Words by Martin Thomas
Photography by Guy Collier
When Nicole Cooke, a former Commonwealth, Olympic and world road race champion, retired at the start of this year, she used the occasion to deliver a passionate 20-minute speech that shone a bright unforgiving light on the world of professional cycling and its shortcomings.
Cooke’s retirement speech was made in the same week that Lance Armstrong attempted to rehabilitate himself by appearing on television being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. And of course one of her big themes was doping.
The other was gender inequality.
Cooke said there had been no funding or infrastructure in place to develop young British female cycling talent when she started out. There were no British championship events for girls and she was prevented from riding in adult events. Cooke successfully campaigned with her father to bring about changes in the system.
But the inequality higher up in the sport remains as strong as ever. The pay gap between the male and female riders at the top of the sport remains massive. And the efforts made by the UCI – the sport’s governing body – to level the playing field remain frustratingly pitiful. The women’s sport is still woefully under-funded, has a shorter race calendar and enjoys much less media coverage than the men’s.
The subject of sexism in the sport came up again at the Tour of Flanders this year, when second-placed Peter Sagan infamously goosed one of the podium girls as she congratulated winner Fabian Cancellara with a kiss. Sagan’s silliness was bad enough, said many commentators in the ensuing media storm, but why on earth does professional cycling still have podium girls? What is this – the 1970s?
The last few years have seen some encouraging signs of change for women’s professional cycling. One of the iconic memories of the London Olympics was the sight of Lizzie Armistead earning a silver medal – Britain’s first medal of the Games – in a thrilling rain-sodden women’s road race. The contrast could hardly have been greater between Armistead’s heroics and the rather dull tactical failure of the British men’s team the previous day.
When Olympic champions Joanna Rowsell, Laura Trott and Danielle King joined the Wiggle Honda pro team, publicly backed by the greatest Briton of them all, Sir Bradley Wiggins, things seemed to be looking up. But what was being done to address the fundamental causes of the problems away from these isolated rarified success stories?
Few people in women’s cycling can claim to be doing more to close the cycling gender gap than Stef Wyman, manager of the Matrix Fitness Training Academy team, now in its fourth year.
Wyman got into management in 2004 to support his wife Helen, who went on to become the current European and seven-times British cyclo-cross champion. Wyman raced himself from a very early age – mainly in cyclo-cross – riding at all the major national events and in Europe.
Wyman chose a career in financial services over cycling, knowing that he didn’t have what it takes to make it at the very highest levels of the sport, but also wanting to support Helen, who did. He said: “We had this opportunity to put everything we had into trying to help Helen become something pretty great in the sport or for us both to float along with limited resources. I’m really happy with the choice we made.”
Wyman’s breakthrough into management came at the 2004 world CX championships, when Helen was let down by her team. He said: “They were full of promises – Helen was going to be given all the tools she needed to become a better bike rider in the UK – but at the last minute there was a change of plan and it just screamed out to me that something needed to happen in women’s cycling to stop people being let down like that. It was happening every year; riders would be promised the world and it just never happened. I don’t think anyone meant to let down the riders. It was just inappropriate promises being made.
“I’m not the type of person who just sits there and watches things like this happening. I don’t just say ‘oh well, that’s life, let’s move on’. I decided to try to put something else in place. Helen was preparing for the world championships at the time so I didn’t trouble her with it. But I phoned the sponsor of the team that let her down and said ‘Look, this is happening all the time. We could just have Helen riding in your clothes and going out and doing stuff for you’, and they said they’d love that. In fact they said I could back three riders to the same level and get a small team started. So my move into management was purely by chance.”
From that unusual start, Wyman has built one of the most successful pro women’s teams in the UK and transformed the prospects of numerous talented young women by creating a whole new way of progressing in the sport. He explains: “One of the major goals for the Matrix Fitness team is that we become a legitimate alternative to the British Cycling Academy system. In the UK there’s a really big push on young riders to be part of the British Cycling system and I’m a big fan – it’s brought some incredible people into cycling. Everyone who’s into racing in British cycling has something to thank them for, whether they like to admit it or not. Cav and Bradley and Lizzie Armistead all came through that system.
“The only downside is that the British Cycling system is limited in numbers. What happens an awful lot is that people who don’t make it into the Academy system for whatever reason fall out of the system. And, sadly, too many young female riders then fall out of the sport altogether.
“Rather than being a team that picks people up when they’ve fallen out of that system, what I’d like us to be is something that runs alongside British Cycling so that when a young road rider comes along, aged 16, they can legitimately say ‘I have two choices: I can go to Matrix Fitness Academy or to the British Cycling Academy. Neither one is going to harm my career – both will move it forward but potentially in a different way.’”
Wyman is quick to stress that he’s not trying to compete with the British Cycling system, but complement it. “In women’s cycling in the UK far too many people work against each other rather than cooperating. A major part of the philosophy that we and Matrix Fitness, the sponsor, have shared from the very start of this team is that we’ll work together to benefit the sport, mutually, in everyone’s interests. It’s not only about us.
“There’s selfish intent there as well. If team A’s objective in a race is just to stop team B winning what will happen is team C will win everything. If I have team A and it’s huge and we’ve got all the money we can possibly get into our team and our riders and we go out just to progress ourselves, we actually damage the sport and limit our own potential.
“Matrix Fitness is part of Johnson Heath Tech, the company that sponsors the women’s tour series. We chose with Johnson Health Tech to put money into women’s cycling in general rather than just into our own team because we know that if women’s cycling appears on TV we’ve got a better chance of attracting a second sponsor and a better chance of having 10 really good teams in the UK.
“We’re really lucky this year because Skoda has sponsored us and we’ve got a really fantastic working relationship with them. But five years ago that wouldn’t have happened because we were more or less the only team on the scene, whereas now Skoda can come and reward us for being what they perceive as the best team to work with – and they wouldn’t have done that if there wasn’t any choice. So we’re actually helping the sport in general to help ourselves.”
Thanks to the efforts of people like Wyman, the women’s pro scene has come a long way in recent years, but it still has a long way to go and Stef has forthright views on what needs to happen to bring about greater parity with the men’s sport. He said: “Equality needs to come from the top as well as the bottom. The UCI needs to step up and bring in some equal regulations across all of cycling. And at the bottom, people coming into the sport need to have much higher aspirations - young women riders need to demand more. There are far too many teams that are only prepared to give their riders the minimum and if someone says they want to join their team they’ll give them a jersey, some shorts and tell them to go and buy their own bike. That’s not acceptable – we need to change and raise the levels of the pro sport by raising people’s expectations.
“There also needs to be more positivity from people doing really well in the sport. It would be great to hear Lizzie Armistead and Emma Pooley tell really positive stories about how wonderful their careers are. But sadly you don’t hear enough of those – what you hear from some of these riders for the majority of the time is ‘oh I want to get paid more’ or ‘this race has been cancelled’ or ‘this team has shut down’ – we don’t hear the back story which is that for five years I’ve been employed as a full time bike rider, I’ve loved it, I’ve travelled the world, I get to ride this beautiful bike that others can only dream of owning and I’m given several of them every year, I get the best clothes, I get to do adverts for clothing companies, taking away bagfuls of clothes after being paid huge amounts of money.
“We need to hear this positive side to of their lives because it would inspire the top and the bottom of the sport to do something. I’m pretty sure Pat McQuaid isn’t too keen to help a bunch of whingeing riders. What he wants to do is progress the sport and if he sees an already-professional, already-structured and positive and organised sport he’s more likely to take action to take things forward.”