Do Peter Sagan’s podium antics at the Ronde van Vlaanderen highlight a problem with professional cycling's role models? Tom Palmer reflects on the race and whether we should expect more from our cycling stars and their attitude to women.
In my first year racing against professionals, an experienced teammate gave me some advice that upset me then, and sticks with me now. A teenager at the time, a professional rider took a sling off my jersey in a sprint finish to win the race. My teammate consoled me by sarcastically saying “it’s okay, the good guys always win”.
What he helped me come to terms with, was that in our sport there is no rule to this effect. Finish lines don’t know how just or noble you are, they don’t care how sexist or repugnant you are. Finish lines know distance, time and nothing more.
That the finishing podium is no moral high ground is once again all too clear to cycling fans this week.
The antique and mesmerizing beauty of De Ronde van Vlannderen was the scene for a showdown between two of the sport’s most flamboyant gladiators Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan. Those like me, who are absorbed by this race and riveted by its hardy champions are likely to feel let down, not by the race – as magical a spectacle as ever – but by runner-up, Peter Sagan's now infamous ‘bottom grabbing’ podium indiscretion.
De Ronde deserved better. Despite its bygone aesthetics, this is a commendably gender-progressive event where the women’s professional race is run on the same day over the same course before the same public and media gaze as the men. Parity of this kind is the case in a minority of professional cycling races.
This was the women’s Ronde’s tenth instalment, won by Olympic champion Marianne Vos who is one of our sport’s greatest role models for women, girls, men and boys alike. I’d prefer her conquering of the sports toughest parcours and conditions be the topic of this blog. Female riders and races like these reflect the sport’s future, and nowhere so poignantly than at De Ronde.
I have proudly lived in this community and was lucky enough to experience racing the U23 event. To one day ride this race is one of my deepest ambitions.
The race’s beginnings were as a gritty tournament for the Flemish working classes. Heroes then represented the sons of hardship, riders like Eddy Merckx became cult figures in Flanders, to this day standing for the empowerment of the poor workers.
De Ronde has set itself up to perhaps become the forerunner in welcoming and championing women in the sport.
Unfortunately nothing could be more contrary to De Ronde’s culturally progressive history than the photos of Sagan from Sunday’s podium.
Basic respect for the people around you is not too much for cycling fans to expect of our champions, because it’s not too much to expect from anyone. The incident reminds us that sexism and sleaze, like other shameful behaviours don’t disqualify you from cycling adulation.
Ironically the deserving and fitting winner of this race was Cancellara, self-dubbed "Spartacus" after the ancient freedom-fighting gladiator. Hopefully my generation’s riders will see him and his challenger on the Flanders podium this week and will have learned the difference between the conduct of a gladiator and that of a troglodyte.
Macho shows of prowess will be part of sport. Putting ostentation to good use and scorching pavé with displays of skill and strength like those of Sagan’s is worth celebrating. But the sport can’t stand for the archaic and deplorable objectification of women.
With the sport’s ethical foundations already chewed away by drug cheats we urgently need to think hard about how we embrace women in the sport, if we hope to ever assume any credibility in a contemporary world.