86 miles worth of glorious closed, well marked road with challenging (not impossible) climbs, flowing descents, beautiful views, supporters shouting encouragement from the sidelines and a shiny medal at the end.
What’s not to love? Sophie Yarwood, winner of the fastest woman on the Festina timed hill climb at the 2014 Etape Cymru had an "amazing day…the closed road element is what really makes it, all you have to think about is riding". There was, however, one very obvious thing missing from the day. Girls. To be precise, only 7% of the field were made up of us lovely ladies, a figure that hasn’t changed much over the years.
I was so intrigued as to why the numbers were so pitifully low at the Etape I decided to speak to other riders (men and women) to see what they thought.
I asked if anything was intimidating about these ‘tougher’ sportives. Happily, no-one found male cyclists to be a problem, but on some occasions we find that they can be patronising, perhaps unintentionally. One respondent noted that she had been subjected to “mansplaining" on a few occasions and another to the odd “you’re doing well" comment, both of which will hopefully be eradicated in the not too distant future the more women we see at events and training.
The technicality of a tougher course and the ability to train with people of a similar standard was the biggest concern. “Finding someone of the same level to attend events and train with is difficult" noted Jackie Jobes. Perhaps a more encouraging environment for women should be created at tougher, mixed sex sportives, such as offering female only waves, or having a pre-event online forum to create a good sense of camaraderie for men and women taking their first dip or finding potential training partners/clubs.
“A lot of women hold themselves back and think that they couldn’t cycle that far, when in fact they could, they just need a bit of a shove to get there" noted one respondent. There has been a notable increase in more inclusive clubs, and female ride leaders, and this needs to continue. The majority were in agreement that female participation had risen but numbers are still not where they 'should' be.
I asked about women-only sportives, and the responses were split. Many agreed that “anything that encourages women to cycle is to be applauded", but there was strong disagreement towards the concept. “What does this ‘say’ about women cyclists? There aren’t any male only events. Do men think that we need special treatment?". Compared to the Etape, women only sportives do not also compare with route difficulty. Are there women progressing through Cyclettas to Etape style sportives? Would be great to hear your thoughts.
The biggest concern was the responsibility that event organisers have in promoting equality between the sexes, particularly in photographs and promoting both KOM and QOM prizes, with the emphasis not on giving more 'page space' to women or men, but treating the sexes as equally capable. One respondent commented that sometimes the marketing of events "created a perception that the events were only open to strong riders, as there is almost always men in promotional pictures".
There are so many good things going for women's cycling right now, but we can only rely on event companies to encourage us so much. It should be every cyclists’ second nature to encourage those who may be hesitant to sign up for that longer ride, because the views from the top are pretty spectacular, and the descents are even more fun. So get involved ladies, and keep the debate going. What would help to encourage you?
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