Women’s cycling is bigger and better than ever, but the current economic situation across the globe is likely to see its rapid progress slowed, says Olympic and world champion Lisa Brennauer.
Brennauer hung up her racing wheels earlier this season after a 15-season career that saw her take world titles on the track and road, as well as an Olympic gold medal on the boards. During her time in the professional peloton, women’s cycling has developed dramatically, particularly since the introduction of Women’s WorldTeams in 2020.
The changes have seen an injection of cash coming into the sport from sponsors, but with many companies now tightening their belts in a tough economic environment, the large strides could become smaller.
Though, Brennauer believes that the sport needs to avoid pushing too fast if it wants to be sustainable.
“It’s still going be a tough fight, and it will need some time. I also think that things need time to develop if they want to develop in a stable way,” Brennauer told VeloNews. “I think there has to be time and room for this improvement and development. I really see this big chance of women’s cycling to become an even bigger and better platform for the riders.
“But where the world is right now, in general, with all the problems at the moment, I think this process will maybe be a bit slowed down. That’s also normal because it’s not super easy times for everybody.”
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Brennauer first entered the sport in 2007 with the German Equipe Nürnberger Versicherung, a team that would kickstart the careers of many German riders. Thanks to her contract with the German army — many German riders in the men’s and women’s pelotons have contracts with the army or police — she was one of the few riders that earned a salary at the time.
That has changed significantly in the intervening seasons with the advent of Women’s WorldTeams ensuring that at least the around 200 riders with top-tier contracts are ensured a minimum wage. There are some teams at Continental level that also provide a liveable salary for their riders, though there is a widening gap between the top-tier riders and those below.
Still, it’s a far cry from what life as a professional was like when Brennauer was a rookie.
“When I think back to where I started, almost all of the girls had to have a job next to their actual job as professionals,” she said. “I always had the army as the German, one of the German ways to support their sports people, which gave me the security and insurance and the salary and the chance to focus on cycling. I was super lucky.
“When we look now, I still know that there is a big gap between riders and teams — and that’s still far from equal and even further away from being equal with the men’s — but the change is so great. It’s the strength of the riders, the peloton itself, every year, you feel like they’re making a huge step forward. You cannot just race, if you want to race, you have to be good, you have to be in shape, you cannot go to that line if you’re not in shape, or you will just get dropped and out of the race.”
For riders like Brennauer, women’s cycling is coming into its own just as they’re hitting the twilight years of their careers. It’s led to a few riders extending their careers a little longer so that they can enjoy a little more of this development.
Indeed, one of the reasons Brennauer decided to race in 2022 was the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. She wanted to be a part of it at least once before she hung up her racing wheels and she’s happy to be leaving the sport in a far healthier place than it was when she started racing.
“There is a big chance for moving forward in the next couple of years. I’m excited that I’ve been part of and I could go through this process,” Brennauer told VeloNews. “I’m also excited for the other women for what’s going to come next. I really believe and I think that there is still much more to come.
“Another big point is visibility. Now that there’s a lot [of racing] on television, this made a huge change. These things come with each other. I think the money comes into the sport more if you have more visibility.
“People have the chance to watch races and sponsors have the chance to show their brand and so I don’t even know where to start with the change from where I started so many years ago to where women’s cycling is now. But I also want to make clear that I still believe that there is room for improvements a lot of room and it’s going to be exciting to see where it’s going in the next years.”
Brennauer hung up her wheels in August with the comfort that she had won almost everything she had ever hoped for. Having been a solid performer in the early part of her career, it really kicked off for her in 2013 when she helped Velocio-SRAM to the first of its three team time trial world titles.
The following season, she would add an individual time trial world title to her palmarès and added a silver medal in the road race. On the road, she’s also taken mixed team relay world and European titles.
Her biggest successes in recent seasons have come on the track as part of a dominant German squad. She took Olympic bronze last year in the team pursuit and went on to add a world title in the same discipline a few months later as well as one in the individual pursuit.
“If I speak about my biggest achievement, I speak about the Olympic Games and the moment that we won the gold medal at the Olympics because it’s just emotional. For me, it is the biggest thing I have achieved and it’s one of those moments that I will never forget, ever in my life,” Brennauer said. “But it’s also too easy to just put it down on the Olympic gold medal, because there have been so many achievements and great moments in cycling, that I had the chance to experience.
“A special thing for me will still be my first world champion title, and in the time trial in Ponferrada. The whole worlds in Ponferrada 2014 will always be a special week for me and a special achievement. But when I think about Richmond the year after, I was third in the time trial but the way we fought for the title in the team time trial, it was very close. How we achieved this together as a team is something unique to me.”
For Brennauer, the defining moments of her career were not just her own physical achievements but how multiple people rallied around her and others to get them to their peak.
“What I realized more and more and more over the last years is how other people gave their best to make me a better athlete and I will never forget the way others supported me in the best possible way to get the best out of me if that was the mechanics, swannies, or my coach, the team directors, the national team and the staff there.
“I’m really thankful for how other people managed to do this for me, and we took special moments in my career. Also, my teammates, they worked for me and we suffered together and won together or lost the race together. It’s those moments and together as a team that you will just never forget.”