Women in Sport: ‘Under The Covers: sponsorship, spectatorship, and sexism in professional cycling’, by Emma Jenkins

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Image by Serge Zacharias. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This essay is the third in a week-long series of commentary pieces that explore women’s experience in sporting culture.


It’s 1am and I’m in bed. The lights are low. I’m watching the rhythmic motion of his legs, the sweat on his neck, as he glances across to the guy beside him. My hair is a mess, pulled into a frizz by tense fingers. My heart jumps. Are they going to go for it? Is this the moment I’ve been waiting for?

I’m watching professional cycling. Alone. Trying not to make too much noise as my housemates sleep. The riders crest my favourite climb, l’Alpe d’Huez. I make a note of who won points at the summit before the coverage switches to an ad break.

A lot of people dread winter, but for me, it can’t come soon enough. Cycling season. There’s the Giro d’Italia in May, the Tour de France in July, and the Vuelta a España in August. My holy trinity, broadcast live by SBS almost every night, 10pm until 2am. For most of the season, cycling takes over my life.

As a kid, watching cycling was an incidental pastime. The blur of lush French scenery and historic ruins, peppered by ads for family cars and trips to Thredbo, was synonymous with sitting around the fire with my family and my dog. Cycling meant hot chocolate and staying up past bedtime. My favourite part was seeing the riders finish a climb and stuff newspaper down the front of their vests to protect themselves from the icy wind on the descent.

Then, one year, as if by osmosis, I realised I knew all the riders’ faces and names, their teams and stats, the history of the course, the different types of wheels and handlebars, the tactics. Cycling had transformed from an excuse to stay up into an obsession.

It’s a little different these days. I don’t have a TV, so I live stream the SBS coverage in bed, too many tabs open on my laptop, phone in hand, furiously crunching numbers – kilometres raced, kilometres to go, wind speed, altitude, incline, sprint points, mountain points, team budgets, abandons. All this while stuffing my face with snacks and keeping up with the endless tweets about the commentary, the cows, the idiot tifosi, and the terrible ads for caffeine shampoo and multivitamins – before finally passing out, delirious, as they reach the podium. This is my ritual for weeks on end.

This is the evolution of a dedicated, life-long fan. I mention this because what I want to write about took me years to notice. I mention this also because, like many women, I’ve been taught to feel preemptively defensive about proving my credentials and my enthusiasm for a male-dominated field. I love cycling. So I want to state upfront that no matter the doubts I have about the sport, I can’t imagine a future where I am no longer an avid fan.

As an adult, it’s hard to consume anything uncritically, even something as maglia rosa-tinted as the fanfare of cycling. As my appreciation of the sport has matured, I’ve noticed a growing divide between the way cycling is organised and broadcast, and the message that the sport itself is championing. I have some theories on why this divide has emerged, and they all start with Lance.


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Image by George Burns. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

I think it’s fair to say that Lance Armstrong is the most famous living cyclist. Perhaps the most famous cyclist ever. (Has any other cyclist been on Oprah?) Beating cancer and going on to tremendous success in one of the toughest endurance sports out there is a feel-good story for the ages. I’d say cycling owes at least a little of its popularity, especially in the United States, to Lance. He certainly had a hand in hooking me in and I remember his races vividly.

About five years ago, he was stripped of his seven consecutive Tour de France titles after a malicious and public doping scandal. I was heartbroken. The after-effects included drawn out and damning lawsuits, a total restructuring of the International Cycling Union (Union Cycliste Internationale, UCI), and the collapse of professional cycling’s respectability worldwide. For a sport already built on gatekeeping—are you rich enough to afford the gear? Well-connected enough to get sponsorship? Male enough to be allowed to participate?—it felt harder than ever to be a fan. It threw a lot of ugly aspects of the sport into sharp relief.

But it wasn’t about the doping, not really, not as much as everyone claimed. Lots of the greats cheated—Eddy Merckx, Alberto Contador, Stuart O’Grady—and commentators still shout their praise every chance they get. Doping and cycling go hand in hand. It’s an open secret. So why was everyone so angry?

What the Lance fiasco came down to, and why it was so protracted, was the attempted recovery of federal funding that had been poured into his career and his team. If Lance was getting sued by the government, then everyone who had invested in him felt entitled to their money back.

This was when I started watching alone. The whole thing felt vicious and cheap. Every time I tried to make cycling-based friendships, I found myself returning, relieved, to my quiet bed, my gender-neutral online handle, and the ‘mute’ function on Twitter.

The internet, of course, offers its own version of this money-grabbing mentality. Most meme-pages devoted to the cycling community repeat the same ‘joke’ in various formats: Your wife just found out you secretly spent a lot of money on bike gear and now she is mad, hahaha! Hilarious. Never mind the assumption that the viewer is male. Never mind the deeply unsettling implications of this boys’ club attitude. It’s all for a laugh. We’ve all been there, right, fellas?

It seems zero-accountability within this community is contagious – from the government recouping their ‘wasted’ investment, to the riders refusing to speak out against each other, down to the fans themselves. These deeply gendered ‘jokes’ are symptomatic of the entitled attitude Lance’s trial ushered to the front of cycling.

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Image by Sebastian David Tingkær. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

The thing is, this selfish attitude is directly in violation of the positive values that cycling, particularly road racing, supports. In case you’re unfamiliar with the structure of the sport, I’ll give you a quick run-down of the values I’m talking about.

Cycling isn’t quite like any other sport I know. It’s a team sport, but there is only one overall winner. On top of this, several other competitions are happen concurrently within each race. Different coloured jerseys are awarded each day to the leaders of each category (yellow for the overall leader, green for best sprinter, polka-dot for best climber), and the person holding the jersey at the end of the tour wins that title. Some competitions are determined by points, some by time. It is, on the surface at least, a very complex sport, and what happens in one category impacts the outcome of the others.

Kind of like… well… life. What’s happening in one sphere invariably influences the spheres around it, because we’re all just sharing the road we call ‘society’. Sure we might be on different teams – but we’re all in this struggle together, for better or worse.

Each team has a leader. Their best rider. The one they are all working for, sacrificing themselves for. But it’s impossible for a single rider to win without a dedicated team. Some riders change teams every other season as coaches search for that perfect combination. Sure, there’s a team hierarchy, but it’s flexible and changes depending on which riders suit the terrain. It even changes mid-stage if the weather turns, if there’s a mechanical failure, or if a particular rider is feeling strong. But it’s never every man for himself. Never.

There’s a fluidity to cycling’s conception of identity. It’s not just in the way the riders swarm like fish, but in the astonishing symbiosis of individual agency and team loyalty. Cycling shows us that a more complex approach to identity is possible. It strikes me that cycling offers a way through an impasse that feminism has pushed against for a long time. A person can be both an individual and a member of a team.

There are so many chances for victory when there are so many ways to measure success. Everyone is in the race. Money doesn’t seem so important when you think about it like this. This complexity, this multiplicity, this culture of absolute trust for the peloton, and absolute sacrifice for your team is why I love cycling.

But, it’s this very same attitude of indefatigable allegiance that saw Lance get away with cheating for so long. This sense of impenetrable community that sticks up for its own no matter what, but doesn’t let anyone else in. Tight-knit and tight-lipped.

There is an amazing clip of Lance, mid-stage, immediately after he has spoken with a fellow rider who publicly accused him of doping. Lance turns to the camera, he looks right down the barrel to everyone sitting at home, and mimes zipping his lips shut. This is between the riders, his action says. You’re not in this race. Stay out of it. It’s a warning.

It was one of the first signs I had of the culture of silence around cycling. At once a symbol of deep camaraderie, and a dangerous way to cover up wrongdoing.

On one hand, there seems to be an admirable cycling-wide predisposition towards a kind of anti-hierarchical leaderlessness. But on the other, there’s a complete refusal to take responsibility. If no one is seen to be definitively ‘in charge’, then no one is to blame when the shit hits the fan. That’s how it is on the road, and that’s how it is in the boardroom. What I love most about this sport seems, ironically, to operate in service of what I’ve come to hate about it.


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Image by Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Cycling has a doping problem, no one would argue with that. But it also has a money problem. And, as with most things relating to money, this has a disproportional impact on women. Let me break down how funding works in cycling. And when I say funding, I mean advertising, because the sport is nearly all run on the back of lucrative sponsorships. Every imaginable surface is branded. Every dollar and cent is earned through the chance of screen time. Companies need a return on their investment, so if Lance is banned from cycling, well, that’s money wasted.

These companies are not nurturing talent. They’re nurturing profit. The faster you ride, the more screen time you get. More screen time means more time for your branded jersey, your branded bike, your branded soft drink. The more money your team makes. The more training you get. The faster you go next year. The more screen time you get. See any problems with this model?

When I watch cycling now all I see is money and its absurdly uneven distribution. While the exact figures for team budgets are kept a tantalising secret, recent estimates put team Sky’s budget around the €35,000,000 mark, almost AU$49,000,000. The smallest team’s budget is a measly €3,500,000, less than AU$5,000,000. Yes, this covers equipment, registration, training, and everyone’s salaries, including the riders’ (the prize money is pitiful) – but the difference is a factor of ten. These same figures have then been compared to the UCI records to determine if there is any correlation between funding and race-wins. Unsurprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes.

This is for the men’s teams.

For women’s cycling, estimates from 2013 put the total budget of a high-performing team of twelve at under €500,000, around AU$600,000. That’s much less than the annual salary of one male rider and, of course, a surprise to no one. For a sport with no salary caps, discrepancies are to be expected. But to this extent? And so clearly undervaluing female athletes?

Just like in life, some people have tremendous advantages. Bigger budgets can buy better equipment, better training programs, and better cyclists. These advantages stack, and the men’s success is read as natural, innate. It’s taken as evidence that men are, simply, better cyclists. Disadvantages stack, too. Channel Nine, who have long held the exclusive rights to the Tour Down Under, didn’t even broadcast the women’s race this year, immediately deterring large sponsorships. This is structural inequality at its finest.

Even at the amateur level, these same patterns emerge. I have a friend who does the books for a small company that imports cycling parts to Australia. The company sponsors young riders, male and female, for national races where they hope to get noticed for bigger teams. You can’t be competitive without the right gear. And there’s just so much gear. Not only is cycling an equipment-heavy sport; that equipment is exceedingly expensive. This means it’s next to impossible to compete without adequate sponsorship.

Add to this that a rider can’t just borrow their friend’s bike. Your bike is an extension of your body. It would be like a basketball player wearing their teammate’s shoes – or, more accurately, a basketball player borrowing their teammate’s legs. Unwieldy. Erratic. Horrible to play on, and even more horrible to watch.

We had a glimpse of just about the worst-case scenario during the 2016 Tour when Christopher Froome, the race leader, crashed on one of the steepest climbs of the race, damaging his bike. His only options were to wait for his team car to navigate the swarming crowd, or to use a generic bike carried by nearby race officials for emergencies like this. He went with the latter. It was hilarious, then horrifying. The bike was too small, the pedals incompatible with his shoes. After a few rotations,Froome decided to run up the hill rather than ride a bike that did not fit him. It very nearly got him disqualified.

Crashes happen often, so each rider needs a specially-fitted bike in duplicate. With at least three spare wheels for punctures. And different wheels for mountains. And for windy days. And for rain. And don’t forget the time-trial bike. The cost blows out at an alarming rate.

This same friend revealed to me recently that they always get a return on investment when they sponsor male amateur riders. But no matter how many women they sponsor, a return is never guaranteed. Practically speaking, the companies that sponsor women’s races tend to be smaller: their demographic is smaller, the investment is smaller, and so the margin for profit is smaller.

I’m not an economist, or a sociologist. But I can spot some glaringly obvious reasons as to why this might be happening.


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Image by Gawain78. Reproduced from the public domain.

Cycling has a money problem. And I don’t mean this exclusively in the sense that women are being paid absurdly low amounts for doing the same job as their male counterparts; I mean that, in cycling, you need money to be successful. That women’s racing is undervalued isn’t just unfortunate, it’s suffocating.

Last year, at the age of twenty-six, British track cyclist Jess Varnish was told by her coach that she was too old to be competing and that she should “go have a baby” instead. Despite being a member of the world-record holding sprint team. Despite the typical age of retirement for male cyclists being well into their late thirties. Varnish sued, pointing out that men’s teams have access to more resources, more training, and better gear.

Her treatment underscores the vile misogyny of an industry that brags about sponsoring women, but never reveals it’s only giving them a fraction of what the men are given. That champions women athletes when they are winning, but cuts their funding when they are not. That loves women – but only for show, only when it suits.

Off the course, cycling continues to use women only as decoration, placing them next to the podium and having them kiss each winner on the cheek while handing him his prize. In a strange ritualistic way, their kiss has become part of that prize. The winner then shakes up his magnum champagne bottle and sprays the crowd from crotch-level. It’s distinctly ejaculatory. Or like a dog peeing to claim its territory.

The new generation of SBS commentators have, increasingly and passionately, tried to distance themselves from the sexist camera work that the native French, Italian, and Spanish broadcasting networks supply to international channels, which too often lingers on the breasts of spectators. Their efforts are undercut by the ads for life insurance, hair loss, or ludicrously expensive cars in which women only feature as housewives, sexy neighbours, or strung-out mums next to their ex-athlete husbands. This is the way the world sees women in relation to international, professional sport: as a trope, a body, a prize.

At every turn, the structure of professional cycling, including its coverage both nationally and internationally, says to women, This is not for you. So why do I still love it? If I hate so much of it, why can’t I stop obsessing over it – literally planning my sleeping, eating, and social schedules around it for months at a time?

Recently, a new feature has been added to the coverage. It’s a cynical kind of salve to the sexist camera work I’m used to. Little more than a GoPro affixed to the front of select riders’ bikes with the intent to give audiences around the world a first-person taste of what it’s like to scream around corners on a descent, it’s become more valued by fans for an incidental aspect. Twitter has fondly dubbed this angle “butt cam”. With riders moving in such a tight bunch for most of the race, shoulder-to-shoulder, wheel-to-wheel, camera-to-butt, we’re getting a close-up view of much more than the scenery.

For me, this feature sums up the indulgence of watching an endurance sport from bed. You’ll never catch me standing road-side for hours waiting for a glimpse of the peloton. I’m a spectator, and that means I want to see it all. From the helicopter, from the moto, and from the GoPro. As someone who can’t ride, I want to feel in the race (sorry, Lance). I do feel in the race. That’s why I stick around. That’s why I’m invested.

I wonder what will happen when the women’s races get equal television coverage. Will they get this special close up too? Will they want it? Will it mean the same thing? Will the athletes be treated like podium girls? Will the podium girls survive that long? These are complex issue still on the horizon.

It is getting better. Last year, following Jess Varnish’s claims, an independent review into allegations of sexism within British Cycling’s performance programs was launched. The results, while a step forward, have been disappointingly (some say conspiratorially) useless. The review also prompted an investigation into how cycling money is distributed. British Cycling has been threatened, repeatedly, with funding cuts over its inability to govern itself or demonstrate that it is able to foster an “appropriate culture for an elite sport” (code, I gather, for its proclivity towards drug scandals and misogyny).

In addition, the fan demographic is changing. Cycling has never had much ‘celebrity’ culture (Lance’s generation missed the social media wave), but younger riders, particularly Peter Sagan, are making full use of their good looks and bringing young woman to the sport in numbers previously unseen. Given this, I wonder how much longer this overt exclusion of certain fans can last. While I’m more of a Marcel Kittel girl myself, Sagan’s charm and talent are undeniable. It’s hard to ignore someone with flowing hair who routinely pops a wheelie while climbing or crossing the finish line. The sexualisation of athletes is a complex issue, but for the camera to acknowledge a female audience (albeit a heterosexual one) every now and then – well, that’s something.


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Image by Simon Williams. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

I loved watching Lance. He made cycling thrilling. No one today climbs like he did. No one could climb like Lance now without being accused of cheating. He galvanised my love for this sport, but he also revealed it to be a sport of finger-pointing, blame-shifting and dodging accountability. And fine, whatever. If you shift the blame enough times, it goes away, right? I still get to watch the boys go fast. Who cares if they cut the broadcast before the girls’ race? Who cares if the richest teams always win? I still get to stay up late and have a hot chocolate.

Except, it’s not fine. The collective attitude I grew up admiring is the same attitude that has allowed inequality to become deeply embedded in the way this sport is run. It protected Lance for seven years, and now it’s protecting the coaches, the TV executives, even the fans. It’s the same twisted mentality of zero-accountability that says to the riders, It’s okay to cheat, because everyone else is cheating too, that then says to the cycling community, It’s okay to be sexist, because—look!—everyone else is sexist too.

Watching cycling has shaped who I am and how I think about identity. I have exercised a tremendous amount of will power over the years to turn a blind eye to its many shortcomings. But turning a blind eye is exactly the problem. It’s no longer stoic to ignore what is happening. It’s time to pull back the covers and confront the extent of inequality in cycling – from the top to the butt.


Emma Jenkins is a PhD candidate and television enthusiast from Sydney.