Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by SWpix.com
Seven and a half years pass quickly. It was Wednesday May 7 2014 when I wandered around the back streets of Oundle, all honey coloured limestone and elegant architecture reflecting the small East Midland town’s status as one of the few of the UK’s Public School towns. I was waiting for the first edition of the Women’s Tour to start.
There weren’t many media there, but there was a relatively large public turnout considering it was a Wednesday morning in Oundle and there were plenty of folk coming out to watch during the 58 mile stage to Northampton won by Emma Johansson (pictured). And there was a feeling, I wrote then, that this could be a game changer.
Now, the Women’s Tour feels like a fixture in the calendar to the extent that its absence has been sorely felt. It’s been two and a half years since it last took place; the 2020 edition fell foul of the Pandemic like most of the UK road racing calendar and the 2021 race has been postponed from its usual early summer slot to a start on Monday. Together with the UK national championships on October 17, it pushes the British calendar deep into the autumn, so let’s hope the weather gods are smiling.
It’s worth looking back to May 2014 and reflecting on where the sport is now, and where it was then. Back in 2014, the notion that a women’s race might have the same prize money and working conditions (road closure, accomodation) as the equivalent men’s race – in this case the men’s Tour of Britain – seemed radical.
The man behind the Women’s Tour, Guy Elliott, stuck his neck out on this one. The organisers, Sweetspot, brought it in for their RideLondon Classic. The Women’s Tour de Yorkshire followed suit, more impetus came from Flanders Classics, and now it’s seen as the standard to which all races should aspire. The immense disparity between prize values at this weekend’s men’s and women’s Paris-Roubaix was rightly a talking point – but Elliott and company set the agenda in 2014.
Back then, as part of the Guardian’s build-up to the Women’s Tour, Lizzie Armitstead (now Lizzie Deignan) lamented the lack of television coverage of races such as Flèche Wallonne. “I’m sure we will be on Eurosport one day,” said Armitstead, which seems an incredible comment now. At the time, daily television coverage for the Women’s Tour seemed a huge step; now the question is not whether, but how much – and the protests that greeted the decision not to have live coverage of the race make it clear that the goalposts have moved here too. Again, Flanders Classics and ITV4 have played key roles, with the British broadcaster covering the Tour de Yorkshire and Women’s Tour from the get-go. Here too, ASO need to follow suit.
Back in 2014, there was already momentum in the campaign for equality. Armitstead’s vocal criticism of cycling’s structure after the 2012 London Olympic road race had brought the issue centre stage. The UCI had a new president, Brian Cookson, who had made rapid moves in the domain. Le Tour Entier’s campaign for a Tour de France Femmes had achieved partial success with the announcement that spring that ASO would inaugurate La Course by Le Tour de France. Back then, this was seen as a stepping stone to a women’s Tour de France; it’s taken time, but finally that step is to be taken.
Deignan and her team Trek-Segafredo have taken their sport forward, pushing for proper treatment if a racer decides to combine her career with starting a family. The inception of the riders’ union, The Cyclists’ Alliance has played a big role since its foundation in 2017, raising key questions and pressing for its members interests. Again, none of this was there in May 2014.
There is an element of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, beyond the fact that Deignan and Marianne Vos are still among the sport’s flagship names, which is testament to their drive and class. Back in 2014, there was criticism of Team Sky and British Cycling for failing to invest in, respectively, a women’s WorldTour team, and a proper support programme for riders such as Armitstead. There are still WorldTour teams and managers that can’t be bothered, and still dismissive, sexist comments from high-placed men who should know better.
Autumn 2021 feels like another time of rapid progress. On October 14 we will find out where the Tour de France Femmes will go after its start on the Champs Elysées next year. It now seems like an aberration for a men’s WorldTour team not to have a women’s programme run in paralell; Cofidis announced their new team line-up recently, taking the number of French teams to four. The women’s transfer market looks healthier than I can remember with new squads like Uno-X vying for riders. Just this year, the Swiss have come on board with the Tour de Suisse and Tour de Romandie.
Back in 2014, I interviewed the then manager of Wiggle-Honda, Rochelle Gilmore, in an attempt to put some perspective on the arrival of La Course and the Women’s Tour. “In another 10 years we will be close to parity,” was Gilmore’s view. The sport isn’t close to parity, and there’s no room for complacency, but it now seems achievable and the pathway is there. We must never ignore the sport’s long history of inequality and sexism but it would be equally blind not to pause occasionally and note the progress that has happened. That race start seven years ago in that honey-stone little town is part of that.