Lizzie Stannard: The Eurocentricity of Professional Bike Racing

 

The Women’s WorldTour. It is interesting to note that, despite the fact we spent our time racing what is called the ‘Women’s WorldTour’, it’s perhaps not really very worldly at all. Eurocentric is the word I’d use to describe, in fact, the entire profession of cycling. Maybe this is really obvious, or maybe it isn’t. 

In part this is due to the accessibility of cycling as a mode of transport. In New Zealand, where I grew up, the road is eight metres wide and residents are horrified if the local council even suggests painting a dedicated cycle lane onto the road. Where would the electrician park?? My all-girls high school didn’t even offer a functional bike rack for students as riding to school was unheard of. The car is king in New Zealand. The Netherlands on the other hand, is world famous for bikes – everywhere. Bikes take precedence. Everyone seems to ride as a mode of transport. It is therefore not a surprise that the Dutch have the most riders in the WWT peloton. 

Economics is also important. Cycling is not by any means an accessible sport for someone from a low-income family. Even to enter the sport as a junior it’s expensive. Bikes are not cheap; maintaining them is not easy, particularly with the advent of disc brakes and electronic gearing. It’s also a very time consuming sport to both train for and compete in, and we all know time is money. Not surprising then, that the Netherlands is also ranked 11th on the International Monetary Fund’s 2023 World Economic Outlook listing of every nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Australia is ranked 12th, and we currently have the 5th most riders in the WWT peloton. Actually, I would hazard a guess that the correlation between a particular nation’s relative wealth and the number of riders from this nation racing in the professional peloton (continental or WT) would be quite positive (I say a guess as I have not put in the effort to collate enough data to validate this). 

So, now it seems much more clear that growing up in the Eurozone means it’ll be more likely you’re going to be racing in the WWT at some point. Even more so if your parents could afford to own their own home and take you on trans-continental holidays every now and then. 

Obviously geography is important and this is where things get interesting. Mum & Dad’s disposable income starts to come in handy when you grow up at the bottom of the world. Flights, visas, insurance, accommodation and land transport add up very quickly for short trips, let alone a nine-month stint on the other side of the globe. Plus, you don’t know anyone. If things go awry, Mum is probably sleeping 20,000km away and you can’t phone a friend to pick you up off the side of the road, simply because you just don’t have any (yet). And also probably because you couldn’t figure out how to top-up your WinTre SIM. 

Money fixes most problems and this includes but is not limited to emergency taxis, last minute visas and exigent service station stops. A financial safety net in one way or another – perhaps it might be a benevolent team owner or sponsor, a savings account, a generous family member – is a prerequisite for this sport and it is magnified by geographical distance.

Politics plays a part too. I couldn’t come to Europe to race from January till October on a whim if I was from South Sudan. I would find it very difficult to come at all if I was from Vanuatu. Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Americans, Brits and the Japanese are exceedingly lucky in that we mostly have good political relations and therefore visa reciprocity with countries in the Schengen Area – which happens to be where 90% of the WWT and .Pro Series is held. 

And now, you may ask, what is the point of these facts? Pure interest on my behalf mainly. The nature of this sport means that sometimes there is too much time to think. 

 

Credit: Jered and Ashley Gruber

Racing is really hard, and at this level it is getting exponentially harder each year. This is a good thing. In my so far short and somewhat tumultuous experience in the WWT, figuring out how to create or locate an opportunity to race is harder. Way harder. And I have the privilege of a supportive network, a financial safety net and a desirable passport. You just need to be better, you might say, and the opportunities will be there. This is also true – if I pushed 6.5 w/kg for 10 minutes I would probably have no shortage of offers for three year contracts. But you can bet your bottom dollar there are hundreds of girls or women in South Sudan alone who would have the VO2 max of a highly trained Nordic cross country skier, and absolutely nobody is clamouring to hand them a contract, let alone an opportunity to ride a bike. 

What I’m getting at here is that whilst we are at the forefront of our sport – racing with unreleased equipment and testing the very limits of endurance capabilities on two wheels, it’s just that – the European forefront. Implying that there is much more to it than a lead-in to the bottom of the Koppenburg for a team-mate and ensuring you get your tart cherry juice down as fast as possible. My question is therefore, do we have a responsibility, as the ultra-privileged few with massive resources at the forefront of the sport, to enable a more international platform and better global accessibility to grassroots cycling? And then, who is the ‘we’ with the aforementioned responsibility? Or do I have a moral bee stuck in my helmet? 

This is not new to the men’s peloton – think about the concept for Team Assos-Qhebeka, for example. Platforms like the WCC Team, Cyclists Alliance Grants and Canyon SRAM Generation also acknowledge the geographic and economic limitations of our sport. Diversity is needed for better competition, increased viewership and the continuing development of the sport. It has the potential to open doors of fresh revenue from unfamiliar sponsors. 

There is also much more to be said about the benefits of holding races in different places. It’s instrumental for the global proliferation of cycling – whether it be in the form of the recreational activity, community racing or simply as a mode of transport. Theoretically (and ignoring any limiting factors such as regulations, economics and the like) more comprehensive WorldTour – say a race in Canada, another in the USA, a couple in Africa and another one in Asia – would showcase our sport to prospective riders or spectators in that region, would give local or national business an opportunity to invest and to benefit from the associated exposure, and would give girls from these regions something tangible to aspire to. Or it might just encourage more people to ride their bike to work that day if roads are closed because a bike race is going through their town. Whatever works.

I do not doubt that an increasingly worldly Women’s WorldTour can only be a good thing for everyone. Bike racks at schools worldwide! 6.5 w/kg for 10 minutes everywhere! Cherry juice post-commute! Or most preferably, more girls on two wheels with the wind in their hair and a strong sense of independence and empowerment. 

 

 


References

Council of the European Union. 2024. Infographic – EU visa agreements with non-EU countries. Retrieved from <https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/infographics/eu-visa-agreements-with-non-eu-countries/> 

Global Gender Gap Report 2023. (20 June 2023). World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/publications/global-gender-gap-report-2023/in-full/benchmarking-gend er-gaps-2023/ 

International Monetary Fund. (2021). GDP per capita, current prices. Retrieved from https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/NGDPDPC@WEO/WEOWORLD 

Meier, H E., Konjer, M V, Krieger, J. (2021). Women in International Elite Athletics: Gender (in)equality and National Participation. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, Vol. 3. Retrieved from <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fspor.2021.709640> 

Sandbakk Ø, Hegge AM, Losnegard T, Skattebo Ø, Tønnessen E, Holmberg HC. (June 2016) The Physiological Capacity of the World’s Highest Ranked Female Cross-country Skiers. Med Sci Sports Exerc.;48(6):1091-100. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000862. 

SIBILSKI, LESZEK J. (2 April 2015). Cycling Is Everyone’s Business. The World Bank. Retrieved from 

<https://web.archive.org/web/20180612142147/https://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/cycling -everyone-s-business/>

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