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Cherie Pridham: From racing the women’s Tour de France to directing Chris Froome

Pridham started her trailblazing tenure as director in the men's WorldTour this week, but she sees nothing unusual about it: 'I want to be judged as a DS. Not a female one.'

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Cherie Pridham gets behind the wheel for her second day as sport director at Israel Start-Up Nation on Thursday, leading the team in the quest for stage wins at the Tirreno-Adriatico.

The presence of a female staffer calling the shots in a WorldTour convoy makes for an anomaly. Pridham is the first female sports director in the top tier of modern male racing – only she sees it as just “business as usual.” Her reaction when asked ahead of this week’s Italian race about her landmark appointment says it all.

Also read: Israel Start-Up Nation appoints first female sports director on WorldTour

She’s a director, not a female director.

“I want to be judged as a DS. Not a female one,” Pridham said earlier this week. “It will be a hard race. Let’s concentrate on that, shall we?”

British-born, South Africa-raised Pridham joined the directing staff at the new home of Chris Froome last December. Having honed her skills through years of running and managing male continental teams in the UK, the world’s swell of attention to her appointment last year came as a shock. She was just doing the thing she’d been doing since she was a kid.

“I think I was a little bit surprised,” Pridham told VeloNews in a telephone interview. “I probably still haven’t realized the significance of the opportunity that I’ve got in front of me. And I probably won’t until I get cracking with it.”

There have been female sports directors in the Women’s WorldTour for many years. Giorgia Bronzini and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg have been calling the shots at Trek-Segafredo since its inception in 2018, and Esra Tromp leads the new Jumbo-Visma women’s team in 2021. Also, there are a handful of female directors operating in second-tier women’s outfits.

Also read: Q&A Giorgia Bronzini: Making the dream work at Trek-Segafredo

However, it has never been imagined, discussed, or even seemed a possibility for a woman to be behind the steering wheel of a top-flight men’s team since Robin Morton took the U.S.-based Gianni-Motta-Linea team to the 1984 Giro d’Italia.

The notion of being a trailblazing figure in the male peloton hasn’t yet crossed Pridham’s mind, who has long dissociated her gender from her job of helping teams win bike races.

Pridham has a long history of directing and then owning Continental teams in the UK Photo: VeloUK

“I’ve never once considered myself as some sort of role model, but the enormity or significance of this has made me realize that I might have to take that role on,” she said. “I’ve never felt the need to do that – for me it’s just natural, you know, to do what I do.

“All through my career, I’ve never focused on my gender or the fact that I’m female. I’ve never ever looked at that or played on it for that matter. I’m a sports director, not a female sports director. And quite frankly, not just me, but if anybody’s good enough, whether it be at football, basketball, whatever, if you’re good enough for the job then why don’t you get the job.”

Pridham, 49, has been cycling with her male counterparts since her teenage years, taking up racing in South Africa and regularly training with Doug Ryder, now the team principal of Qhubeka-Assos. Having rapidly risen through the ranks to ride her first Tour de France aged 19, Pridham enjoyed a long and fruitful pro career which spanned eight Tours and two Giro Rosas.

When a hit-and-run accident put a premature close to her time in the saddle, Pridham took up directing in 2006, some 14 years ago.

From her first gig with the Merlin Development Team through to the start of her long tenure managing and then owning UK continental squad Team Raleigh, Pridham never saw herself as a woman in what was then an even more male world than it is now.

“When I started racing in Cape Town, South Africa, there wasn’t a lot of girls, there wasn’t woman racing, and I raced with the men, so I was around boys all the time. Then I took on a junior boys team when I retired and went straight into the men’s continental team from there – so I’ve never looked at it any other way other than being a sports director and team manager in charge of a men’s team. I’ve never seen myself as a female sports director, if that makes sense.”

It has taken Pridham over a decade to realize the significance of her position as the first woman to direct a team on the UK cycling circuit. The past 14 years had just been a “case of business as usual” as Pridham did what she does, as best as she can.

“I haven’t really given a thought to the fact I was the first female sports manager and team manager in the UK, or the first woman driving in an international convoy at that level, until this second stage of my career,” she said.

“It’s like anything, I think you’ve got to earn your respect, and it probably took a bit longer for me to do that back then. I did feel some pressure, particularly in the convoy. But I think it’s like anything – you earn your respect, and if you can drive your car and conduct yourself in a professional manner, then you’ll earn respect very very quickly.”

The fallout of the coronavirus pandemic put a stopper on sponsorship streams for the team Pridham owned – then called Team Vitus – last autumn. After giving up a long fight to keep the squad afloat, Pridham began putting her name toward both men’s and women’s WorldTour teams.

Much as she has done all her life, the Brit gave next to no thought about the sex of the riders she hoped to be directing: the job of winning bike races is the same in the women’s and men’s peloton.

Earning her respect to land a role at Israel Start-Up Nation

Pridham made her WorldTour directing debut this week at Tirreno Adriatico. Photo: Noa Arnon

“I reached out to various WorldTour teams and a couple of Women’s WorldTour teams and got a couple of responses,” she said. “ISN got back to me within days of me asking if there would be an opportunity to discuss my dreams, my ambitions, and my goals moving forward.”

Not long after an initial scoping call with team manager Kjell Carlstrom, Pridham landed the job to become one of 10 directors on the squad.

Carlstrom explained that Pridham “has what is needed to be successful: experience and skills,” when the team confirmed her appointment. Just as she did when she first started directing teams over 10 years ago, Pridham earned her respect and landed the role that she deserved as a result.

From here on, Pridham is ready to continue with the attitude that has carried her through her life so far as she takes her role at the newly bolstered, Froome-led superteam.

The pressure will be on Israel Start-Up Nation to convert huge off-season investments into results next year, and particular focus will be on the woman in the director’s seat. While Pridham accepts there will be an added weight on her shoulders as the world casts its eye toward the anomaly of a woman calling the moves from the team car, a bike race is a bike race, no matter who is in the peloton, no matter what their sex.

“I guess there is a little bit of apprehension and nervousness on my part,” she said. “But at the end of the day I’ve done six Tours de Yorkshire which is WorldTour level, six Tours of Britain, the convoys are the same, the objectives are the same. I don’t see there being any challenges for me. A race is a race, isn’t it.”