In the years since Lizzie Deignan brought home a silver medal from the London Olympics in 2012, she can count more than medals on her list of life achievements: team leadership, WorldTour wins, advocacy for women in sport, a world championship, marriage, and a child.
Yet, she says, it would have been impossible to imagine any of it back then.
“If you’d told me then the level of professionalism, the TV exposure, the growth — I would have been delighted if I’d known 10 years ago the position I could be in now.”
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Recently, a sport-wide conversation about whether men’s WorldTour teams need to have an equivalent women’s program in order to help grow the sport of women’s cycling has muscled its way into the headlines. With Cofidis confirming a women’s program for 2022, Ag2r-Citroën hinting at the same, and Marianne Vos poised to lead Jumbo-Visma into the women’s peloton in a few weeks, the conversation about men’s WorldTour teams adding women’s programs has reached a surprising tenor.
What’s most compelling about the chatter? The notion that these two-headed programs can somehow ‘save’ women’s cycling — which implies that the sport is indeed in need of a life raft.
In a recent interview in the British cycling magazine Roleur, Team Ineos’ CEO Fran Millar said that Ineos — then Team Sky — missed out on a huge opportunity to foster an entire generation of female cyclists by not organizing a women’s team some 10 years ago.
In the interview, Millar recalled a meeting she had with Deignan in London in 2012 to discuss such a team. After that, she told Roleur, “we were pushing and raising it at every board meeting. There was a window of opportunity at the early outset of the post-Beijing era, where we could have done something to really shift the dial.”
According to Millar, Sky’s board of directors decided that a women’s program wasn’t commercially viable at the time. While we now know that the cost of adding a budget for a women’s program to a well-endowed men’s team rarely exceeds three million euros (and is probably usually closer to 1-2 million), what we don’t is how many potential professional female cyclists could have started their careers and then paved the way for others since then.
When I ask Deignan if she’s bitter that after nearly 10 years, Ineos still doesn’t have a women’s team or that female pros still struggle for a living wage, among other basic resources, she says it’s actually the contrary.
“I feel like these conversations have gone somewhere,” she says. “There have been huge developments in women’s cycling since those conversations. I don’t think you can define the success of women’s cycling by whether or not Ineos has a team or not. There’s been progressive moves in so many places.”
Deignan’s answer reflects the delicate dance that female professional cyclists are constantly pirouetting around. They are expected to be grateful for what they have — salaries, team buses, adequate staff — while also fighting for what they don’t — salaries, team buses, adequate staff. While the Deignan of 2021 can look back on herself circa 2012 and know how far she, and the sport, have come, she also has to constantly acknowledge that there’s further to go.
“I’m not going to say we’re at the finished product, nowhere near, but I think it’s important to reflect positively on the changes that have happened, definitely,” she says.
For as much as Deignan appreciates progress, she is also unafraid to speak out on what needs to change. While it would be easy to call her part of the ‘vocal minority’ in the women’s peloton, there are more riders than not who agree — and who’ve thus had to adopt the title of advocate in addition to cyclist.
As many female pros have realized, winning races is only half the battle.
“It’s a difficult path to navigate,” she says. “We all become athletes because we want to become the best athletes we can be, not because we want to be politicians. It’s not like you get trained for it. But you have to have the courage to speak out when you’re not being given the same opportunities.”
While the health of the women’s peloton continues to improve, and some of that success can be attributed to moves that the bigger-budgeted teams (like Deignan’s own Trek-Segafredo) make in terms of guaranteeing minimum standards to their riders, it doesn’t take a concurrent men’s program to ensure that the peloton evolves.
History has shown that a woman’s program needs does not need to be attached to a men’s one to be successful: Team SD Worx, the winningest team in modern women’s cycling, has always stood alone. So have Canyon-SRAM and Alé BTC Ljubljana.
The greatest inequities actually plague smaller women’s squads that lack aggressive sponsors backing them. Benefits like maternity leave and minimum salaries are a pipe dream for teams that still lack basic amenities like a team bus or physician. Those riders must remain on the other side of the ‘delicate dance’ — the one where progress might be measured by not having to pay for their own kit rather than being able to quit their day job.
Deignan admits that it’s tricky to both welcome more well-endowed teams to the peloton while also continuing to encourage smaller, independent teams that they too, can play.
“Is the growth [of women’s cycling] at the cost of smaller teams? Potentially,” she says. “Is that cost worth it? I’m not sure. That’s why it’s important to have conversations around progressing women’s cycling but in a sustainable way. I don’t think we can jump straightway into a longer calendar without a bit more equality in the opportunities of all teams.”
While a women’s team from Ineos — or any other men’s WT squad for that matter — might help raise the tide for all of women’s cycling, it isn’t the only, or superior, option. Equity across the peloton in the form of salary, resources, and benefits would do more to right the ship. Furthermore, adds Deignan, a men’s team moving into the women’s peloton will only be successful if its actions speak as loud as the words.
“I think it’s really important that if you’re starting a women’s team that you’re doing it for the right reasons,” she says. “That you see it as an opportunity, not that your hand is being forced.”