“I think that’s their problem. If they don’t want to do it then maybe don’t ask them to do it. Let’s do something else. Work with organisers, promoters who are interested in women’s racing.”
I’m talking to Brian Cookson at the London Classique, the organisers and promoters of which he clearly feels are demonstrating appropriate levels of support for women’s cycling, unlike some.
Mother Nature is not showing much sisterly solidarity, however. London’s skies have been painted Gainsborough grey since early morning, but it is only with the start of the race that they decide to break with a vengeance.
I have just raised ASO’s apparent reluctance to put on a proper women’s race, along with their director’s reported apathy towards this side of the sport. Since we began talking, this is the least wonkish, most intemperate answer the UCI president has offered.
The media might be his preferred target for criticism – he had initially singled out l’Equipe for the pitiful proportions of its La Course coverage – but he’s apparently not averse to taking swings at certain continental race owners either. Especially those which, in his eyes, are failing to live up to or meet their responsibilities.
With the UCI presidential election coming up, telling one of the dominant powers in professional cycling to get stuffed doesn’t seem like the most sensible thing to do. Perhaps he knows something about the 15 votes of the European delegation that we don’t?
Cookson does not seem like a man particularly preoccupied by his re-election. In fact, over the course of our conversation, the possibility that he might not be comes up just once. Even then it arrives as more of an afterthought, while discussing his ambitions for women’s racing for the next four years, which have changed somewhat since 2013.
The prosaic experience of governing, and the accompanying record of having been where the buck stops, makes it harder to campaign as poetically as he did first time round.
Central to Cookson’s manifesto then was the introduction of a minimum wage for women, just as there is for men. He remains committed to the idea, but is more mindful of the barriers to doing so. As a consequence the timeline has shifted somewhat.
“What the women involved with those teams said was, if you push that as a rule too quickly, all you will do is kill a number of teams, or they will re-register as amateur teams, or club teams.”
Rather than an avowed promise to introduce it, he refers to the minimum wage as “an aim, a developmental objective that I think is deliverable”. Rather than a year, as was originally pledged, he’s now hopeful it can happen “within the next four years”.
All of which sounds like a call for what corporate bods might refer to as “stakeholder co-operation”. Particularly from race organisers who, despite that one notable exception, Cookson is careful not to criticise.
“We’re a governing body. We don’t own those races, so we can’t really impact one hundred per cent on them, but what we can do is influence them and move them in the right direction. Some organisers are more sympathetic to that, like we see here in the RideLondon, others are a bit more reluctant. We can understand that. We can make some regulatory changes but we have to be careful that we don’t overheat any particular situation.”
Pressed for specific examples of regulatory changes the UCI has made, or might bring in, Cookson says that they are “encouraging organisers through increasing race distances for women”, and “looking at the number of days of racing in the calendar”.
“Encourage”, “influence”, “looking at”.
As well as Cookson might mean, as genuine as his personal interest in raising the profile of women’s cycling sounds, the language remains that of reserve, moderation and temperance. It leads you to wonder about the UCI’s marketing and PR efforts. Do they not have relationships with the likes of l’Equipe, that they can leverage to elicit more generous coverage? Is the governing body doing a good enough sales job when it comes to women’s cycling?
Take the RideLondon weekend, where the professional women are competing in a 55 kilometre criterium on the Saturday, the men a 200k road race. Does anyone really think they are equivalent?
I put it to Cookson that while the equal prize purse awarded at both is laudable, it’s a detail that doesn’t cut through to the average cycling fan. Ultimately, what most see is women taking part in a significantly shorter race, taking place on a pan-flat course.
Rightly or wrongly, the Tour de France is most people’s reference point for what cycling ought to be. When the men get something resembling that, the Classique is inevitably going to look like an inferior product. Cookson makes a valiant case for the defence, but it’s not entirely convincing.
“In many ways something like this is perhaps more exciting than the men’s… It’s a short race, but it’s all action. There’s no promenading, there’s no taking it easy; there’s no kilometre after kilometre with one team riding at the front to protect their race leader. We’ve seen an action-packed hour and a half of racing, and that’s a great spectacle.”
He might believe that, but the caveats and qualifications are revealing. They suggest he’s aware women racers, despite being well compensated in terms of prize money here, are being sold short.
“We’ve got to be careful and understand that women’s cycling is in a developmental phase. We can’t overheat it too quickly,” he says.
Perhaps not, but maybe turn the stove up a little higher.