The rise of the female sports director – how pro cycling is changing

The role of the sports director has traditionally been a male job, even in women’s sport. As world champions Anna van der Breggen and Chantal van den Broek prepare to manage teams, Owen Rogers found out how the sport is changing

The peloton’s regular April appointment with Liège-Bastogne-Liège ensures the hills of southern Belgium are often lost in mist. But the heat and sunshine of spring 2018 showed the Ardennes in all its bucolic glory.

Among bright green virgin leaves and pink blossom, the women’s race was on fire. A group of ten or so favourites began a flurry of jabs and parries before Mitchelton-Scott’s Amanda Spratt escaped alone. An excellent climber, the Australian was having a breakthrough season and threatened to ride away to victory. Behind, with his Boels-Dolmans contenders Megan Guarnier and defending champion Anna van der Breggen in the group, their sports director Danny Stam had a quick decision to make.

“He needed to make a choice and he asked me straight, ‘are you good enough to drop the girls you are with?’ Nothing more, nothing less,” Van der Breggen recalls.

“Sometimes you’re not thinking in a race and he made me think, 'Okay, how good am I actually?’ If you answer with yes, you have to do it. I answered yes. That almost gives you the confidence that you need and in the end it worked I bridged to Amanda and I won that race. It was because Danny asked that question.”

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But a DS’s influence extends much further than the bike race. Van der Breggen tells of how Stam and Koos Moerenhout, at her previous team Rabo-Liv, had a profound influence on her career. The 30-year-old will be hoping she will have a similar impact when she takes on a management role at SD Worx in 2022.

She had planned to retire after the defence of her Olympic title, extending her contract with the Dutch squad to accommodate the pandemic delay. While aware she did not want to use her nursing degree, she otherwise had no idea what to do until the team offered her and another of their former world champions, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, the opportunity to direct the team.

But when Van der Breggen manages at her first race, she will be one of only a handful of women directing at the top level of women’s sport.Though the number is increasing, for years the job has been so overwhelmingly dominated by men that a casual observer might have thought women needed male approval to race. That’s obviously not the case, but men fill the role in many of the world’s top teams. Indeed, Ina Yoko-Teutenberg and Giorgia Bronzini at Trek-Segafredo were the only full-time female directors at any of the 2020 eight WorldTeams. 

So when SD Worx announced the plans of Van der Breggen and Van den Broek-Blaak, it was seen as a major step forward for equality in the sport. For Stam, who has led the team since 2013, it was a practical choice: “The WorldTour teams are getting bigger and there’s more organisation. The time has come when I can work a little bit more from home and see if we can hand over a little bit. When you have a lot of experience like those girls, it’s good that we can keep them in the team as they will give us extra benefit.”

While for Stam and SD Worx the decision is common sense, it illustrates just how obvious it is to have women who have competed in the women’s peloton directing its teams.

So why are there so few? Rachel Hedderman (née Heal) has been directing since retiring from racing in 2009 and currently works with the US based team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank. “The obvious reason I think is a lot of women have a family when they stop racing and it’s challenging to do both,” says Hedderman, mother of a two year-old.

“It’s possible, as I’m proving now, but starting directing and starting having kids together would have been incredibly tough. I’m learning to be a mother as I go along; the directing I feel like I have a handle on, but it definitely has its challenges.

“Away from races the difficult part is finding enough hours in the day to get the work done. At the majority of races I have somebody that will come and look after him he’s not usually in the team car, although there are times where he has had to be.”

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Carmen Small went from rider to director for Team Virtu after a severe concussion sustained in a crash forced early retirement in 2017. She agrees motherhood is certainly a major reason, but says there is more to it. Not only is there an ingrained culture of men doing the job, but traditionally male riders have followed a well-worn path through the age groups to the pro ranks. The lack of a similar pathway for women forced many to future-proof their options; Small worked as a teacher before committing to cycling.

“Most of the women are educated,” Small explains. “I had another career that I could go back to, I have a degree [in mathematics], so I think there’s a lot more options out there. On the men’s side maybe they grew up as juniors and this is all they know and they don’t have any other education. I think that’s changing, but I think that’s how it was.”

There is certainly no credible argument against women becoming sports directors; the abilities needed to be successful in the job have nothing to do with gender. While the need for a keen tactical understanding is obvious, some of the key skills are far more fundamental, the kind of interpersonal nous any line manager should at least aspire to having.

“Being flexible matters. Because every time you make a plan, the plan will change. And being able to put out fires quickly, that’s essential,” says Small who now works at German-registered Ceratizit-WNT. “The director’s reward is getting to go to the race. Women’s teams are not set up like men’s teams. When I was at Virtu I was doing three people’s job: talking to sponsors, going to meetings, looking at logistics, planning, booking flights sometimes.

“Organisation and communication are really key because you’re dealing with people from five different countries, so you have to understand the cultures and how you come across to get them to do what you want them to do or to buy into the ideas.”

Hedderman agrees: “A large part of getting a team to be successful is getting them all to have confidence in a plan, and a lot of that is delivering it with conviction. Whether it’s right or not is often irrelevant because there are a million and one scenarios that could play out in a race, but you have to be able to deliver it to the athletes in such a way that they are committed to it. A not quite so good plan that every athlete buys into completely is probably going to be more successful than a [great] plan that nobody believes in.”

Related: Anna van der Breggen, the conclusion to a supreme career

None of these attributes are the exclusive domain of either gender, and no one is suggesting affirmative action or saying men can’t or shouldn’t do the job. Simply, the best person for the job could be a woman or a man, though perhaps in some circumstances women may be better able to empathise with other women.

“I think a woman wins more trust with a young rider than with an old guy,” Danny Stam tells us. And there are certainly conversations relevant to performance that a young woman might not feel comfortable having with a man of any age. 

“‘I need to go to the store to buy tampons,’ or ‘I’ve been thinking about going off birth control,’ is probably not something you’ll say to your male director. All these more intimate discussions need to be had because they’re relevant,” says Small.

“I had an argument with Bjarne [Riis] and the staff at Virtu about the saddle. It doesn’t work for some women, and I was like, ‘do you have a vagina? No, so don’t tell me about that anymore.’

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“It goes both ways, and that’s why I like working with Dirk [Baldinger at Ceratizit-WNT] because we balance each other out. And it’s not necessarily that he’s a man and I’m a woman, but maybe it’s the personalities that are different.”

“But we’re women in women’s cycling, so why not have women directors?”Image: SWPix

If women directors are scarce in Women’s WorldTour squads, they have been non-existent in the men’s top tier. However, that is about to change with Briton Cherie Pridham joining Israel Start-Up Nation for 2021. 

A former pro, Pridham is well known on the British domestic scene, working a dozen years exclusively in men’s cycling as the sports director, manager and owner of UCI Continental squad Vitus ProCyling. With her team forced to close in the winter, she approached a number of squads in search of work, was impressed by ISN’s enthusiasm and signed up for 2021.

Despite being the first, Pridham does not not consider herself a trailblazer. “I don’t see myself as a female DS,” she says. “I see myself as a DS like everybody else, and I’ve always done that. I believe that I’m good at what I do and people have quite clearly seen that potential in me. 

“There’s tradition in our cycling world and I guess there will be a bit of, ‘what the hell is a woman doing looking after a men’s team, it’ll never work.’ But I think I’ve earned my stripes over the years and it’s up to me to grab the opportunity. Of course I’ve not been to a Strade Bianche and I’ve not been to a Grand Tour or even a WorldTour race, but I have done the Tour of Yorkshire, Tour of Britain and other races we’ve done globally. Our cycling world does need to change and if the person’s good enough for the job, they should do it.”

Women have directed men in past WorldTour races; Rachel Hedderman, who raced with Pridham, worked across both men’s and women’s rosters on the now defunct United Healthcare, becoming the first woman to manage a team in a Monument at the 2014 Milan-Sanremo. 

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“Initially it was nerve wracking, but an element of that was because I was the first to do it,” she says. “I felt that if I screwed it up it would be because I was female, not because I was a newer director.” 

Though she did not have the experience of having ridden the same races as the riders, she experienced little scepticism: “The men I was working with knew that I must be able to do something right because our women’s team were winning, so I think that probably gave me some credibility.”

Her and Small both agree that, in their experience, sexism played little or no part in preventing them directing women’s sport, and while it may be a barrier to women directing men’s teams, Hedderman experienced no overt discrimination.

“Novelty is the wrong word. To some extent, people were too busy being surprised rather than anything disparaging. It was like ‘oh wait, what?’ And by the time they realised it was a female director in the car, I’d driven past, so there was no room for another reaction. I experienced more sexism as an engineer than I have as a director,” she says of her life before cycling. 

Meanwhile, a year away from directing her first race, Van der Breggen has a unique insight into the job. Not only does she have the experience gleaned from her own stellar career, but her husband works as a director at Jumbo-Visma. She sees opportunities for women in men’s cycling.

“It’s all the same concept. If you have their respect, if they know you are capable of doing it, yeah I can see myself doing it,” she says.

“But I also can see it’s different, the guys are different. Men’s cycling is already a lot further ahead: in a team like Jumbo-Visma things are so much more structured, and in a team like SD Worx, we don’t have this. We have a lot to develop, everybody knows this. We can go to a higher level.

“I am still in women’s cycling, so one of my goals is to make our sport more professional. But as a female you should not look and see there are no women directing. It’s not about being a man or a woman, it’s about what talents you have. It should make no difference.”

This article originally appeared in Rouleur Issue 101, available to purchase here

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