What’s in a name? If you’re following the Friends Life Women’s Tour and were wondering about the origin of the various team names – Orica AIS, Lotto Belisol Ladies, Matrix Fitness Vulpine – then wonder no more.
Most cycling teams are named for the sponsors who back them, and those sponsors are fundamental to the sport. Without their backing, these teams wouldn’t exist.
[Want to know more about the teams in the 2014 Friends Life Women's Tour? Check out our Guide to All the Teams and Riders.]
Sponsorship is one of the key elements, alongside media coverage, rider development and community support, that are critical to the continued growth and success of professional women’s cycling.
So why do some brands decide to sponsor women’s cycling, what’s their interest in it and what do the companies get out of it? We spoke to Jon Johnston, Managing Director of Johnson Health Tech UK and Matrix Fitness, about why he has chosen to sponsor a women’s cycling team. And not just any team; the Matrix Fitness Vulpine team are the only domestic team to be riding in the Friends Life Women’s Tour.
What’s your own personal interest in cycling?
I grew up in a small town not far from Nottingham with its famous Raleigh factory. I suppose, like many families in the 70’s who were not a very well off, a bike was often a means of transport. We used to build up bikes from scrap yards. The starting point for me cycling seriously was when my Dad bought me a bike from the local paper in the ‘under-a fiver section’ when I was about 12. When the old paint was sanded off, it turned out to be a ‘Hercules Kestrel’ like the one my Dad had ridden round France in his youth!
My eldest brother took up cycling to recover from a serious illness, got spotted by a local racing club and invited me to join. Within a year or so I was doing pretty well in time trials and was hooked. I went on to race road and track pretty seriously until my mid-twenties.
For those who might not know, what is Matrix Fitness?
Matrix Fitness is a leading brand of commercial fitness equipment manufactured by our parent company Johnson Health Tech. We mainly supply private and public gyms, hotels, sports and fitness clubs, professional teams, the MOD and emergency services.
How did Matrix Fitness become a sponsor of a women's cycling team?
I was interested in developing some marketing clout around the 2012 Olympics and I was at a sports dinner, at which Nicole Cooke was a guest, in 2008 after the Beijing Olympics success. I approached her and got talking, and her agent then got in touch about sponsoring her Vision-One team. I liked the idea that it was going to develop young talents. I also got on well with the team manager – Stefan Wyman – and got to know some of the riders.
I thought the women’s side of cycling had always been underestimated, and was totally under represented in the media. I was struck by the inequality and sexism in cycling (which thankfully is now changing), but this inequality also made the sponsorship extremely affordable, and I did not have a big budget back then.
There was such public support for Vicky Pendleton after the Olympics, and it opened my eyes to the potential of women’s cycling.
How did the Matrix Fitness Vulpine team come about?
Sadly the Vision-One team folded mid season due to a lack of funding, which was a shock to me. I was disappointed to see that, and I wanted the young team riders to have somewhere to go to fulfill the promises of the original team vision.
Late in 2009 I had a talk with Stefan and discussed what it would cost to run a team. We got a deal together pretty fast and Stefan quickly brought in the necessary technical sponsors and partners. We were able to pick up some of the remnants of that team and started the new one under the ‘On-the-drops’ project name, but publicly it was the Horizon Fitness Racing Team, Horizon being another brand of fitness equipment manufactured by Johnson Health Tech.
In parallel with this we also had the idea of the Johnson Health Tech GP series which would create the first televised series for women’s racing and our relationship with SweetSpot the organisers of The Women’s Tour – it’s all interlinked.
What role does sponsorship play in cycling; what are the benefits for the teams and the sponsors?
Sponsorship is hugely important; most teams simply would not exist without support of sponsors.
But I think it’s important for sponsors to be responsible and work in close partnership with teams, as we do with Matrix Fitness-Vulpine. We never pressure the team for results, and try to take a long term view of our involvement. That way we can protect the riders and teams interests. It’s especially important when working with such young riders that their welfare is first and foremost, rather than winning at all costs.
We get publicity and PR in various media and TV, plus the chance to forward our social responsibility to get more people, more active, more often. The fact that the team promote healthy role models for young women is great. And of course on a commercial level we can showcase products like our new IC7 indoor cycle.
What does the Women's Tour mean for professional women's cycling, both in the UK and Worldwide?
The Women’s Tour is a massive step forwards for the sport. I hope it will be a catalyst internationally, but at home it should help raise women’s cycling onto a more equal platform. I think SweetSpot have got it right in that it is not – ‘The women’s Tour of Britain’ held as secondary event, but an event in its own right with its own slot on the calendar.
In the future I would like to see longer harder races but I don’t think we should push for a women’s Tour de France, Giro or Vuelta which are token versions of the men’s events, and would always be overshadowed by a century of history. I would like to see a series of big events that stand on their own and that carve a new style of racing.
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Following the Friends Life Women's Tour? Don't forget to read our Essential Guide to All the Action.
Interested in how much it costs to run a professional women's cycling team? We spoke to Vulpine about the Cost of Sponsoring a Pro-Team.
Inspired to get cycling? Check out our Buyers Guide to Road Bikes.