Rochelle Gilmore is one of the most intriguing people I have ever met. For starters, I really want to know how she finds enough hours in the day to successfully balance her roles as successful businesswoman, athlete, women’s cycling advocate, team manager, commentator and mentor. This is one woman who does not shy away from hard graft.
Since its launch in 2013, we have seen Gilmore’s team Wiggle Honda go from strength to strength, they are currently ranked third in the world with ambitions to end 2015 in the top spot. Off the bike, the team’s success has also been impressive.
Even a brief encounter with this team will show you that they are different to the rest. At races their taped off camper screams “We mean business" with hordes of fans gathering to catch a glimpse and a quick selfie with the girls. Meanwhile in the media, Wiggle Honda earn the lion’s share of the column inches allocated to women’s cycling. Last year alone the team conducted 1,300 media interviews.
Gilmore’s commercial awareness and resolute ambition to give women’s cycling the recognition it deserves is clearly evident across the entire Wiggle Honda outfit. And I have to say, it impresses the hell out of me.
But it hasn’t been an easy road for Gilmore. Women’s cycling is still a far way behind the men’s. A team cannot simply slap a logo on their jersey and rely on guaranteed exposure in the press to fulfil their end of the bargain. Instead Gilmore has had to think of alternative strategies to lure big named sponsors into the world of women’s cycling.
“I had to think outside the box a little bit because traditionally you go to a sponsor and you propose the value in TV exposure and print media and all that kind of thing. But we couldn’t really depend on that where the sport was a few years ago," explains Gilmore.
“I met with 30 different companies for title sponsorship for the team but with Wiggle I could come up with a strategy to boost their sales and get the athletes to influence people which would also boost sales. It also made it more attractive for our product sponsors to come on board because we have an avenue of selling through Wiggle," continues Gilmore.
Sustainability is a word I hear Gilmore utter time and time again throughout the Wiggle Honda launch. And as I spend more and more time in her company I gain a better understanding of what she means by this. Gilmore has no interest in luring in big named sponsors for short to medium periods, instead she gets them in and ensures they get bang for their buck, thus encouraging them to continue their investment. It sounds simple but Gilmore is one of only a handful of people within the women’s pro-cycling world who insists on looking at the full picture.
This strategy also means that her team do not only have obligations on the bike. All 15 of Gilmore’s girls are well versed in their responsibility to contribute to the growth of women’s cycling as a whole.
“There is a lot of interest in the team and that comes down to the athletes being so open to learning and education from me. I give them points on the messages that we want to get out about women’s cycling in our team and our partners and they are very willing to learn to increase our sport," says Gilmore.
“They [the girls] see how much work I put into it, I use every single second of the day to promote women’s cycling and I think they respect that and they see that because they are on the inside. And they want to work towards that with me. I have their 100% backing," she continues.
Spots on the Wiggle Honda dream team are not easy to come by though. Gilmore treats her team as a brand and her girls must fulfil a strict list of requirements: “The girls definitely need to fit into the brand to start with so I needed to do research over the last 12 months to choose the team for 2015 so I can achieve the goals on and off the bike that I want to achieve.
“My motive is to take an athlete into the team, be there for them not just for performances, not just to tick the boxes on the bike but off the bike as well. So when I am negotiating with a rider about what they want to get out of the sport, we need to know what makes them happy and what they want out of life. You can’t work with someone who doesn’t know what they want from life."
The 2015 line up for Wiggle Honda saw some radical changes – most notably the loss of two of Britain’s most well-known cyclists – Joanna Rowsell and Laura Trott. A big loss for somebody as PR minded as Gilmore: “It was scary, not just for me but for our partners to lose such high profile riders. But we have to keep to the core of what the team is about."
Both Trott and Rowsell are now fully focused on Rio 2016 in hope that they can achieve the same success they so much enjoyed at London 2012: “While Laura has so much power in the media it is not the best thing right for her now. It is a hard time for her, she went straight to the top and now she’ll have to fight really really hard. And a part of that is being comfortable that you are giving it 100%. So I am not going to ask her to give herself to promoting the sport right now, she has a lifetime to do that."
Gilmore’s ambition to successfully commercialise women’s cycling doesn’t begin and end with Wiggle Honda. Far from it in fact. Gilmore is currently working with the UCI on a sustainable business model for the sport which will be implemented across the sport over the next three years. She also willingly shares her knowledge and Wiggle Honda model with other teams in the peloton.
“On the 8 March I have two hours to present to teams on how to sell their assets and how to give return on investment to their sponsors. How we run our team, why we do it," explains Rochelle.
“We have already had seminars where everyone logs into a conference call and then I will say “you have got it all wrong, this is how you do it". So over the next six months I will have to educate the teams on how to improve women’s cycling. I don’t want them to sell sponsors and not maintain it so I need to educate these teams on how to keep these sponsors in women’s cycling," she continues.
While Gilmore still has some way to go in her bid to improve women’s cycling she show no sign of stopping any time soon: “I don’t give up so hopefully Wiggle Honda is an example of that, that it is working."
Gilmore stands strong on the point that opening up your personal life imperative if athletes want to pursue a professional career within their chosen sport. In order to do this there needs to be media obligations written into contracts, PR resources within teams, the support of athlete agents and of course the cooperation of the athletes. Where women’s cycling is concerned it is not enough to turn up and be an incredible athlete, to make it a viable career you must offer the full package.
“British Cycling want you to give 100% to these performances, but it doesn’t matter if you win them, you have to open your personal life and give yourself in the lead up for that for it to have significance. So the athletes who are in this just for personal satisfaction won’t be on Wiggle Honda, it’s not what it’s about. It’s about working for the sport." concludes Gilmore.