Have you heard about the Rêve Tour? Six women are riding the entire route of the 2012 Tour de France, one day in advance of the actual race, to raise money for Bikes Belong. The ride is sponsored and supported, but my understanding is that they’ll be cleaning and maintaining their own bikes. Given that there are six of them, and not 198, they’ll have to really stick together and take care of each other to make it. I think it is fair to say that for the women involved it will be easily as massive an undertaking as it will be for the men who will race it, for money, in their wake.
The Rêve Tour will not be televised. You can expect Heidi Swift, who writes for a certain magazine Padraig also writes for, to pen some compelling prose about it, but otherwise we will have very little window into what they’re doing day-to-day, and that’s too bad. I think it takes what a small cadre of men did during Stoepid Week and goes one louder.
The Rêve Tour ladies are already accomplishing part of what they set out do, because they’ve got me thinking about the disparities in our sport. Some years ago, when I was editing a soccer magazine, I ran up against a common feeling among our readership, which was that women’s soccer was inferior to men’s. It was slower, they complained. It was different.
My actual experience was that, while slower than the men’s game and less dependent on power, the women’s game was really good to watch. The women, at least at the time, were more tactical in their play, more cooperative. There were fewer cynical fouls and far less play-acting. It was different, yes, but still very good, and the pros, though paid far less than the men, were more open, giving of their time, and encouraging to young players.
Female cyclists at the very top of our sport will be slower than their male counterparts, but I can’t see that that has any impact on my enjoyment of a race. Since the advent of modern doping controls, including EPO testing and the biological passport, the men’s races have slowed as well. We are not enjoying those races less, are we?
A group of top racers going hammer-and-tongs at a grueling mountain stage is thrilling, no matter the, um, base equipment under them. The tactics are the same. The personalities will run the same gamut. It will be the same story, but different. Better in some ways.
I don’t want to go all soap-boxy about this, because I hope that I am preaching to a sympathetic choir. There is already elite women’s racing. Ina Yoko-Teutenberg, Kristen Armstrong, Evelyn Stevens, Emma Pooley, Marianne Vos, Claudia Hausler, Georgia Bronzini, Chloe Hosking, these are names you’ve probably heard. They are stars, even if the UCI and ASO don’t treat them as such.
To me, the Rêve Tour won’t prove any points about what women can and can’t do. We already know they can race the same races as the men, and most of us believe those races would be just as compelling as the ones we get to see on television. What the Rêve Tour does, I think, is ask the question, “Why are things the way they are now, with unequal prize money and inadequate support from the sport’s governing body?”
And it’s a fair question.
In pro tennis, at the top level, the prize money is equal. The women get as much, and sometimes more, media ink than the men. It’s an example of two subtly different forms of the same game, offering equal entertainment value, and equal opportunity. How is cycling different?
When Chloe Hosking called Pat McQuaid a dick for his comment that professional female cyclists did not deserve a minimum wage, she was made to back down and apologize. But for what? How can the head of the UCI pretend to be interested in the growth of the sport when he won’t give even the most cursory backing to equal opportunities for women?
I have no answers. I know it’s easy to write these words, to put on an air of moral indignation. It is much harder to set out with six teammates to conquer the Tour de France and make your point with your legs, as a cyclist should.
Image: Robertson, VeloDramatic
If you had asked me where the Willunga Hill was five years ago, I’d have probably guessed New Jersey. Now I know the aforementioned topography can be found in Australia, and serves as the major climbing obstacle in the Tour Down Under, the January kick off to the pro-cycling season.
The TDU hits the Willunga Hill tomorrow and wraps up on Sunday with a circuit around Adelaide.
Shortly, the world’s top pros, the lion’s share of them Europeans, will battle head winds and dash for finish lines in Qatar. They’ll move on to Oman after that.
There is a reason to this globe-trotting rhyme having to do with climate, sponsorship and expansion of the cycling brand. While some small races (Etoile Besseges, Challenge Mallorca, et. al.) do stud the late winter calendar in Europe, the UCI has sought to jump start its season by traveling to the weather. In this context, Australia, Qatar and Oman make a lot of sense as venues.
Further, deep pocketed sponsors in those countries want pro racing. Qatar, in particular, is forcing itself into the international sporting scene, not only hosting an annual, but also securing the football World Cup for 2022. The UCI, in pursuing a more global strategy to growing the sport, are understandably happy to sanction big bike races for big money in small, wealthy nations.
But while the Tour Down Under stokes the fire of sporting passion in Australia and the burgeoning presence of Aussie riders in the pro peloton, one has to question the strategy behind events in the Middle East. With exactly zero representation on the ProTeams, Qatar and Oman are not exactly hot beds of cycling passion. Race video shows long straight stretches of dusty roadway occasionally dotted by small bands of curious onlookers.
Other than cash and carry commerce, what is the real point?
The Tour of Beijing this fall highlighted the profit-centered strategy of the UCI in stark detail. Many top teams were reluctant to participate but were then seemingly strong-armed into showing up by UCI head Pat McQuaid, who wrote a memo threatening the sponsorships of teams who failed to toe the line. The Tour of Beijing is put on by Global Cycling Productions, a for profit organization that lives within the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland and staffed by senior UCI officials.
Over the last two years the UCI has been assailed from most quarters, criticized for their stewardship of the sport in the areas of doping control, equipment standards and rider safety.
This week’s Group Ride examines the nature of globalization, its positives and negatives. Few would argue against the good of expanding cycling to a global audience, but is simply following the money the best way to do that? Without connecting top level races to roots level organizations, is the UCI actually succeeding in making cycling more popular? Or do you see the shift of the race calendar out of Europe as simply a dilution of the cycling brand, designed to enrich the governing body? What are the positives and negatives to this new paradigm?
Image: CJ Farquharson, Photosport International
A year ago, I was as against race radios in the pro peloton as a French television executive. To me, the saddest moment in any race is that moment, within sight of the finish line, when the poor bastards who have been fighting into the wind all day long, their jerseys unzipped to the waist, salt caking at the corners of the their mouths, get swallowed up by the chasing horde, a pack of cackling hyenas who have spent the previous hours calculating with their director the exact amount of effort it might take to ruin the breakaway’s day.
It is not by any particular guile that this moment is effected. It is merely a matter of having your DS tell you what the time gap is and then ratcheting up the speed on your on-board cyclocomputer to the exact number which will cause the train from Clarksville to overtake the train from Cityville. It’s a math problem more than a race.
And yet, even without radios and computers, this is a fairly standard scene in bike racing. It is the cruelty of the catch, which makes the joy of the successful breakaway such honey-sweet nectar. How much effect the radio has on these outcomes is the subject of no small debate.
Regardless, this week UCI president Pat McQuaid made it entirely clear that the international governing body would press forward with a plan to phase out radios, the latest bout of brinksmanship in a conflict with the team’s union, the AIGCP, who wish the retain the use of the ear piece in all pro races. The AIGCP represents of the Pro and ProContinental Teams, not, just to be clear, the riders themselves.
And now I must confess that, having read a fairly compelling missive on the subject from AIGCP head Jonathan Vaughters, as well as a passionate defense of the technology by Jens Voigt, I find myself in a much more ambivalent place as regards radios.
I have not fully abandoned the notion that races would be better without them, but nor do I feel best qualified to tell the riders what will or won’t make them more safe. They don’t ride down to my office and throw things at me while I type, why should I, in my capacity as a fan, deign to tell them the best way to do their jobs? It is less about whether or not radios have a place in cycling than it is about how those decisions get made. Who makes them? Who has a voice and who doesn’t?
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Given recent developments in the debate over race radios, are you for or against, and why?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Enough, enough, enough of all this doping-related blather. Just because the Tour of Qatar is as entertaining as watching someone do their taxes, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be spending this time chatting anxiously about the coming season, rather than sticking pins in our Pat McQuaid voodoo dolls or trying to understand how the body takes in and stores dime store stimulants.
There is actually a racing season coming.
And, as it does every year, the landscape has shifted. Whether it’s the renaming of Team SaxoBank to Team Leopard – Trek (What? They’re not the same team?), or the merger of Cervelo with Garmin, the talent has been thrown up in the air like a deck of cards and then quickly reshuffled. How will it all play out?
Will Taylor Phinney’s move to BMC put them on more podiums? Will Tejay VanGarderen improve on last season’s promise? What of Jack Bobridge, the new owner of the world individual pursuit record? Will Radio Shack, the de facto retirement home for aging racers, have more to offer than they did last year, in Lance’s swan (dive) song?
Can Tyler Farrar help Thor Hushovd pour glory on the rainbow stripes, and can Hushovd help Farrar best Mark Cavendish? Can they even coexist? Will Andrei Greipel rise up to compete at the very top of the sprint pile? Can Phillipe Gilbert win big in the Spring? What does Fabian Cancellara do for an encore after complete lighting up 2010? Will Tom Boonen come back to the form from his early career?
So many questions. This week’s Group Ride tries to keep it simple: What is the most interesting unanswered question for the 2011 season?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International