It's Women's Sports Week this week and there's a lot of talk about encouraging women to get active and have a go at sports. But part of the issue with women's cycling is that you are left wondering what it actually is...
Let's start by looking at British Cycling's women's strategy. Whilst the photo is of Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead), the strategy talks about the Breeze programme, with a footnote about the elite podium, but there is nothing about the bit in between. If you click on their website for further information about women's cycling, it is totally lacking in information about how you can have a go at racing and how accessible it is (luckily you can find my handy guide over on www.cyclingshorts.uk.com here).
So it came as quite a surprise to find out today that 45% of the 20,000-strong female membership have racing licences. By my maths skills, that tells me that 9,000 women and girls have at least considered racing. That's a huge increase in numbers. So what is the sport doing to encourage them to keep it up? And why isn't anyone broaching the subject of women competing?
This is where the stumbling block arises. We only see the very best female athletes on the television. There's rarely any publicity about the opportunities for racing on a local level. And then, because of the outdated category system (which isn't fit for purpose), you end up with riders who are full time athletes turning up to a race which is meant for novices and riders who want to race as a hobby, and, funnily enough, the race becomes miles harder than it was originally intended and the riders doing it as a laugh don't bother coming back because it's too hard.
It's all very well talking about how more investment is needed for teams, but you need to be able to encourage the majority of those 9,000 female licence holders that cycling is an accessible sport. When you have a regular female racing membership of 10,000 then maybe you can start looking at teams and genuine return on investment for sponsors, but we're nowhere near that point at the moment.
So what can be done? Well, here are a few suggestions:
- We need to get the message out there that bike racing is an option for women. Racing can be for everyone - you don't need to be a full time athlete to enjoy it - you make new friends, you learn new skills, you have fun. Join a club and have a go.
- We also need to spread the message on social media that women's cycling includes racing and that your age, weight, size is just a number.
- We also need to take control of our own destinies and become coaches, officials, organisers and committee members. We're in 2016, women should be taking an interest in the running of our sport - you don't have to be the one making the tea and serving cakes at the HQ - you are allowed to take a step up and be involved in the running of events.
So as we head towards the 2017, let's agree to promote each other's events, achievements and stories (including tweeting about the full top ten rather than just your teammate coming 8th) and get the message out there that women's cycling includes racing and that as riders collectively we want our sport to grow so that we can all benefit from the cake being bigger.
Featured photo (c) Ellen Isherwood