Women’s cycling has never had a higher profile than it does right now. That's thanks to a shift in attitude from fans, race organisers, media, and even the riders themselves. While cycling is still a sport dominated by men, women have now been given the opportunity and confidence to bring more parity than ever before.
The inaugural Tour de France Femmes last year was a monumental moment for women’s cycling that will have hopefully inspired a generation of young girls to ride bikes. This year we’ve also had the first ever Women’s UAE Tour, in a country where historically women haven’t even been able to participate in sport at all. In recent years the women’s WorldTour calendar has grown to feature iconic races like Paris-Roubaix.
Just as women’s cycling has started to really gain momentum, one of the stage races that paved the way for many others to begin has had to postpone its ninth edition due to a lack of sponsorship and funding. The Women’s Tour in the UK began in 2014, and ever since the race’s first edition, the race organiser SweetSpot has made its mission to fight against the prejudice women face in sport.
In 2022, the Women's Tour had live coverage for the first time and in 2018, SweetSpot announced that the overall winner and stage winners of the Women’s Tour would receive the same prize money as the men’s Tour of Britain, pound for pound. Even in Belgium, where cycling is the home sport, the Flanders Classics only announced this year that it would have equal prize money – exemplifying the early precedent SweetSpot was setting.
Last year, thousands of people of all ages lined the streets in the UK, cheering and waving flags as the world’s best female cyclists zoomed past them, catching glimpses of the likes of Elisa Longo Borghini, Lorena Wiebes, Tiffany Cromwell, Alice Barnes, and Kasia Niewiadoma. While many of those who took to the streets to witness this sporting spectacle may not have even known who these riders were, they would have seen the incredible talent these women possess, inspiring hundreds of people to continue watching women’s cycling or partaking in the sports themselves.
Fast forward to today and due to a combination of increased running costs, a reduced level of commercial support, and challenges in finding a vehicle partner to replace Škoda, The Women’s Tour will not be able to host its ninth edition this June. SweetSpot resorted to crowdfunding in an attempt to make this year’s edition happen, but even with over 500 donations, it was not possible.
“We’ve suffered from a lack of title sponsorship in the last few years and while SweetSpot has made sure the race went ahead, it is not a sustainable way to keep going every year,” Peter Hodges, SweetSpot’s PR and marketing director, told Rouleur. “There’s only so far you can dip into your own reserves.
“Crowdfunding was our way of raising more awareness around funding for races because when you say you are looking for sponsors, everyone thinks everything is OK. So crowdfunding was our way of going, no, we are looking for sponsors and without this, the race won’t go ahead. We had a huge response but ultimately, we needed one or two blue chip or big companies to come in and say that they’d like to sponsor a jersey or even a stage.”
While there are plenty of other events in the Women’s WorldTour, which has continued to grow year on year, there is nothing more exciting than being physically at a race and being a part of something, which is what the The Women's Tour provided for British racing fans.
“I think the postponement of the Women’s Tour will impact women’s cycling in a small way as it’ll impact individual riders, who are now having to look for other races,” Hodges said. “And we never know, this might have been that rider's year where the stars aligned and their team was able to take part in this UCI WorldTour race.”
“It’s also disappointing for British teams with British sponsors like Lifeplus-Wahoo, AWOL O’Shea and DAS-Handsling. I know they still have RideLondon and other national events, but they’ve lost five or six days of exposure.
“I think sustainability is key for these events, and by that I mean we need to keep doing these things. That is part of the reason why we don’t want to stop communicating about this race completely just because we can’t do it this year. We will be continuing to make announcements throughout the summer so partners, sponsors and fans have the security of knowing that The Women’s Tour will be back.”
The Women’s Tour has a prestigious list of previous winners, including Marianne Vos, Elisa Longo Borghini, and Lizzie Deignan – the only two-time winner. This year would have seen more cycling superstars on the start line, looking to add the renowned title to their palmarès. Hodges has been a part of the race since its first edition in 2014 and looks back on the race with fond memories and pride, but recalls the first stage as his favourite moment.
“The first ever stage was in Northamptonshire and we had put in a lot of work and people were excited, but there was still an element of is anyone actually going to turn up. The crowds were fantastic and I remember Lizzie Deignan being on the morning show. It was also in national newspapers and it even got mentioned by Chris Evans on the BBC Radio Two Breakfast Show. I just remember thinking, this is going to be big.”
Almost 10 years on, it’s a shame that commercial support has been unachievable this year for the women’s race. The Tour of Britain, which is the men’s equivalent, has never had to work as hard and has only missed one year due to the Covid pandemic, demonstrating the inbuilt balance between men and women's sporting events.
In 2023, passion for moving women’s sport forward has never been stronger. Generations of women are taking a stand and shouting about what they want in the world of sport – a brave and courageous step that is needed to move towards gender equality. However, sponsorship and funding is a vital part of making these events happen, and if women’s sport is to get anywhere, having consistent momentum year on year is key.
“People know the British Open is in July, the Grand National is in April and the Tour de France is in July,” said Hodges. “I think The Women’s Tour was just starting to get to that point where at the start of each year the race was in the sporting calendars of national newspapers – we just need to keep working hard to make sure we stay firmly there.”