The Women’s Tour – Five Days That Changed Bicycle Racing

All fans of women’s cycling knew that the Women’s Tour was going to be big, but it’s probably fair to say that even the most optimistic of us, those who have loved the sport and believed in its potential for many years, were taken by surprise: it was much bigger, and a whole lot better, than any of us dared dream. Every stage drew bigger crowds than we ever thought we’d see at a women’s race, not just in Britain but anywhere in the world, and all the thousands of people who went along to see it seemed to have a great time. Many of them will never have seen a women’s race before, but they’ll have gone home with happy memories – and next time they get the opportunity, they’ll remember and go to see that one too.

Dave White has been following women’s cycling since the late 1990s, and he knows the sport inside-out. Here, he writes about the legacy left by the first edition of the Tour.

 

Women’s Tour 2014 – 5 days that changed bicycle racing

It had been my intention to provide Neutral Service with a write up of my time at the Women’s Tour in May this year saying how good it had been. Oh boy was it good in so many ways! But after a bit of thought and reading quite a few other reports of how good it was I decided to write something a little different after taking a while to reflect on what had actually happened over those 5 days. Some amazing performances by the riders certainly, but also I think quite a change in how women’s racing as a whole is perceived.

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Every stage drew huge crowds (image: Neutral Service CC BY-SA 3.0)

I have followed women’s bike racing for quite a long time and quite closely since about 1999, following some pretty bad reporting about Nicole Cooke’s victory in the British Road Race. Back then even finding information as to which races took place was difficult and to watch any racing usually involved a recording from some obscure satellite feed. Local races were almost non-existent here in the bleak north! Still it was possible to keep up in many ways and the Giro Donne always had some coverage to show just how exciting the international races were. Then came the internet….

Slowly over recent years more and more information and live streams became available, the Beijing Olympics happened and people could watch the hard fought victories in the road race and time trial. Then social media arrived and allowed fans to link up – we were not alone! Unfortunately during this time many races were struggling and either became shorter, or stopped altogether. The issue of poor standards for the riders in all aspects was not even acknowledged by the UCI, let alone acted upon. Thankfully people who did want change and wouldn’t keep quiet made inroads and things are improving now, although there is still a long way to go.

Into this cauldron of ambiguity, change and old guard insistence there was no audience for women’s sport, came Guy Elliot and his team at Sweetspot with an idea. A top quality 5 day stage race run to the same standards as the men’s Tour of Britain, no compromise, no awful hotels and TV exposure as well. I’m quite sure a full book could be written on the efforts needed to organise and prepare for the race, but for now let’s just say it was a huge effort by all concerned, but they managed and everything was in place. Top international teams, the best riders from around the world, our own local heroines in the GB and Matrix Vulpine teams, all was ready to go but would there be an audience?

We know now the answer to that of course – a resounding yes! But it was more than that. For 5 days in hail rain and sunshine crowds lined the roads and the finish areas had an atmosphere I had never experienced at a bike race – any bike race. Watching young children utterly captivated by what was going on around them and their parents cheering and shouting as the riders approached was amazing. It became clear to me and I’m sure many others, that the crowds had decided that women’s racing was something very special indeed. These people wanted more and a change in the perception of women’s sport had taken place. The internet and social media went just a little bit nuts for those days and you could have easily forgotten that the Giro d’Italia had started as nobody appeared to be interested. Proper live updates from a women’s racing expert (Sarah Connolly) during the race helped those not actually there to keep up with all that happened and the world caught the women’s racing bug.

While the organisers can certainly take credit for their hard work there were some other very important people who had even more to do with it, the riders themselves. It seemed that wherever you looked at a start or finish there were riders talking to the public, signing autographs for children and being interviewed by the press. No prima donna “I’m too important” antics here, just real sports stars happy to talk to fans that arrived to support them, just as it should be. Many of these moments were sent out via Sarah Connolly’s non-stop twitter feed to the world and John Orbea’s daily round up (all here on Neutral Service – ed.) so we could all share too!

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Iris Slappendel wearing the Matrix-Vulpine cap she swapped for one of her own Rabo-Liv caps (image: Neutral Service CC BY-SA 3.0)

It wasn’t all serious either with Iris Slappendel bribed into wearing a Matrix Vulpine cap and also Tiffany Cromwell and Iris doing their best to pass as police officers! The characters taking part always make a sport and these women are most certainly characters, but also so down to earth and happy to help it made other sports stars look silly. There are endless stories but you get the idea – if you weren’t there you missed out and you need to be there next year.

As the tour ended in a packed Bury St. Edmunds it was confirmed it is already back next year and potential sponsors who missed out are asking if they can be included. It would appear the old guard were as wrong as we all thought they were and there is an audience for women’s sport, certainly bike racing! There is still a long way to go before the riders get the reward, respect and protection they are due but this event showed all the arguments against this happening are false. It happened, it can’t be undone and it was a huge success. It would appear the women’s bike racing genie has at long last escaped from the bottle and I don’t see it going back in anytime soon!

5 days that changed the bike racing world? I think so.

My personal highlight? Well it has to be Bury St. Edmunds – “Because I’m Happy!”