Celebrating the women making their mark in cycling
From the Santini sisters to Aurore Amaury, VeloNews celebrates some of the women making an impact on cycling.
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Over the years many women have done their bit to push through boundaries, make history, forge ahead in pursuing their dreams, and show that it can be done.
We have also seen stories of derring-do, perseverance, and those who have facilitated and supported women in the pursuit of the activities they love.
VeloNews celebrates some of these women and tells their stories as they reflect on their lives in sport.
Paola and Monica Santini, Marketing Director and CEO (respectively), Santini Clothing
Heading the family business, which started as a wool business set up by their aunt Natalina in Bergamo, Santini has been producing sportswear since 1965.
Sisters Paola and Monica have overseen the company’s development since taking over from father Pietro in 2008. Santini has worked with the UCI to produce the rainbow jerseys for more than 30 years, and will be manufacturing the leader’s jerseys at the Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes.
When they started producing women-specific clothing more than 20 years ago, people responded negatively.
“In the past, we were met with some confusion and reluctance. People would say, ‘why are you making women’s products? They are no use to anyone, no one wants them. It’s a waste of time,’” Paola recalled.
“Time has proved us right, and there are more women’s collections because more women are becoming involved in sport.”
Santini’s workforce is 97 percent female, though Monica is keen to highlight that success is not based on gender.
“I am a woman, but I am also an entrepreneur,” she says. “I don’t think my gender gives me any advantage or disadvantage. I always try to be at the top of my game like any other entrepreneur who wants to make a difference. The key to success is hard work and courage.”
Paola echoes those sentiments. “What is relevant is not my gender but the skills I have and the commitment for what I do every day. Hard work, humility, and honesty are values that always pay off in the end. We make products we believe in, and we do it thanks to our people.”
Cherie Pridham, Lotto-Soudal Ladies sport director
When she was appointed sport director of Israel Start-Up Nation at the end of 2020, Cherie Pridham made history as the first woman to occupy the role on a men’s WorldTour team. Midlands-based Pridham took it in her stride. Although it was a step up from previous roles, she had many years of experience in cycling management.
Pridham has always been gutsy in her life choices. The first race she competed in was 104k in her native South Africa – at the age of 11 – and she won her age category. On her 18th birthday, with her bike, kit, and £25 in her pocket, she set off for England to pursue her dream of becoming a professional bike racer.
After almost 20 years of racing, she got into team management via Team Raleigh and later became the owner. After Team Raleigh (then known as Vitus Pro Cycling) closed in late 2020, a door opened for Pridham when Israel Start-Up offered her a job.
Fast-forward to now and the former pro-racer is in the Lotto Soudal car giving instructions to her riders at Paris-Nice.
“It has been a whirlwind, but it didn’t come without hard work and tears,” Pridham says. “Being a director is not an easy job, whoever you are. Anyone who thinks it’s an easy job just sitting in the car is mistaken.”
Pridham doesn’t see herself as being different, but just a director among other directors.
“If you start to see yourself as different, you are already….not quite on the back foot, but you need to see yourself as equal, first and foremost. You need to be able to do the job, be competent, and confident, and if you’re good enough for the job it doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, or whatever. If you deserve the position that you’ve been entrusted with then just crack on.”
Fatima Deborah “Debby” Conteh, Canyon-SRAM Generation racer
Hailing from Sierra Leone, West Africa, 22-year-old “Debby”, as she is known to her friends, has made massive progress in her quest to become a professional bike racer. It wasn’t easy as she had to battle against the resistance of her father and stepmother — Conteh’s natural mother died of Ebola during an outbreak — who did not approve of her cycling.
Fortunately, the rider from Makeni, a city 200km north of the capital Freetown, was inspired and mentored by Abdul Karim Karama, the CEO of the Lunsar Cycling Team, and the Tour of Lunsar organizer.
Conteh trained hard and won the Women’s Tour of Lunsar in 2018 and placed second in 2021. Eventually, she caught the eye of Canyon-SRAM, who recruited her into its new development team.
“I am in love with sport and with cycling,” Conteh said. “Peter Sagan and Chris Froome are my heroes. Most of my family don’t want me to ride a bike, which makes me quite sad. I was staying with my father and stepmother in the village, then I went to the city where I didn’t know anybody. I started to mix with other cyclists, chasing my dream to be a professional.
“In Africa, there is an idea that cycling is only for men, not for women. Especially in Sierra Leone, women are discouraged from riding their bikes and there are only a few of us that do it. My advice to other women is that riding your bike will give you health and physical fitness benefits. I am spreading the word to all females in Africa that cycling is the best sport.”
Unfortunately, despite the offer to race for Canyon-SRAM Generation things haven’t been straightforward. Conteh’s move to Europe has been hampered by visa issues, but Canyon-SRAM and Team Africa Rising are working to help her.
Aurore Amaury, joint director general of Amaury Group, and president of L’Équipe
Along with her brother Jean Étienne, Aurore Amaury manages the family business that includes the L’Équipe Media Group and Amaury Sports Organization — the company behind numerous sports events including the Tour de France. Between the siblings and their mother, President Marie-Odile, they work at the helm of one of France’s leading companies.
However, Amaury is not an arm’s length executive and takes a keen interest in sport.
“The Amaury Group has supported the development of women’s sports, particularly cycling,” she said. “The Tour de France Femmes will be launched this year, but we also have women riders participating in the Fleche Wallonne since 1998, Liège-Bastogne-Liège since 2017, and Paris-Roubaix since last year.
“In other sports, we have also created the Ballon d’Or Feminin where we award the best woman soccer player in the world each year, and we broadcast various sports events across our platforms on L’Équipe.”
Isla Rowntree, founder and former CEO of Islabikes, cycling advocate
Since childhood, when she battled with school for the right to do design rather than home economics, Isla Rowntree has always wanted to make innovations in bicycle design and racing.
From children’s trailer bikes through high-quality Islabikes for children and small adults, Rowntree has sought to make cycling accessible to a wide range of users. Although she stepped down from the company in 2021, the ethos of inclusivity continues and Islabikes recently launched a range of bikes for people with dwarfism.
Innovation doesn’t stop at designing bikes, though. Rowntree is a keen cyclocross racer, and a former national champion, and she, along with several women across Europe, campaigned for the first-ever women’s world cyclocross championships.
“We had campaigned for a women’s national cyclocross championships and we finally got that going around the early 1990s,” she said. “Then we started to campaign to get a women’s world championships. We had contacts around the world, and it was all done by letter.
“Eventually, in 2000, we had our first women’s championships after all those years of letter-writing. Now that is a significant side of the professional sport, and in last few world championships the women’s race has been as exciting to watch as the men’s.”
Agua Marina Espínola, Canyon-SRAM Generation, 2020 Paraguayan national champion
Captain of Canyon-SRAM Generation, Agua Marina Espínola has been fortunate to make it to Europe from her native Paraguay, where she got into racing much to the disapproval of her father.
“When I was a teenager I wanted to be a cyclist because I thought it looked really cool and I saw people like Marianne Vos riding,” she said. “I took part in the Pan-American championships seven years ago and was the first to be dropped from the peloton – I felt so ashamed.
“That was the thing that really made me want to come over to Europe – to improve my cycling. I got the opportunity to go to the World Cycling Centre for three seasons after the UCI did a talent ID selection in Mar del Plata, Argentina. They helped me a lot to develop my level, and then I continued to develop my career in Spain with Massi Tactic, and from there I ended up applying for the Canyon-SRAM team.
“Most teams are not interested in riders from countries like mine because they know that getting a visa is always a problem, and normally they cannot support us with that. It was difficult for me because my father was of the culture that girls should stay at home and clean the house. People in my small town, San Luis would say to him ‘What is your daughter doing?’
“I still traveled to the World Cycling Centre, in Switzerland, and mentally prepared myself by reading Domestique by Charly Wegelius. That book really touched me and really helped me know what to expect. However, my mum went into a depression because within a few months I had left home and my sister got married.
“It was hard for her to see her two daughters leaving home. She got support and is much better now, but that got me down because I felt like I was doing damage to my family, especially if I didn’t get good results. When I was selected for the Tokyo Olympics, as the first Paraguayan to compete in the bike race, I was thrilled and so was she.”
Collette Clensy, European marketing director, Giant/Liv
Having been the marketing director of Giant and, women-specific brand Liv for the last 24 years, Clensy has seen how cycling has grown in the women’s sector. The company Liv, led by the charismatic Bonnie Tu, prides itself in producing bikes that are built for women from the ground up, rather than tweaking handlebars and saddles.
As well as supporting athletes and ambassadors from diverse backgrounds, Liv will sponsor the Tour de France Femmes.
“Since I joined the Giant Group 24 years ago, I’ve seen the representation in women’s cycling transform and I’ve been privileged to be part of this. Liv Cycling, our remarkable ambassadors, and our dedicated community of consumers serve as an inspiration and reminder of the importance of the work we do,” Clensy said.
Alena Amialiusik, Canyon-SRAM Racing Team
With 10 years in the professional peloton, including five national road race titles, Alena Amialiusik is one of the most experienced riders around. As a child, back in her native Belarus, she started out as a gymnast. When she was 12, the local facilities closed down, and she was encouraged to start cycling while at a school sports day.
Time at a sports academy was followed by a couple of years racing for BePink, before Amialiusik joined Canyon-SRAM in 2015.
Sadly, the current situation in Ukraine has shown very clearly that it isn’t possible to separate sport and politics. Although Amaliusik is based near Bergamo, Italy, the repercussions she still feels the repercussions significantly.
“I have family in Belarus, and I also have family in Ukraine,” she said. “I have many friends in Russia and none of them want a war. It’s very upsetting and shocking to see the situation in Ukraine and the violence that people are suffering. No one should have to fear for their life. As an athlete, I want sport to unite all people and want that we all can live peacefully. I wish for peace for everyone and I hope for an end to the war.”
Marion Rousse, Tour de France Femmes director
Having grown up in a cycling family, where her father was a racer, it wasn’t surprising that Marion Rousse took up cycling and forged her racing career. However, women’s racing at that time also meant taking up a part-time job to make ends meet.
In fact, in her other job as a part-time cycling commentator, she realized in 2015 that she had a flair for it and decided at age 25 to take a chance.
Working in television led her into event management and she is now deputy director of the Tour de Provence and now director of the Tour de France Femmes. Things have come full circle for the former French national champion. Rousse also has the important job of being a mom to eight-month-old Nino.
“Becoming a mum has been the biggest change in my life, and there is a lot to manage – more than any of my other jobs,” she said. “But my lifestyle has always consisted of very busy full days doing cycling-related activities — it’s something I have managed since childhood.
“I try not to travel too far away from Nino and I bring him with me to work as much as I can. I feel lucky to be able to combine the things I love. Having a baby changes your life and your priorities, and my biggest priority is Nino.”
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope
One of the most dynamic characters in the professional peloton, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig is determined to live out her dream as a top racer, even if the path can be difficult.
“Since I was a little girl I’ve always dreamt about being a professional rider,” she said. “When I finished high school, I focused 100 percent on cycling and worked in a supermarket to earn money. In the beginning, people didn’t understand me not continuing with my education. People would say, ‘hmm, what are you actually doing? You must be studying. You cycle some of the time, but what do you do with your spare time?’ I kept on standing my ground and saying this is what I want and I love it so much.
“I am actually living my dream — getting paid to do the thing that feels like my hobby. That’s pretty amazing. Of course, it’s a tough job and there are rainy days, it’s freezing and you ask, ‘do I like my job right now?’ But every normal person has days where they’d prefer to stay on the couch and watch Netflix.
“It’s pretty cool to see how racing has become exciting over the years, with minimum salaries, and TV coverage of WorldTour races. If your dream is to be a cyclist then there is no straight way to success. There will be hard times and shitty times but you’ve gotta have faith and patience and keep on going.”