London, Saturday 3rd August. It’s approaching 7pm in the evening and in the shadows of Buckingham Palace, the harsh reality of managing Britain’s only UCI registered professional women’s cycling team has hit home hard. Very hard. Like hitting the smooth tarmac of The Mall at 55km per hour.
Moments earlier, the richest single-day women’s professional road race in the world – the Prudential Ride London Classique – was nearing its conclusion, with the fastest female sprinters vying for position as the speeding peloton passed the front of the Palace en route to its iconic finish on The Mall, live on the BBC and Eurosport.
I am running down The Mall, away from the Palace towards Admiralty Arch, my accreditation flapping in rhythm with my heart-rate. There had been a crash. A big crash. Kirsten Wild of WNT-Rotor had clipped the front wheel of Aussie rival Chloe Hosking in the hectic final sprint for the lioness’s share of the £100,000 prize purse – a sum equal to that for which the men were competing the next day.
I arrive breathless at the scene of the crash some 150m from the finish line to be confronted by the sight of 20 riders in varying degrees of distress being tended to by varying degrees of medic. Two of the riders are from Drops. Elinor Barker, our most experienced rider and multiple champion from grassroots racing at Maindy track in Cardiff to Olympic velodrome. The other, our ‘stagiaire’, 19-year-old Lizzy Bennett, also from Wales.
Lizzy had ridden with maturity beyond her years, never outside the ever-changing maelstrom that is the front of the peloton, holding position whilst others around her were losing theirs. Her first job on her first day of work with Drops was to be in the front with our sprinter Barker, guide her through to the finish, and then lead-out her leader to a top-ten finish.
Barker had used every ounce of her vast track racing experience to stay out of trouble, tucked out of the wind, in the efficient draft of her young team-mate.
It had all been going so well.
I survey the scene. Lizzy is sitting upright and looking relatively unscathed. She is helped gingerly to her feet by a paramedic, remounts her bike and rides slowly over the finishing line with a few other battered and bruised riders to complete the race.
Elinor won’t be completing the race. She has suffered a concussion and what is clearly a broken collarbone. The paramedic carefully settles her into a medic’s buggy and we are both taken to the medical centre. It is busy. Very busy. Medical staff slip effortlessly into action and doctors assess the more seriously injured. Several days later it would dawn on me that there wasn’t a single team doctor in attendance. Not one. Although I didn’t realise this at the time.
I stayed with Elinor throughout as she received excellent care and was subsequently sent by ambulance to the nearest hospital accompanied by her sister and team-mate Megan.
I head off to the team parking to brief our two day-rate staff of the situation. Our remaining riders have washed and changed and departed. The staff prepare to drive the motorhome truck back to our base in Bedfordshire. I head to Heathrow and then onto Slough, leaving one of our rider’s bikes at the British Cycling hotel for the upcoming European Road Race Championships in Holland.
My thoughts turn to Elinor and her sister Meg. I message Meg and am reassured that her sister is in good hands. I feel guilty as I head for the motorway and arrive home sometime before midnight. Another check with Meg and assurances are given that the team will cover any hotel costs that are required. Elinor is discharged at 2am. Additional hotel costs are required. Meg is marvellous.
It’s now Sunday morning and the day of the prestigious men’s race. Although the prize purse is identical, there the comparisons end.
The top men’s teams in the world have budgets more than twenty-fold that of the women’s teams, with the infrastructure and staff to suit. Most top men’s teams have three full-time doctors. I don’t know of one women’s team that has a full-time doctor. I cannot recall a time when I have ever seen a team doctor at a women’s race.
One split-second racing crash had highlighted to me in an instant how far equality in our sport still has to go. Women’s sport is on the crest of a wave. Its stock has never been higher. The football Lionesses are on the way to filling Wembley in November – I know, I’ve bought tickets – but women’s cycling still has a long way to go.
So, my dilemma, highlighted on Saturday evening, is whether to continue to run the only UCI women’s team in Britain, on a shoestring budget without a team doctor, but providing opportunities for both a 19-year-old apprentice and a multiple world and Olympic champion alike – or to accept that running an under-funded operation is negligent and to gracefully accept defeat.
As the world rapidly begins to champion our greatest female athletes, the business and commercial worlds are slowly waking up to the opportunities that are available to them to back up their rhetoric with investment. To stop talking the talk and to walk the walk.
This is arguably the most frustrating aspect. The growing talk from brands about investing in women. Yet here we are, the only female British UCI registered team, a team who would genuinely provide a great vehicle for a brand to tell their own story and that brand being able to prove what a difference their investment has made.
In pursuit of professionalism, we must stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution. Incidentally, we seldom accept defeat.