Perhaps the most amazing fact to emerge from the first week of the London Olympics was the size of the crowds watching the cycling road races. Last Saturday, the men’s event drew upwards of a million people. That’s said to be the largest number of spectators for any Olympic event ever—which may not be so surprising for an event starring Britain’s top two sports personalities, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, a matter of days after their crowning achievements on the Champs-Élysées. But what about the women’s race on Sunday? If you were cognizant of cycling’s history, you wouldn’t expect too many fans to show up for a stand-alone women’s race. But what happened? Despite no Tour de France stars being on the start line, and despite the race being held in mostly pouring rain, another million people showed up. Incredible!
From the British perspective, the men’s race was a disaster. Cavendish was widely heralded as a shoo-in to win gold after five-star assistance from Wiggins and their three powerful teammates, Tour runner-up Chris Froome, Tour stage winner David Millar and national champ Ian Stannard. But trying to control a race that was as long as Paris-Roubaix with just four riders, however strong they were, was always going to be a near-impossible task. And so it proved.
The GB boys boxed themselves into a corner with their all-for-Cav strategy. An early, powerful breakaway forced them to ride too high of a tempo for hour after hour to keep the break’s lead to bridgeable proportions, and they didn’t have enough gas left to stop three waves of riders making that bridge to the front over the final two laps of the demanding Box Hill circuit. Perhaps it would have been smart to let Cavendish surf one of those waves; he said he had the legs to do it.
In the end, it was extraordinary to see the 2012 Tour de France’s top two finishers, first Froome then Wiggins, ride themselves into total exhaustion trying to bring back the 26-strong breakaway group. That they didn’t succeed was disappointing for Cavendish and his supporters, but the Brits were heroic in defeat. The ultimate victory of anti-hero Alexander Vinokourov bemused the British public (and their media!), but the men’s race did make it to the front page of at least one major newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, which ran a huge photo of a solo, head-down Wiggins trailing in to the finish 1:17 behind the winner, with the headline: “Never mind, Bradley! There’s another gold medal chance on Wednesday.”
Perhaps the Tour champ would recover in time for Wednesday’s Olympic time trial, but a gold medal then would not change the public’s disappointment in the result of the road race. An inkling into just how the British media would have reacted had the gold gone to Cavendish came the next day when the women’s silver medal was claimed by Lizzie Armistead, an iron-strong Yorkshire lady from the same cycling club as the late Beryl Burton, who was probably England’s greatest-ever cycling champion. As the home country’s first medalist of these Games, Armistead’s photo graced page one of every national newspaper in Britain, with the most spectacular one being a double-page shot of the finish appearing in The Times—the iconic 227-year-old newspaper affectionately known as The Thunderer.
The Times headline read “Elizabeth the Second”—an allusion to Queen Elizabeth II, whose palace was the backdrop to the road-race finish, and to the fact that Armistead placed second. Not much play was given to winner Marianne Vos, the Eddy Merckx of women’s cycling. The Dutch woman’s victory salute was cleverly hidden on the back of the wraparound cover, with Armistead on the front page, smiling through the rain as she crossed the line. On this occasion, the British media and public came through for women cyclists; but the racers’ oft-heard cries of being treated like second-class citizens were borne out by the coverage in mainstream Europe. The Continent’s leading sports daily, L’Équipe of Paris, didn’t even report the women’s Olympic road race. It just printed the result in small type, deep inside the broadsheet’s cavernous pages.
But the women did get an unprecedented chance to show the quality and excitement of their racing in hours of live television around the world. And, after a slow start, they put on a great show of aggressive racing, particularly Vos, Armistead and sprinter Shelley Olds—whose ill-timed puncture when in the winning break robbed her of the chance to become the first American woman to medal in an Olympic road race since Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg placed 1-2 in the 1984 inaugural women’s event. Perhaps, almost three decades later, the excellence of the women’s racing at the 2012 Olympics will help them take a major step in their quest for equality.
We’ve heard a lot in the past year about the lack of parity between the men’s and women’s branches of professional cycling. Female racers have expressed their frustration that while, relatively speaking, money pours into the men’s side through multi-million-dollar sponsorships of teams and events (albeit with exceptions in austerity-ravaged economies such as Spain’s), women’s racing has stagnated, with even the top teams existing on shoestring budgets.
At the center of the parity storm is the world’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, even though the UCI willingly acceded to IOC demands that there be the same number of events for men and women cyclists at the London Olympics.
When UCI president Pat McQuaid was asked at last October’s road worlds whether there were plans to legislate a minimum wage for women racers, he said, “We have an agreement in men’s sport, but women’s cycling has not developed enough that we are at that level yet.” When his words were shared with the top three finishers in the women’s road race in Copenhagen, world champ Georgia Bronzini politely disagreed. Runner-up Vos said, “Of course, it’s a younger sport than the men’s sport but…with a minimum salary it can only be more professional.” And bronze medalist Ina Teutenberg added, “I don’t know why guys would deserve a minimum salary and women don’t.”
The debate heated up this past weekend, when Armistead, Britain’s brand-new Olympic silver medalist, said the things that bugged her about the inequality of the sexes were salary and media coverage, “but certainly I think we could get more help from the top—which is the UCI.” For now, let’s just hope that the dignified and delightful performances by Armistead, Vos and company in London makes the world of cycling, especially the media and the UCI, pay far more attention to women’s racing. At least, for the million or so Brits who stood in the rain last Sunday, the women’s race was just as much a spectacle as the men’s. And that can only turn up the volume in the women pro cyclists’ call for a minimum salary.
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