works for women.
Veloine Cycling brand makes women-specific cycling clothes.
The world needs more people on bicycles and less in cars. And specifically, we need more women on bicycles. As men, we should encourage women to get into the sport, and work to combat the chauvinism that exists in this sport.
Governments need to address the urgent need for improvements in urban cycling infrastructure, and to consult women whilst doing this.
The world governing body for cycling, the UCI, must continue to encourage and support the women’s side of the sport until it has reached parity with the men’s. For far too long women’s racing was ignored, and the excuses made for that have been proven, by the popularity or races such as the Tour de France Femmes, to be false.
Let’s help build a better future for these young cyclists.