Slovenia has had a professional men’s cycling team for the last 66 years. It wasn’t until 2014 that a group of talented and inspiring women managed to convince their coach to help them go pro. Now they’re ranked 12th in the world, and you'll be able to see them ride in the UK at the upcoming Aviva Women's Tour too.
Sarah Dean brings you their story…
“The development of women’s cycling in Slovenia was so fast, I couldn’t believe it that in 2014 we could have a professional team. Maybe the first year they didn’t see us as a serious team, but now we are, really."
It’s 7 years since BTC City Ljubljana women’s cycling team first appeared on the amateur scene, and just 2 seasons since they went pro. Currently 12th out of 31 in the UCI World Tour rankings, its been a meteoric rise for a team as new as the sport itself in their home country, Slovenia.
I meet the riders at their namesake BTC City - a huge shopping centre on the outskirts of Ljubljana. I expect just a couple riders to pitch up, but the turnout is higher than I could ever have wished for - eight women, Gorazd Penko their head coach, and Maja Owen, sponsor and team director.
The women are riding high - they’re just back from La Flèche Wallonne and the Gracia Orlova, with a win from rider Olena Pavlukhina. In less than 24 hours they’re off to China, for the Tour of Chongming Island. Friends, flatmates and teammates, before I meet them they’ve done 5 loads of washing, they’re squeezing in a chat and a cycle with me, then heading home to pack and drive to the airport. I feel tired just thinking about it.
The team is part of the broader ROG cycling outfit that grew out of Ljubljana’s famous bicycle manufacturing firm, which has maintained a men’s cycling team for over 66 years. With support from a local newspaper the women joined ROG as amateurs in 2005/06. Not long after, two of the team approached the coach Gorazd Penko and asked for his support to go pro. At the time he was busy working with the men’s team, and, now somewhat ironically, didn’t think women should be road cycling. (He chuckles as he recounts this story). Eventually he was persuaded and they turned pro in 2014.
Now boasting a team of 35, competing in all categories, they have gone from 20 starts a season to 85, huge progress in such a short amount of time.
No-one is more supportive or committed to the team than Gorazd. So much so that in 2015, in the World Tour for just one year, he persuaded the Giro Rosa council to start the race in Slovenia.
“I didn’t imagine that something like this can happen when I am still cycling. To have this, here, was really something."
“When Gorazd started to talk [sic] we’d have the Giro start here, I thought yeah, good luck with that" says Polona Batagelj, one of Slovenia’s Olympic cycling hopefuls. “I didn’t imagine that something like this can happen when I am still cycling. To have this, here, was really something."
“Gorazd does so much for women’s cycling. He also has this energy, commitment - if he wants it, it will happen. He will do good things for all of us". For someone who originally thought that women’s cycling couldn’t become anything this is high praise. He has completely eaten his words, and the respect between he and the team is mutual.
Of course, money matters too. Slovenia has a population of just 2 million, and finding a sponsor that can fund a world tour team and full time athletes isn’t easy. “There are only about 10 companies in Slovenia that are big enough to support a team like this financially" explains Maja.
Yet “It was easier finding a sponsor for a woman’s team than mens" adds Gorazd, citing the men’s sport’s recent troubles with doping. “In the beginning, it was the men’s teams that helped us, now it has reversed". They are jealous that women’s budget is going up and theirs down" remarks Polona.
Even with a sponsor like BTC City behind them, it’s hard to cover costs. The disparity in prize money between men and women’s races remains shockingly high, and leaves little to play with. According to Gorazd, women’s prizes are about 10% that of men’s, across the sport.
But the team is positive. What’s more important for them is having good relationships. Which is evident in their camaraderie. Any inter-team rivalry is carefully hidden - if it exists at all. They are keen to champion one another, but rarely does anyone mention their own achievements.
"Women don’t let attacks go so easily. You really have to be strong to go into attack in a women’s race. Women are more universal"
Perhaps that explains their attitude towards a race - they’re organic, they’re multi-taskers - a genuine team: “In men’s racing you’re a sprinter, or a climber" says Jelena Eric, one of the team’s youngest members. “In women’s we are everything. A sprinter can also go in climbs. If you’re strong, you’re strong and you go for it. In men’s racing, everything is calculated. There’s a breakaway and a chase at the end. In women’s, you can never know for sure what’s going to happen. Women don’t let attacks go so easily. You really have to be strong to go into attack in a women’s race. Women are more universal," which you would think would make for a much more interesting race. If only the broadcasters would see it that way, perhaps the prize money might see a sharp increase…
For many of the riders, cycling was something they had tried as children, but with little or no opportunities to progress - no teams, no women to look up to, no money in the sport - they pursued other avenues before coming back to the bike later in life.
Eugenia Bujak, one of the team’s highest-ranking athletes, started on the track in Poland at the age of 21 having ridden her brother’s bike from the age of 10. “I was like a child learning to walk. I went on the track because I had no other option," she explains.
“Two years ago, BTC City got in touch and asked me to join the team. They had seen me in the World Championships and thought I wasn’t bad, and gave me the opportunity to try the road again. Now the road is my focus."
“I thought I wasn’t bad," she says. This modesty is characteristic of the team - keen to downplay their exceptional achievements and efforts that have seen them move from a 15th place finish in 2015 to current 12th in the UCI rankings for 2016.
"At this moment, I’m the only female rider [from Serbia] who is racing. The only elite woman."
For Jelena it’s a similar story. “When I started there were no girls. Not even one. So I raced with the guys. I went to the World Championships and qualified for the Youth Olympic Games in mountain biking then turned my attention to the road. I got good results in the World Champs and then Gorazd took me into the team. At this moment, I’m the only female rider [from Serbia] who is racing. The only elite woman. There’s one other girl who does mountain biking, she’s really good, and there’s me".
Anna Plichta is from Poland and grew up disliking sport. “Now she’s our powerhouse" Jelena chimes in as Anna tells her story. Her sisters joined a mountain biking class, and when she saw how much fun they were having she decided to join too. They quit; she stayed on, competing in local races.
“I was sure I wouldn’t be a cyclist. I really didn’t like mountain biking, the downhills and everything really scared me. But when I tried the road, everything changed. In my first race I came second, and I knew it was something I wanted to do."
After training as a physiotherapist and taking time out from sport, Anna felt something was missing. So she got back on the bike. A year later she’d found a new team and was competing in the UCI. Another year on she’d joined BTC City.
This season has seen the team go from strength to strength. They’ve found their feet and built a solid, confident squad. But 2016 hasn’t been without it’s challenges. “From the start of the season we had a lot of bad luck, always something going wrong, crashes, something wrong with bikes, with Anna we were changing the bikes sometimes 3 times, every week every race…this feeling that you’re strong enough but it’s all the time going wrong…it’s stressful".
Despite this bad luck two of the riders currently have enough points to qualify to the Rio Olympics - Polona Batagelj for Slovenia and Olena Pavlukhina, who will ride for Azerbaijan.
After coffee we head into the city to try out Ljubljana’s new bike rental scheme. Despite the heavier more cumbersome bikes, the team are fast off the mark as we do a whistle-stop tour of the city’s beauty spots - from the Dragon Bridge and Red Church to the Špica, before heading to their favourite place in town - Cacao ice cream parlour.
Over double chocolate sundaes, I ask the women about this common theme - they all seem to have tried cycling when they were kids, enjoyed it, and then left it behind, only to return to it later. The lack of opportunities for young women to cycle seems universal.
“For my brother it was easier, for sure" says Mia Radotic. “He cycled in a team 100km away, but there was a team. My parents gave me other options, which was fine by me, I loved all sports. They tried to put me off the road - with my dad and brothers already cycling I think they wanted to keep me off! But who knows, if I’d cycled all my life, perhaps I wouldn’t be here today."
This optimism and positivity is synonymous with the whole team’s attitude - yes, they know they’ve got a long way to go, but they love what they do and are keen to champion BTC City’s other achievements outside of the race team - namely the development of women’s cycling in Slovenia, which they’ve won awards for.
BTC City funds a training academy, with 45 girls in all categories, and it’s growing every year. Perhaps spurred on by the lack of opportunities to pursue cycling themselves, the women are as devoted to the academy as they are to their own racing.
"We don’t want to just be some girls that will race, we want to develop younger girls who will one day be in our team."
“We don’t want to just buy some girls that will race, we want to develop younger girls who will one day be in our team. We try to talk to the little kids, we don’t brush them off, we say hi, smile talk to them. We try to encourage young cyclists. We want also that all women’s cycling grows around the world".
“The best thing that can happen to you is to be in a team in your own country" says Polona. “The development of women’s cycling in Slovenia was so fast, I couldn’t believe it that in 2014 we could have a professional team. Maybe the first year they didn’t see us as a serious team, but now we are, really." And they are, really.
The team are down to ride the Aviva Women's Tour this month - find out more here.