The 2019 Men's Tour De France kicks off next month, yet not many will have heard of the Women's race that succeeds the famous event, 'La Course by Le Tour De France', why is that?
The famous event draws in over 3.5 billion viewers across 190 countries with the event becoming a key fixture, many will not miss. Whilst Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal and Jakob Fuglsang battle it out for the prestigious yellow jersey, what currently stands at the Women's equivalent 'La Course by Le Tour De France' is not even broadcast on Television.
La Course is a single day event which sees riders race around a section of the Men's time trial route, considerably shorter than the Men's route. There have been many calls from riders and fans to see a staged event run alongside the Tour De France but for now, organisers are continuing with the one day race which begins on Friday 19th July. Will this ever change?
Dubbed a ''freedom machine'' and described as ''a symbol for the emancipation of women,'' bicycles have symbolised female empowerment for decades. They have a long history as tools to help women escape societal shackles which prevented them from travelling freely and unchaperoned and dictated how they dressed as riding bicycles required women to eschew their restrictive dresses in favour of “scandalous” trousers. Bicycles became associated with the women’s suffragette movement through propaganda posters and magazines featuring bicycle-riding, empowered ‘New Women,’ and through demonstrations where activists took to the streets, riding bicycles and carrying banners. The earliest women’s cycling race took place in over a century ago in 1868, which demonstrates that women’s involvement in the sports spans over a century.
With hundreds of women recently coming forward to highlight sexism in a range of industries as part of the #MeToo movement, we have entered a new era dominated by a discourse on gender equality. The world of cycling, despite its importance in women’s rights movements, has not remained immune to this and has been called into question for prevalent gender disparities.
Sexism has been described as ''endemic'' to the profession with female cyclists receiving significantly less pay, support, opportunities to race at top events and exposure than their male counterparts and in the field. There have been calls to introduce a minimum wage for women cyclists after studies highlighted serious inequalities in their earnings; while men must earn at least US$37,000 a year, there are no guaranteed wages for women and according to The Cyclists' Alliance, 50% of professional female cyclists earn less than €10,000 (around US$ 11,000) annually while 17% do not receive a salary at all. This forces around 52% of professional female cyclists to take up a second job in order to make ends meet.
These statistics demonstrate the difficulties faced by women who decide to pursue a career in the industry and the inequalities they face in comparison to their male teammates. First-hand testimonies from leading female cyclists such as Iris Slappendel who in a self-written article for magazine 'Outside' corroborated these statistics as she recounts how she was denied prize money and pay for trivial, inconsequential reasons, such as wearing incorrect socks, and witnessed her male colleagues earn ''10 to 20 times more'' than top female cyclists. She, along with other female cyclists, was paid only what they needed to live, not what they deserved based on their experience and accomplishments. This demonstrates how male and female cyclists are viewed differently in the sport and how one’s efforts are heavily rewarded while the other’s accomplishments are disregarded as inconsequential.
Many women have also criticised the restrictive races which do not provide a sufficient challenge and go easy on women, assuming they cannot do better. For example, the women’s race, La Course by Le Tour de France, at only 62km is less than half the distance of the men’s race and, unlike their male counterpart’s multi-day race, only spans one day and location. Furthermore, best-performing women on the Col d’Izoard complete a bonus round in the Orange velodrome, described as a ''freak show'' by journalist Suze Clemitson and a mockery of the men’s equivalent timed race around Marseille, which is an opportunity to demonstrate disciplined exercises of muscle and machine. This reflects persistent sexist attitudes in the cycling industry that underestimate women and do not challenge their physical capabilities. Women’s cycling is seen as a hobby, whereas for men it is seen as a ''proper job", according to former cyclist Nicole Cook. Women are indulging in a fun, comparatively non-strenuous activity whereas cycling allows men to show dedication, sportsmanship, and power.
Clemitson also states that, women "are so often reduced to “beautiful ornaments” and are more likely to be featured as half-naked podium girls than as professional cyclists. As seen at the Flanders Diamond Tour where bikini-clad women were made to parade around the VIP section and detracted from the accomplishments of women cyclists such as Jolien d’Hoore who cycled her way to victory after a six-week hiatus. The display was heavily criticised by Clemitson as "dehumanising" as it was another case of reducing women to their physical attributes and bodies rather than their achievements and talents. As explained by Slappendel, women are perceived as ‘pretty women riding bikes,’ not professional athletes.
Image Credit: Sander V. Ginkel via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps one of the most serious offences against women in the world of cycling is that there is a lack of organisational support to help combat these challenges. According to Slappendel, it is very rare for a women’s complaint to receive a follow-up and it is not likely for action to be taken against people who have committed ''economic, sexist and physical abuse.'' Women who lodge complaints or speak out against these injustices are stereotypically and unjustly labelled as 'difficult' and face the threat of being blacklisted. This hinders any progress towards equality and ensures that a pervasive cycle of sexism and inequality continues within the sport.
It is clear that a deep-rooted culture of exploitation and sexism exists in professional cycling. Women face economic disparities; sexist attitudes that view them as less capable and accomplished as men; sexualisation as bodies for male enjoyment and a lack of institutional support to address these injustices. This has prevailed over several decades with marginal improvement and will continue to persist unless attitudes and perceptions of female athletes are changed and regulatory organisations push for reforms to advocate for greater equality in cycling.
Lead Image Credit: S.Yuki via Flickr