Emma Pooley: The great cycling gender divide

While cycling's men are coining it the women like Pooley are left as the poor relations

Emma Pooley has had enough. Just weeks after she played her part in the Great Cycling Success Story at the Olympic Games she is contemplating taking a year out to consider her options.

Imagine Mark Cavendish or Bradley Wiggins doing that. There might be an outcry among cycling's new-found fans. Yet Pooley's announcement last week that she needs time to ponder life after cycling has gone unnoticed, even though she is the first high-profile Olympian to hint at a radical departure from the grind and glory of Games preparation. Though her decision is not directly connected to money there is little doubt that finance provides a sub-text, as does the huge inequality between men's and women's cycling, all of which asks uncomfortable questions of the sport's rulers and its champions such as Sky.

Pooley, the 2010 World time-trial champion and 2008 Olympic silver medallist, believes the Olympics shone the sort of spotlight on the issue which should have enlightened everyone. The trouble is it hasn't, and there appears little prospect of immediate change.

"It was particularly highlighted in London,'' she said as she prepared for this week's Road World Championships. "Anybody who saw the women's road-race there found it particularly exciting to watch, and wondered why we don't get to watch this more often."

The disparity in media coverage and funding is enormous. She said: "In general the pay is rubbish and most people don't get paid. In some teams everyone gets paid but in others they might be lucky to get expenses. So they do other jobs."

It's not as if the money isn't there, just there is a staggering gender imbalance. The average team budget for the men's top league, the World Tour, is north of €9.5 million (£7.7m), and top teams are said to be considerably more than that. A top-flight women's squad budget is around €500,000 a year – two-thirds of the €750,000 Sky paid for each of their two state-of-the-art team buses. Meanwhile Pooley's current squad, AA-Leontien.NL, can barely afford the petrol to get to races.

On top of that, in Europe the number of women's top-level races is shrinking – at World Cup level, the blue-riband series, the number has dropped from 12 to eight in the past six years.

"As for the actual racing, women's cycling has really come a long way in the last decade – it's 10 times more advanced, there's a lot more depth, it's more amazing to watch," argues Kristy Scrymgeour, general manager of the Specialized- Lululemon women's team.

"But even the big races still don't get the TV coverage. The structure around it hasn't grown with it. We need to build the sport as something with its own interest." Pooley has a solution. Just as this week both male and female cricketers will contest Twenty20 World Cup tournaments in Sri Lanka, so the sexes should be brought together in cycling. "Major men's races should be obliged to run a parallel women's event,'' she said. ''If TV execs and race organisers could hear all the positive comments from spectators of the Olympic road race, they'd want to do it. And the UCI [cycling's governing body, accused by Pooley of turning women's cycling into a "Mickey Mouse sport"] should encourage or insist on it."

If this inequality rings bells with women's footballers, say, the difference is that, with 100 per cent dependency on commercial sponsors, and free spectatorship at 95 per cent of races to boot, income streams are far more limited for cycling. Leading squads Rabobank, Orica and Lotto-Belisol all have women's teams. But the big question in Britain remains: why don't Sky do it? It becomes even more difficult to fathom given the wealth of British talent: Pooley, Lizzie Armitstead and Nicole Cooke have three Olympic medals and numerous road world titles between them.

Pooley has raised the matter with Sky. "They've said, 'The time isn't right, we're not sure. It'd be great if all men's pro teams also had a women's team, but being stuck on a team that doesn't want you is shit, as I have found, so it'd be better if the initiative came from the teams themselves, which it would if our races were better publicised." It is, she glumly concludes, "a vicious circle".

She finds Sky's lack of interest more incomprehensible given cycling's fast-increasing fan base. She also lays blame with UCI, saying: "It's not entirely their fault, but they should really be pushing it for it to appear more on TV. They're too busy looking at our saddles to see if they're at a regulatory angle to be promoting [women's cycling]."

She concludes: "Our racing is widely regarded as boring, but that's because nobody sees it." Right now, that seems unlikely to change.

Highlights of the week

Today: men and women's trade team time trial

Tuesday: senior women's time trial (GB: Emma Pooley, Wendy Houvenaghel)

Wednesday: senior men's time trial (GB: Chris Froome, Alex Dowsett)

Saturday: U-23 men's road race/ women's road race

Sunday: senior men's road race (GB: Mark Cavendish, defending champion)

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