Almost as good - is women’s cycling too obsessed with ‘equality’?

Kirsty Deacon, rider in the National Road Series with Veris Racing and SBS Cycling Central contributor, gave her thoughts on what the women's side of the sport needs to do to create its own 'epic' identity.

La Fleche Wallonne Anna Van Der Breggen

Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon SRAM) and Anna Van Der Breggen (Boels - Dolmans) in action at Fleche Wallonne Source: Getty / Getty Images

No one’s allowed to say it, but I’m going to. Sometimes, when I’m in a women’s bike race, I can’t help but think ‘we’re not really putting on a great show here.’

I can’t be the only one who’s thought it. ‘We’re claiming we want equal prize money, but if we keep going like this, we’re forever going to be getting money ‘donated’ to us. Money that the men’s race has brought in.’

So often (in women’s National Road Series events, at least) we’re just cruising along at 20km/hr because of a stalemate in tactics. And when your best pace is already so much slower than the men’s, that’s going to be a stark and uninspiring contrast. It makes me wonder – is this a fact we just have to accept? Something that we hope will blow over if we persist and wait a few generations until the sport grows? I, for one, don’t want to settle for second best.

Even when women’s cycling is covered in the media, the target audience is very niche – you can tell from the language it uses. I don’t want to appeal to a niche audience, I want to appeal to all cycling fans. I want to be in the big event, centre stage. Not be a curtain-raiser with the juniors, before the men put on the real show in the afternoon. And I don’t think we have to be.

Sarah Gigante, Santos Festival of Cycling
Sarah Gigante on her way to winning Stage 3 of the Santos Festival of Cycling Source: Santos Festival of Cycling

But here’s the thing – what if the barrier to that is not with the crowds, organisers or sponsors? Not even with society’s attitudes as a whole? What if the problem lies in our reluctance to innovate?

I was standing at a local bike race not long ago, when a spectator told me her thoughts on the recent National Championships – ‘it’s just not fair for you girls,’ she said, ‘that the U23s have to race with the Elites.’ This is the problem, I thought. It’s not unfair, it’s just different. And probably better.

The lady was referring to the fact that the men have a separate event for the U23s – an event on the Saturday, when there are less crowds, less excitement, and no TV coverage. Why should we be jealous of that? As a result of the sheer numbers in the men’s race, that’s what they have to do. But as U23s, us women get to perform on the biggest day of racing, when all the crowds are there, and we get to be on TV. U23s get to test themselves against the Elites while still having the chance to win their own category. It’s not unfair. But because it’s different, everyone assumes we’re hardly done by.

This is a trend in my experience of being a female cyclist. Everything that presents a good challenge or opportunity seems to get shut down because it’s deemed ‘unequal.’ Usually this isn’t done by some distant enemy who’s hating on women, it’s by people trying to help who are too focused on finding injustices. Of course, at a participation level, it’s important to have an inviting path into the sport. But elite cycling is about suffering. That’s part of the appeal and people want to see it in races. It’s what we sign up for when we choose to race seriously.

So, if we have an opportunity to suffer and struggle more, that should be a good thing. A chance to suffer is a chance to put on a show. If we were just to take a more innovative approach, maybe we could use that to our advantage. We could reframe the situation with women right in the middle of it.

The women’s Melbourne to Warrnambool is a great example of this. Here, a small field of women ride in the same race as the men, vying for the title of first female. But it’s a totally different structure to normal racing. This is about grovelling, hanging on to the men’s bunch for as long as possible. It’s fighting your way back, and having a rollercoaster of good and bad luck, amplified by the complexities of being among the men’s race. The women’s Warnie is seven hours of fast, aggressive racing. Suffering, drama, resilience – it’s the epitome of everything that’s good about cycling.

The men don’t get the chance to have races like that. The men's race might be on at the same time on the same course, but it's an entirely different dynamic - they have control over their race. They decide how fast the bunch goes, if they have a mechanical or a crash, they'll usually have help to get back, they decide when to put the pace on and when to let the break go. 

It’s an opportunity unique to us. To be the ones who have suffered the most, who have put on the best show. Events like the women’s Melbourne to Warrnambool need to stop being replaced with shorter, separate women’s races which try to replicate what the men have.

Instead, they should be grown in their unique format. They should be celebrated and given the prestige they deserve. Women’s events should be designed in innovative ways, instead of just banging our heads against a wall by putting a slower, shorter event right before a faster one. By varying the format of women’s races, we can reshape the story they tell, so that we get a chance to be the heroes.

So much is possible if we don’t restrict ourselves to what’s ‘fair’ or ‘equal,’ and instead look for opportunities. This means being inventive. Being prepared to work things to our advantage, even if that means working harder. I want us to put on a show – of drama and suffering and everything that makes cycling so good. And I want us to be at the centre of it; the big one. Not the pre-event, or curtain raiser or charity case that people watch because they feel like it’s the right thing to do.

And I’m prepared to suffer for it. Because I don’t care about making something that’s as equal as possible, I care about making something that’s epic in its own right.

Kirsty Deacon is a rider in the National Road Series with Veris Racing and a contributor to the SBS Cycling Central website.

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6 min read
Published 8 March 2021 at 11:33am
By Kirsty Deacon