On the way home from my eldest daughter’s swimming lesson last week, I committed what is one of the cardinal sins of parenting, in the eyes of many.
Not only did I hand over my phone to my two kids so they could watch TV but I stoked the inevitable, ensuing argument. The occasion was the women’s time trial at cycling’s road world championships. Given my family and I live in Amsterdam, and the race had come down to a battle between two Dutch women, I was banking on some sibling rivalry to raise the viewing stakes.
My daughter already knows of the Olympic champion Annemiek van Vleuten, so that was her stall set out. My son is only two and simply wanted to hold the phone, which was enough to put him in the Ellen van Dijk camp as far as his sister was concerned. Van Dijk won but so did my daughter, since she got to hold the phone. Everyone was a winner.
If cycling isn’t your thing, you can be excused for not realising we are in the middle of a very special few weeks of racing, but it is worth pausing and taking a little look around.
The quest for equality in sport is such a long, mostly thankless, endlessly exhausting enterprise it’s not surprising we can lack the energy to stop and take stock of where we are at any given time.
The world championships in Flanders were, as they have been for the past number of years, a whole week when women’s racing enjoys near-parity in terms of organisation, presentation and support. It is a fact reflected in the TV viewing figures. Audience numbers for women’s racing at the worlds has grown by 75 per cent in the last four years, according to the governing body the UCI.
Here in the Netherlands, the women’s elite road race even outperformed the men’s, as it had at the recent European championships. An average of 358,000 people tuned into the women’s race on Saturday, representing a 30 per cent market share, compared with 338,000 for the men on Sunday, which translates to a 15.5 per cent share.
Now, these figures are not replicated across the cycling world, and there can be many contributing factors, such as the competition for eyeballs on any given Sunday, given it is the prime day of the sporting week. However, I can tell you men’s racing, and men’s sport in general, is still a bigger deal for the Dutch than women’s, so I would fully have expected more viewers to watch compatriot Dylan van Baarle pick up his silver medal on Sunday over Marianne Vos the day before.
Yet, this is what can happen when viewers are given the option, and athletes are given the opportunity to race, whatever the myriad of contributing factors.
Which makes the inaugural women’s Paris-Roubaix this coming weekend such a potentially significant moment.
The men’s race has long been one of the most celebrated, romantic events on the calendar, and is one of the so-called Monuments of men’s racing.
Known as the ‘Hell of the North’, it runs through land decimated by the First World War, though the infernal connotation is often taken to be as much a reference to the number of cobbled sectors the riders have to endure, as the historical context.
The event organiser, ASO, is the same outfit behind the Tour de France and, therefore, the first, revamped women’s Tour de France to take place next year. If the fact it has now proactively brought about a women’s Paris-Roubaix, without the need for the years of campaigning and protest that led to a Tour de France Femmes, lures you into believing this is an enlightened, gender-promoting organisation, think again. Sometimes it feels like ASO has been so long on the back foot with women’s racing that even now it walks with a limp.
At this year’s La Course, the one-day women’s race which runs alongside the Tour de France, women’s teams had to scrabble for accommodation in a region completely booked out by ASO for the men, meaning many were staying so far away from the race a recon was a logistical impossibility.
And yet, even a race organiser that has shown little moral or financial interest in providing an equal platform for women, has finally recognised the tides of history shifting around it, and is having to move accordingly. However it is that a first women’s Paris-Roubaix has come about, I will rejoice in the opportunity to relish it.
Not that we’re done there. Before we even get to the weekend, we have a women’s hour record attempt to look forward to tomorrow night, which we can again watch live. Joss Lowden is hoping to become the first female British rider to hold the record for the furthest distance cycled around a velodrome in 60 minutes, after smashing the world best in training earlier this year. You may recall Sir Bradley Wiggins doing the same, to much fanfare and the very best production Sky Sports could manage, when he broke the then men’s record on live TV in 2015. Lowden is a much lesser-known name beyond the sport, so the fact her record attempt will be broadcast live on Eurosport shows how far the women’s sport has come.
In short, it is a wonderful few weeks to be a fan of women’s cycling. Yes, there is a dauntingly long way to go but if we take a few breaths and pause briefly on the journey, we can afford a small celebration as to how far we’ve come. And we can maybe hand over the phones or the tablets to the kids so they can enjoy it too. If they are arguing over who should triumph over the cobbles this weekend, that’s one sibling squabble I can fully support.
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