In the back of the big red Skoda that sits at the front of the Women’s Tour, I’m listening to race controller Guy Elliott and his driver Bob Heath go through the checklist of things that need doing before stage two of the race can proceed.
I’m impressed with how calm they are, despite various radios and telephones interrupting the zen-like flow between them.
I didn’t expect this level of access at the race, not by a long shot, so plans I had to hang out and take in a bit of atmosphere at the start and then follow proceedings for the whole stage from the Storey Racing car were quickly re-arranged to a more hectic-looking outing. Thankfully it was quite simple really: half the stage with those in charge and then at the feed zone get out and pile in with the racers to finish in Daventry. Nae bother.
I’d chosen this day because it’s all in Northamptonshire and I lived in the finish town for almost eight years, therefore I’m kind of local and it’s a kind of personal return. Another good thing is I know the way once they get past Silverstone.
What’s always struck me about Sweetspot events is the number of normal people at starts, finishes and through towns and villages. Today is no exception, as it feels like half the school population of the UK has been allowed a morning off from maths or history lessons to come and spectate at the Rushden start.
I quickly learn from Guy that this is no random occurrence. This isn’t just a bike race, it’s a whole social, equality and role models strategy to get people involved. The kids on the barriers, messing about and generally enjoying themselves, aren’t there by chance. It’s a year-long business, visiting councils, schools and other organisations, telling them the race is coming through and how they could be involved. The numbers on the side of the road are testament to a process that is working well.
‘Activation’ is how Sweetspot describe it and clearly they’re successful at doing that, but the remarkable thing is the influence of having kids and young people involved goes further than just bunking off lessons. One of the most amazing things I learn is that for primary school girls, seeing these women riders go by will be the first time they have seen a female in a lead role context and not as a support act to a man.
For many, this will be the only time they’ll have seen elite women athletes up close and personal, and that can only be a good thing, because they have a tendency to drop out of anything sporty during their teenage years.
The confidence and development they miss out on by doing that can be detrimental, so by going to councils, schools and the like, the activation team – around 20-strong – aren’t just ensuring publicity and pursuing commercial interests. The event has an impact beyond the cycling part.
It’s also interesting to discover that the riders are more accessible and more willing to take part in this promotion push. Today, it’s former British champion Hannah Barnes who is the home county focus and she’ll have been doing the school visits, taking part in photo shoots and generally making herself available for anything which moves the sport forward.
Compared to the men, it’s dramatically different in terms of access and collaboration. Undoubtedly the lesser resources have an effect, as only the biggest women’s teams have a bus where they can hide away from the public gaze. But even they seem to understand that communication is key to getting more people involved. I’m struck by how more pleasant the atmosphere is. It’s still a serious bike race, but it’s less intimidating than the men’s equivalent can be.
Guy does the usual standing out the sunroof stuff as the race trundles out of town, threading its way through industrial zones and over the blights that are speed bumps, but once the flag drops, normality returns and I learn that my hosts for the morning both wanted to be bike riders.
Maybe this hanging out or working on races is some kind of therapy, as there are a lot of ex-pros and amateur racers involved.
But then I realise it’s an enthusiasm thing. They all like bike riding. And bike racing. Guy and Bob both were part of the pre-Academy days when British hopefuls took themselves off to continental Europe in hope of being good enough to join the pro ranks. Holland was their choice.
When you think about the commitment needed to do that, to stay somewhere where you don’t speak the language or have any friends, then you realise it’s no surprise that many of those who did that and weren’t quite good enough then put the same focus into something else.
In Guy’s case, he eventually becoming CEO of logistics for DHL Europe – quite a high-flying job, but that was then and this is now: he’s pretending he’s semi-retired, though being race director at both the Women’s Tour and the Tour of Britain isn’t really taking it easy…
The first hot spot sprint comes and goes with Dani Rowe taking the honours and then there’s a counter attack and Maaike Boogaard of BTC Ljubljiana finds herself all alone with a headwind and the rolling countryside to deal with. Having ridden on these roads, I’m thinking ‘good luck with that’, but she shoulders on at just below 25mph. Not exactly messing about then.
We pass a posh hotel in the countryside and there are some of the staff with a banner proclaiming ‘Go Hannah!’ It turns out that’s where Barnes, the Canyon-SRAM rider, previously worked as a waitress. Now she’s on the WorldTour, in part thanks to the whole activation process.
It proves the step into women’s cycling is achievable to anyone. This isn’t like football where the players are inaccessible. That has a massive influence, not just for participation in cycling, but for all sports. It’s not by chance other sports clubs and associations turn out for the Women’s Tour. This is, to use Guy’s words, a social event with a bike race in the middle.
There’s a perception for females that it’s not the done thing to sweat, so having role models like these girls – it’s okay to use ‘girls’ in this context as that’s how the racers describe themselves – doing something which is exciting, different and generally outside of what’s been the accepted norms for women, is saying the opposite. It’s cool to be sweaty. It’s cool to be fit and healthy. And it’s cool to be different.
Extract from Women on Tour, first published in Rouleur 18.7