It is not enough for Marianne Vos, at the grand old age of 26, to be a double Olympic champion and dozen times a world champion. In women’s cycling she has to be a campaigner too.
Any man with Vos’s record – she is the world’s best all-round cyclist of either sex, a world champion in three different cycling disciplines – could rest his reputation on his laurels, and the weighty financial rewards that would accompany them. But the roads the women pedal down are not paved with gold, and are frequently pretty dangerous too; last season riders refused to complete the Tour of Toscana and a previous race in Languedoc because organisers had not made the route safe enough. It was one rule for the men and who cares for the women.
Today Vos will lead a 95-strong peloton out of the market town of Oundle en route to Northampton and the finish of the first of the five stages of the first Friends Life Women’s Tour, the biggest female cycling event staged in this country. Here there will be no question of safety – the road closures will be the same as at the men’s Tour of Britain – and there is an expectation among the riders of big crowds and, for the riders and the organisers, the potential beginnings of the big time for women’s cycling.
Later this summer Vos, Lizzie Armitstead, Britain’s leading road cyclist, and Co will precede the men around Paris in La Course on the final day of the Tour de France and the winner will be rewarded with the same amount of prize money, €22,500 (£18,450). For the British race there is a total prize pot of €30,000, which compares to a similar men’s race and, with the exception of La Course and the women’s Giro, has no women’s equal in Europe.
“I have seen the sport growing and getting more professional but now is the moment to show this to the wider audience, to the whole world,” says Vos. “I think 2014 is a big year. We have seen a lot of changes already and now with the women’s Tour and La Course it is massive progress for women’s cycling. The best thing I see is that women’s cycling gets a [Tour] stage.”
Money matters. “Why shouldn’t we get the same?” says Dani King, the Olympic track gold medallist who will ride as part of the British-based Wiggle Honda team, although their ability to feature on the podiums has been dented by Laura Trott, King’s Olympic team-mate, and Giorgia Bronzini, the team’s Italian leader, suffering from laryngitis.
This is still not big bucks. The winner will collect €2,500. But that is more than double given the winner of the Tour of Qatar, one of the more lucrative women’s races and another run by ASO, the organisers of the Tour de France. Vos points out the simple equation of better money breeding better competition and more professionalism. Emma Pooley, the former British Olympian who will ride for her Belgium team, earns more from competing in triathlons and marathons on the side than from her job of cycling.
There is a real sense of change in the women’s sport. Brian Cookson won his election as president of the UCI, cycling’s governing body, last year in part on his promises to improve the lot of women in professional cycling. “I can see the change already,” says Vos, who was part of a pressure group, Le Tour Entier, who pushed for a female presence in the Tour de France. The ambition remains to make it a longer stage race.
Rochelle Gilmore, the Australian who founded Wiggle Honda, and has pumped nearly £300,000 of her own money into the team, believes it will take a decade to achieve anywhere near parity between men and women in professional cycling. Sweetspot, the organisers of the Women’s Tour, have made much of treating this race just as they treat the men on the Tour of Britain, which they have also given a successful rebirth to.
“Our ambition is in three years we make this the biggest and best women’s tour in the world,” says Mick Bennett, the race director.
It was the success of the women’s road race at the London Olympics that sparked Sweetspot’s interest, Vos snatching a dramatic triumph over Armitstead. The crowds were large and the TV ratings were higher than for the men’s race.
Television coverage is a key factor. The women’s sport has had little outside the Olympics and the world championships. That does nothing to help attract sponsors. The Women’s Tour will have an hour’s highlights on ITV4 every evening.
“It’s the snowball effect,” says King. “The more people see it, you get the sponsors, you get more racing and it just grows. It is really important. It’s going to be a big event. The coverage is really important – that is a big step for women’s cycling.”
Good crowds are forecasted – the local councils through whose areas the race will pass have been enthusiastic supporters – and the sport needs a good race to seize its moment. Another Vos v Armitstead head-to-head would be timely but as a new event there is an area of uncertainty around the peloton. There is one certainty though; this is a carpe-diem moment.
“We are getting more and more attention,” says Vos. “The world can see the beauty of women’s cycling now. This event is really important. This is a big stage. I think we are ready.”
2014 women’s tour: who can stop Vos?
Three to challenge:
The winner of Britain’s first medal at the 2012 Games will renew her battle with Vos, who pipped her to gold. The form rider this season, as she sits on top of the World Cup rankings.
The 30-year-old Swede won silver behind Vos at last year’s world championships.
The Italian is a double world champion and has the support of Laura Trott and Dani King.
Today Stage 1 Oundle to Northampton, 58.3 miles
Tomorrow Stage 2 Hinckley to Bedford, 73.7 miles
Friday Stage 3 Felixstowe to Clacton, 56.3 miles
Saturday Stage 4 Cheshunt to Welwyn Garden City, 54.6 miles
Sunday Stage 5 Harwich to Bury St Edmunds 67.2 miles
Follow Marianne Vos here: http://www.strava.com/pros/mariannevosofficial
Follow Dani King here: http://www.strava.com/pros/dani_king