By Jason Bailey
The 2019 international women's professional cycling season saw an interesting mix of faces old and new coming to the fore.
We review some of the key races, get to know an emerging talent and gain a perspective of state of the sport from a media personality.
As far as male-dominated industries are concerned, professional cycling has to rank high up on the list. Not long ago female soigneurs were simply taboo. This extends to the media arm too; many former riders dominate television commentary panels, providing expert analysis and insight into the two-wheeled world they were once part of.
But this is gradually changing.
Meet Orla Chennaoui, a bubbly and intelligent personality who wears many hats. Irish-born and Netherlands-based, Orla is a sports columnist for a host of newspapers and magazines. Her skillset extends to television, where she commentates on athletics and, in particular, cycling. As a presenter for Eurosport, the former triplejump athlete covers all the major races each season, including the three Grand Tours. And while Orla is the epitome of a breath of fresh air in a once closed industry, success hasn’t come easy.
“I definitely feel I had to work a lot harder to prove myself when I first came into the sport,” says Orla. “We still live in a ‘man’s world’ after all! But I’ve always been very comfortable with my femininity; I’ve never felt I had to act or dress like ‘the boys’.”
While Orla says it took a few years to be fully accepted by her male colleagues, she actually feels in a more advantageous position at present.
“I guess I stand out,” she explains. “In cycling, there is no place for a female journalist to hide. So it is often easier to secure interviews, for instance. And you’re remembered more easily because you’re one of the very few. But there were three women in our Tour de France production team. So things are changing. It is nice to be less of a novelty these days.”
While Orla continues to blaze a trail in the greater cycling media, it is the women’s side of professional cycling that is perhaps closest to her heart. And it shows. Along with fellow journalists Richard Moore and Rose Manley, Orla co-hosts the popular The Cycling Podcast Féminin podcast, a monthly show on all matters women’s racing. It is therefore unsurprising that Orla ranks it as not only a growing passion, but also a vocation. “I feel that The Cycling Podcast Féminin is our way of doing our bit to help build women’s cycling,” she says. “Producing these shows is just such a fun and satisfying experience.
Professionally speaking, I have to rate our nightly coverage of The OVO Energy Women’s Tour as my highlight for 2019. Producing nightly podcasts from the race was such a fun and satisfying experience.”
Yet in tandem with her bubbly enthusiasm for women’s cycling is a more serious and pragmatic view. So it is perhaps unsurprising to hear that she has strong views on where the sport is headed.
“Women’s cycling is absolutely in a growth phase,” she emphasises.
“And it is incredibly exciting to see up close. But there is much work to be done. My wish is to see an ever-increasing audience. More coverage; more live-streaming; more races delivering on broadcast coverage and promotion. This in turn will bring more money, sponsors and fans to the sport, and women’s cycling will grow. And although I think any growth will progress more slowly than many of us would like it to, it is important to remember just how far the sport has come in such a short space of time.”
Historically overshadowed by their male counterparts, the standard of women’s racing continues to increase, as has the number of top trade teams.
A growing number of men’s teams like Trek-Segafredo and Team Sunweb have already formed women’s squads and, if the rumours are true, Team INEOS and EF Education First are set to follow suit.
"Where we go in the next few years with TV and streaming coverage will be crucial." - Chennaoui
Then there is the UCI’s introduction of a minimum wage. Progress indeed, but not without some flaws, as Orla goes on to explain. “I’m conflicted when it comes to the question of a minimum wage.
While it is necessary to help women’s cycling become more professional, I’m not sure if the sport is ready for it.
It would endanger some of the smaller teams, organisations which are vital to the sport. And while having women’s squads on the bigger men’s teams is a good thing, I wouldn’t like to see it become the norm. It is important for the identity of women’s cycling to also have standalone teams, ones that are as successful and competitive as these bigger squads.
"Will potential sponsors put money where their mouths are? I hear so much about how exciting and dynamic women’s cycling is, but I also know first-hand how incredibly difficult it is to attract investment. Where we go in the next few years with TV and streaming coverage will be crucial,” she continues.
“Now is the time to capitalise on the growth of the last few years and try to build an
already-interested audience base. I’d say we’re in a position of incredibly exciting potential. I just hope that potential can be seized upon, to make something truly great for the future.”
La Course 2019
MARIANNE TAKES PAU BY STORM
If it seems Marianne Vos has been around forever, it is probably because she has. Now approaching her 15th year as a professional rider, one can never count out the three time World Champion in any race that she enters. As the winner of the inaugural
La Course way back in 2014, it was fitting the CCC-Liv rider took pole position again. The event took place in Pau and attracted a quality field.
Most of the competitors had just come off of the 11-day Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile, so it remained to be seen who had recovered in time to win. In a race
that saw constant attacking throughout, it was Mitchelton-SCOTT’s Amanda
Spratt who made a strong bid for victory in the final 20km. But it was on the flat
run into Pau that saw the brave Spratt reeled back into a full-speed peloton,
allowing the wily Vos to time her victory surge to perfection. Vos’ South African
teammate, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, finished in close fifth position.
Few, if any, pundits were tipping one Chloé Dygert-Owen as a rider to watch
at this year’s UCI Road World Championships. And why wouldn’t they?
With track cycling being her speciality, Chloé’s road racing exploits are
limited primarily to the environs of her native US, where she competes for
the domestic Sho-Air TWENTY20 outfit. Not that this seemed to hold back Chloé’s sheer ambition. Quipping to her British-born trade-team manager that it would be great to win the Worlds in the manager’s home country, the 22 year old used her track speed and then some to dispatch perennial Dutch favourites Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek Van Vleuten into the minor podium positions. And if this wasn’t enough, Chloé then took on the might of the world in the Saturday road race in her ambition to take another rainbow jersey. But if the odds were against her, she didn’t seem to take too much notice, her attacking riding being rewarded with a valiant fourth position.
(From Road Bike mag 2019-20)