Right now, women’s cycling is in excellent health in the United Kingdom after many years during which it seemed to be only just hanging onto life. Britain has always produced excellent female cyclists – Marguerite Wilson, Edith Atkins and Eileen Sheridan, whose careers began three-quarters of a century ago, Eileen Gray who raced with the first British women’s team to compete at international events and later became president of British Cycling, Beryl Burton who dominated the domestic scene for so long and was World Road Race Champion twice (beating Tom Simpson, our first male World Champion, to the title by five years), and all of the world-beating riders that came afterwards – Cath Swinnerton, Rachel Heal, Nicole Cooke, Emma Pooley, Helen Wyman, Wendy Everson, Lizzie Armitstead, Victoria Pendleton, Rebecca Romero, the Trott sisters, Jo Rowsell and many more, some still racing and some not; yet until very recently they had a very limited selection of races, and few of them ever received anything like the sort of recognition they deserved.
Times are changing. In 2014, there are so many women’s races that the calendar’s beginning to look rather crowded and riders sometimes have to pick which events they want most to compete in. Some of those races, though, are not what they should be: sometimes, when an organiser has tacked a women’s race onto the men’s race that they see as their main event because they feel they have to, the result is a race that feels like a sideshow designed to entertain the crowd before the headline act takes to the stage – a strong argument against introducing a new rule demanding all events include races for men and women, because when an organiser thinks that way they run the event badly, don’t put much effort into recruiting sponsors, offer paltry prizes the riders can hardly be bothered competing for and the spectators go home thinking that women’s cycling is a bit rubbish compared to the men’s sport.
However, not all race organisers are the same. Over the last few years, some have shown a true desire to support women’s cycling, and when they have their races have proved that the public has a huge appetite for the sport – just look at the enormous crowds that turned out for the start and finish and lined the routes of every stage of the Women’s Tour, an event that surpassed the expectations of even the most hopeful fans. Neutral Service first spoke to Rich Stoodley, one of the organisers of the YESSS Tickhill Velo GP, back in January when he was at an early stage in putting his race together. It was obvious even then that he was a staunch supporter of women’s cycling and that his passion and commitment would win him the backing from riders that would make his event a success. Now that the race is only a month away, we decided it was time to catch up with him and see how the race committee is getting on.
There are still some organisers out there – even at the big UCI races – who don’t make use of the internet to promote their events. There’s a massive buzz around the YESSS Tickhill GP and a lot of it is centred on the women’s race – how important was social media in generating that?
The funny thing is, although I knew about Facebook, Twitter was completely new to me and I quickly learnt that although you can sometimes feel that no one has ‘seen’ your tweets it can have a powerful effect. Early on (when we were involved with Out of The Saddle before they decided to withdraw) I misunderstood the the way racing works and I ‘tweeted’ quite innocently but un-informed that we would be also running a two-day event for women – the response was instant and had a huge impact. After a bit of embarrassment and many apologies I realised that social media was a brilliant way of directing instant information directly to key people and riders.
The other thing is it’s quite addictive and we have have now put out over 5000 tweets!
My view is as long as it’s done with good intentions, not hard selling, then generally people react positively to what you are saying and the message you are trying to get across. Social media has been a great asset in helping spread the word of our ambitions and plans.
I think it’s safe to say the women’s race is going to be a success. Putting it together must have been hard work and surely took a lot of effort and committment – were there any points when you felt like giving up and just having a men’s race?
Its going to be a success because of three main factors: A) we managed to bring Giant Sheffield on board early with a great prize of a £2000 Giant Envie Advanced Bike which really allowed us to promote our women’s race, B) we spoke to various movers and shakers in the sport of women’s cycling and, because they trusted us, we decided to go with what they wanted – which was E/1/2/3 and separate Cat. 3/4 women’s races, and above all C) because we were able to offer equal status in terms of prizes and race length.
As an organiser it is very difficult when you set up something which you have been told will be a certain success only to sit and wait for the entries to come in – and wait and wait. The problem has been explained very clearly to me: the majority of women racers are amateur riders who have jobs, travel and other commitments and as an independent event that is later in the year and not part of a championship, it makes it very difficult in terms of getting the entries in. If the riders could just see the hours and hours that go into trying to put something on, trying to do something different, they would be shocked. As I reply to these questions I ‘m actually on holiday, but working at 23.50 in the evening because I have just got so much to do.
What drives me is success, and I measure success on two levels – both quality and quantity of entry. With a prize fund equivalent oto over £4400 for the women’s race, I would have hoped for a greater response and that does get me down.
What keeps me going is one factor…. and that is when I say I am going to do something, then I will do it! I always stick to my side of the bargain.
We will put on a brilliant couple of women’s races but if they are poorly attended, it is not the riders who lose face with the sponsors or the public … it’s me, so whatever happens we have to monitor the success of what we are trying to do and see if the sums add up.
Right now, the British women’s calendar is looking healthy. What advice would you give to anyone who is planning to organise a women’s race?
What is important is make sure that you don’t aim too high. I think we may have done in some respects, but it would be much better to have a healthy Cat 3/4 Race than a poorly supported 1/2/3 Race. What people must understand is that it doesn’t matter to the public if the riders lap at, say, 1min 28 or 1min 48 – what the public (and hence sponsors) want is a really good competitive race!
Going back to the last question, there are now so many women’s races that some have to take place in the middle of the week, when many of the riders can’t get to them due to pressures of work and so on. Some of those race organisers then mistakenly think the riders aren’t interested. How high has rider interest been in your race?
The interest in our race has been great and being a Sunday on a Bank Holiday weekend has helped a great deal, but you have to offer the whole package – you must promote it, you must help where you can with reasonable entry fees, a fair prize fund and, importantly, a race that does not chuck all the categories in together: I’m equivalent to a Cat. 4 female rider, I wouldn’t spend £25 entering a race only to get lapped within 6/7 laps if I was up against Elites/1/2 etc. Pointless.
And the other thing is – so what if its not a full 100-rider field – give the women something and see if they’ll help you build on it.
Finding sponsors is always a problem in women’s cycling – for the riders, teams and races alike. You’ve managed to bring some very good ones onboard; what advice would you give to other organisers so they can try to do the same?
Faith, belief and enthusiasm (and bloody hard work). For God’s sake… some of you won’t like this and I really don’t care if you do or not, but as a “product” women’s cycling has really got a lot to offer – use it! Whether it be the commercial side, which is the rapid growth of women getting involved in cycling or the fact that women’s cycling is, shall we say ‘appealing” to the eye – whatever the reason, women’s cycling has a lot to offer sponsors, it’s something different, it’s manageable and it’s a great spectacle.
Women’s races should be organisers’ No.1 unique selling point. OK, you an argue that men’s cycling has a touch more prestige, but it doesn’t have what the women offer! At the moment, we do not have an individual Sponsor for our two men’s races… think about that! Our women’s sponsor was agreed in principle last December!
My advice… make your women’s race your number one priority!
Afterword by Rich Stoodley:
This interview was originally removed (on my request) because of some negative feedback I received to the answer above. The above is my full, original, unedited response to the interview question which I typed at midnight whilst on holiday -I received much condemnation from a few people who (I believe) took the question and what I was trying to say totally out of context and posted negative comments purely because I used the phrase ‘appealing to the eye’. I have decided not to change or edit my answer as I firmly believe it was replied to in good faith and I stand by my whole answer within the sentence and the context of the question.
I will however add a couple of points: firstly, what is the point trying to promote women’s racing with all our hard work and doing interviews like this if you cannot say things ‘how you see them’ and almost have to go through a censorship panel just in case you word something slightly wrong which may or may not be misconstrued as sexist. I do not believe that I should edit my answer because of someone else’s views – otherwise they should have written my answers themselves.
Secondly, regardless whether it be women’s cycling or football/tennis/beach volley ball/boxing / gymnastics etc etc. …
A) Women are built physically different to men and as a result do perform differently. This, unfortunately, means that they can be seen as “lesser athletes” by some, especially those with less understanding of sport, and this means that it will always more difficult for them to find equal sponsors, prize money and media coverage. We, as an Event are trying help change that !
B) It is human nature for both men and women to want look good, and athletes are proud of their image (including looks/body/media photos etc) and as competitive athletes there is generally an ‘ego’ involved which shouts ‘look at me – look what I can do’ – my view is many riders (male or female) DO want to be appealing to the eye!
C) Like it or not, I am only pointing out that the general public – both men and women – appreciate the physical form of an athlete (again both men and women) and if you add to that a bit of glamour and good looks then all I was saying was that this could be used by event organisers (and riders and teams) to help promote women’s racing to sponsors which in return helps women’s cycling and helps get it the promotion it desperately needs which helps it grow. I am not breaking any taboos here – this is basic human nature. I also believe that certain women’s teams & riders can (and some do) decide to use (or not) the fact that they are “women” to help gain important sponsorship. (I am now having to choose my words very carefully
What we should NOT be doing is moaning that “we” don’t get any sponsorship and people don’t take “us” seriously because we are women etc etc. Get out there and promote YOURSELF, however you wish to do it .. it is personal choice.
OK – hands up … I love women (after all I am a bloke) , but guess what – I wouldn’t want to see ANY athlete gain media coverage, get a place in a team, or attract sponsorship based on her (or his) looks alone – that would be an insult to all those others who work and race hard and have earned their place on the grid that way. As an organiser, I have argued the case to promote not just one women’s race but TWO! If I had the view that some people misread into my original answer, then why would I be putting so much time and effort into not only getting sponsors for women’s cycling but also offering a huge prize fund and also giving them equal status?
What I really want is the women’s support shown in return to us with ENTRIES so that, as an event, we can really offer a fantastic ‘stage’ to enable women to promote themselves, show just what they can achieve and show how healthy women’s cycling is – which can only help make it grow. That wat, eventually there will be no prejudice from other events, organisers, sponsors or the public.
Women’s racing is quite simply for that: women who race ! So let’s get on with racing, work together and support those who are actively trying to promote it – riders, teams, sponsors, events & websites!
Thanks to those sponsors, you’ve been able to offer equal prizes in the men’s and women’s races – in fact, if anything, the women’s prizes look even more tempting. Was this always important to you, and if so why?
You’re not kidding it was important to me – we live in an equal world for women (other than religion & golf!). If you are going to give equal status, do it – go the whole hog, and why not ?
I couldn’t sit here as an ‘new kid on the block’ independent event and try and coax the bigger women’s teams by offering a few measly quid just because putting on a women’s race was seen as the ‘thing to do” – I would have no respect from them and we would be just another event. We mustn’t forget, these riders are all athletes, they all train and work their heart out the same as the men. As far as I am concerned, they deserve the same.
The other thing is… wait till you see the Elite trophy! I think that will prove how important women’s racing is to us!
The women’s race at Tickhill has equal billing, too – it doesn’t feel like a sideshow designed to keep the fans entertained while they wait for the “main event.,” as is the case at a lot of races. Was this a conscious effort?
Again, yes it was ! I am even concerned that I have put it on before the men’s Elite race rather than after it, but we have to be realistic: positioning it before the men is better for the women because whether you like it or not, people will see the men’s Elite as the number one race and with them turning up for this, positioning really will help more people see just what the women are capable of.
One of the things that people say after their first visit to a bike race is that they were surprised at how friendly women’s cycling is, and they love that. However, at many races the women and their teams have to set up in an area some way from the parcours and are then expected to clear out and make room for the men as soon as their race is over. That means fans don’t get time to see them and chat to them, and it annoys the riders too because it makes them feel they’re not as important. What will it be like at Tickhill?
What do you think ? To be honest, our logistics and timing (and knowing just how many women and Elites are coming) will probably mean that our Car Park will be a bit of a ‘free for all’ first come first served – we’re just deciding now if we put on an Elite area (men & women)… but what I will assure you is that everyone will get an equal Yorkshire welcome to Tickhill ! (OK we may be a bit nicer to the women, but that’s because they’re generally nicer to us !) 🙂
Crits are great for spectators and organisers, but there are a lot of them on the calendar. Do you have any plans to develop the GP in the future, perhaps into a kermesse and then a traditional road race – after all, there’s a lot of very beautiful countryside around Tickhill to be used?
We have got a lot of plans! We want to work with teams and riders to put on what they want – but this is a two way mirror, we need support. We see this as a bit of a long term relationship, we will work with those who want to work with us – which this takes me back to some minor frustrations of early entries, there would be little point putting a load of effort into anything without some sort of guarantee or at least commitment.
The other beauty about Tickhill being an independent race is that (within reason) we can do exactly as we choose… I was recently taking to a good friend of mine who races crits in Canada and she had some great ideas – watch this space is all I suppose I can say, but we can’t and won’t do it without a ‘need’ from the riders.
Why Tickhill? What made you choose Tickhill for the race rather than,say, Harworth?
A) I live there. B) This is actually our second race. Last year’s single men’s Cat 3/4 Race was organised on a whim on the back of a local music festival and we have obviously grown from there. C) there are some big logistical issues with Tickhill, but we had great feedback from the riders last year and because they like it I believe we have a great base to grow from. D) It’s up North and we are all friendly!
Any last words?
In summary, my job is to make this simply the ‘best’ independent race day on the calendar – when we have an idea that is simply too big and too grand for us, we don’t say “we can’t do that,” we ask “how can we do that?” – and 95 % of the things we launched last year in December are coming to fruition .
The other thing I would like to say is a big thank you to a few “movers’ in women’s racing (you know who they are) who have trusted their instincts and supported me. I only started cycling in October 2012 and I know sod-all about racing, but they have seen our vision and helped wherever they can. We just need a few more entries now and a bit of trust from the high profile teams which would the icing on the cake.
We have managed to gain sponsorships from almost 70 companies! The most important to us is YESSS Electrical, our title sponsor whose vision of women’s racing matches ours, and the other obvious prime mover is Giant Sheffield who have been amazing in funnelling their cash directly to the women. Both these two companies deserve respect for their generosity and vision, so PLEASE support them by supporting us. We’ve got 3000 programmes being printed – we want YOUR name in them on the entry list !
PS it’s now 00.50 – another hour…
The YESSS Tickhill Velo GP takes place in Tickhill, S. Yorkshire, on Sunday the 24th of August and includes races for Under 12s, Under 14/16 Girls, Under 14 Boys, Under 16 Boys, E/1/2/3 Men and 3/4 Men in addition to the Women’s E/1/2/3 and 3/4 races.