WORDS: ORLA CHENNAOUI | ILLUSTRATION: MATTHEW GREEN | PHOTOS: SWPIX.COM
17 minute read
This essay was originally published in The Road Book 2019, available from the Rouleur Emporium.
Ina Teutenberg isn’t a woman to mince her words. Ruthless on the bike, the former winner of the Tour of Flanders and 13-time Giro stage winner is hugely respected for being just as unforgiving off it. When the German retired from professional racing in 2013, former team boss Bob Stapleton lamented the departure of the last of the patrons of the women’s sport, the kind of figure who called the shots and spoke with an authority that you would do well to listen to.
I had read much about her forthrightness, and was aware of her somewhat formidable reputation. Still, when she answered the question I had travelled 500km in all to ask, looking unblinkingly into my eyes as she did so, almost challenging me to flinch, I’ll admit that I was temporarily blindsided. Why are there so few female sports directors, I wanted to know of the directeur sportif of the new Trek-Segafredo women’s cycling team.
‘Maybe a lot of girls get babies after their careers, so they just want to stay home and be with their kids.’
Sorry, come again? I checked my phone. Yes, it was 2019.
There was no expansion on the answer. No attempt to soften the sentiment. There are so few female DSs, the thinking went, because many of them probably want babies.
I felt short-changed. I had made a six-hour round trip from my home in Amsterdam to Teutenberg’s temporary race residence outside Bruges in Belgium – myself juggling a young family and the demands of a three-month-old – to have some light shed on one of the enduring curiosities of professional cycling. Indeed, female sports directors are so few and far between that the original French nomenclature for the job description remains stubbornly masculine in its composition. No weight of numbers has prompted a consideration of whether we should begin to talk about ‘directrices sportives’. ‘Directeur’ it remains.
Trek-Segafredo had seemed the obvious place to focus my curiosity, given that they have employed both Teutenberg and the recently retired former world champion Giorgia Bronzini to run their race programme. The fact they seemed obvious signings when they were announced belies the rarity these women still represent.
In the lobby of the Weinebrugge Hotel – the team’s home for the week between the Three Days of De Panne through to the Tour of Flanders in April – I pressed Teutenberg on whether it really was as simple as age-old gender stereotypes would have us believe. Her assessment remained as stark as the bright, white hotel reception lighting.
‘It means a lot of travelling,’ she said, ‘and some people are just sick of the lifestyle. I don’t know if that’s the reason, you’d have to ask the other women. I mean, I can see that as a reason. That was hard for me to make that decision if I want to have this lifestyle again or not. Maybe some ladies just enjoy the home life, and guys have an easier time keeping this lifestyle going, I don’t know. You would have to ask other women about that.’
She’s right, of course. About needing to ask other women why they’re not doing the same job, that is. The very problem with any questioning of this nature is that you can only ask those who buck the trend why there’s a trend to be bucked, and they can only suppose at the circumstances of others. This is especially true of women in cycling; female journalists get it all the time. It is as though those working in the profession must be spokespeople for those who aren’t, which in turn presupposes some sort of prejudice that must be overcome, a cause that must be fought.
Teutenberg, for one, will not be rushing to take up arms if, indeed, this particular battle is one to be fought.
‘I’ve had male and female sports directors and the men have always been better. They just have.’
She believes females can sometimes be too understanding, too much ‘of a woman’ to be good at the job.
My conversation with Teutenberg was peppered with such dismissiveness. Her demeanour, like her physical stature, is that of a fighter. Compact, taut, as lean as though she were still an athlete, the former rider appears to come at life with her fists proverbially poised. Our conversation felt like something of a verbal sparring session, almost every question hit straight back with as few words as possible, as if to challenge me to come up with something better. It was impossible to know on a first meeting whether this was simply Teutenberg’s way of establishing a hierarchy, whether she doesn’t enjoy interviews, or whether she didn’t deem the subject matter worthy of discussion, despite her prior agreement to our conversation.
She did eventually relax once the interview had finished, and said something very telling as she stood up to leave: ‘Sorry, I’m not very good on emancipation.’
It was a curious statement, and confirmation, it seemed, that she had been rebuffing a perceived agenda, batting off any attempt to lump all ‘us women’ together on a joint crusade. When I clarified that my intention had been to try to understand the situation, not position her at the forefront of female emancipation, she started to chat more freely and even sat back down again.
Perhaps a female journalist asking about a lack of female DSs made her assume I had come armed with an agenda – one that she clearly has little time for. Her attitude towards me softened but her position was fixed: she simply doesn’t believe the position of sports director suits a lot of women.
The role traditionally, and in its essence, is that of race tactician, the person who decides how a team should ride, and who calls the shots when that plan invariably needs changing some 50km after the flag has dropped. But a good sports director will also empathise with and support those around them, helping pick up the pieces when things go wrong, and acting as team motivator almost as much as team boss. I’ve seen Teutenberg’s warmth towards her riders from afar, coaxing them, encouraging them, congratulating them on a performance well done.
It is true, however, that for order to be maintained within a team, the position of sports director is one that can brook little or no challenge. According to Teutenberg, many women simply aren’t ‘hard-ass’ enough for the job. I certainly doubt whether anyone operating under the current tutelage of Teutenberg could level that accusation against her. Woman or not.
Or against Giorgia Bronzini, for that matter. The Italian double world champion and eight-time Giro stage winner was one of the most formidable riders of her generation. Affable, full of energy and enthusiasm, she serves as an effective foil to Teutenberg’s directness. The yin to her yang, if you will. Teutenberg had acknowledged as much.
‘I’m not as friendly as Giorgia,’ she had said while shaking my hand when we first met. ‘Our interview won’t take as long.’
She’s not, and it didn’t. But then, neither woman is employed for their friendliness. While I managed to keep the German chatting for just 20 minutes – ten minutes short of our allotted time slot – Bronzini overran considerably. Between the two of them, we used up exactly the scheduled amount of time.
How’s that for balance within a team?
For Bronzini, and encouragingly for those disheartened by the prescriptiveness of Teutenberg’s assessment, the issue is less one of procreation and gender binds, and more one of visibility.
‘We’re starting right now to be a bit more common. We also have Carmen Small and a few former athletes [Rachel Heal on UHC is another, long-serving example]. It’s a bit like in normal life, women become accepted in any kind of job step by step. I think now we are doing tiny steps, and also the UCI is trying to involve us a bit more with the DS course.’ (Bronzini benefited from a scholarship offered by the UCI for women wishing to attend their directeur sportif qualifying course.)
So is it simply a question of time?
‘I think the world is changing,’ Bronzini said, ‘and probably there will be other riders in the future who would be interested in taking this job, which I think would be amazing.’
Currently, there are just three female lead sports directors in the top 20 women’s teams. Of those three, two of the teams – Trek-Segafredo led by Teutenberg, and Team Virtu led by Carmen Small – are in the top ten.
Proportionately speaking, that is quite a good ratio. However, Trek-Segafredo are the only team to be led entirely by women, in the form of Teutenberg and Bronzini.
All others have at least one male assistant sports director. Whatever the reason, and whatever the consequences of lost talent from within the sport, the numerical discrepancy is huge.
Yet, in many ways, talking about why there aren’t more female DSs is like reversing into the issue.
Before we get into first gear, maybe the question should be: does the sport need more women?
Bronzini thinks so, and believes it can come down to a simple question of biology: ‘I think sometimes women understand women better just because we are women. So, for example, if you have your period, I understand that. I really understand what it means to have your period. Men, not so much.’
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio of CCC Liv is one Women’s WorldTour rider who has spoken about this issue. She believes the effects of menstruation contributed to her dropping temporarily out of the top ten at this year’s Giro Rosa.
‘My team was incredibly supportive,’ she wrote in a personal blog, ‘fully understanding how much impact your period can have on your performance.’
Moolman-Pasio rallied from the dip in performance and finished fourth.
For Bronzini, it’s also a matter of racing experience: ‘When you stop [racing] you still have contact with the riders and you know them really well. You have just been in the peloton, so also you know the weaker points of the opponents. Me and Ina have experience of being riders so we know what can be a good approach [with the riders] or not.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Teutenberg disagrees. But it was difficult to know whether her answers were motivated by conviction or by an impulse to rebel against a perceived expectation that she should answer in a certain way.
‘I’ve been out [of racing] and it’s totally different now. I see this already in meetings. It’s totally different to what it was five years ago already, so it’s like I have to learn the new ways of the peloton too. So yeah, maybe I know what it’s like, but if a male DS has raced it’s maybe the same sensation. You can educate yourself.’
She also doesn’t believe women are necessarily best placed to empathise with each other. ‘I think some women don’t understand other women either. I mean, we have to be honest about that. I think if you have leadership skills as a man leading a bunch of women you can think yourself into that too. There are some women who can’t do that. I think it’s a personality thing.’
Presumably the same goes for men who lack the personality to lead, but we don’t go into that.
These conversations rarely do.
Lizzie Deignan is a rider who enjoyed huge success, including a world championship title, under the guidance of Danny Stam, her male DS at Boels Dolmans. On becoming a mother, she changed teams and now rides for Trek-Segafredo.
‘In my experience, a person’s gender does not make a difference to their ability to perform in this role,’ she told me. ‘I think it is a person’s character and personality that determines whether they are successful or not.
‘Working with Ina and Giorgia has been really good. They have an advantage that comes from racing themselves against women who are still my current rivals,’ she continued, echoing Bronzini’s own thoughts. ‘It would be great if more female ex-riders stayed involved in the sport. I hope that the increased professionalism we are experiencing in women’s cycling means this will be possible.’
It is precisely that increased professionalism that has allowed Trek-Segafredo to become the latest men’s team to add a women’s squad to their stable, and to offer full-time jobs to Teutenberg, who had only worked as a part-time DS on other teams, and to Bronzini who was tempted into retiring at the top by the prospect of a new, professional challenge. ‘I think it is like a train that passes one time in your life,’ Bronzini said of the job offer in her slightly broken, beautifully poetic English.
The proposition was made to her last year when she was still winning races. ‘I think it is the drop of water going over the side of the vase for me and I say OK, I’m going to take it.’
The team have so far had considerable though not unequivocal success. I spoke to both women on the eve of the Tour of Flanders, for whom their best prospect was Ellen van Dijk, who had just won the category-1 warm-up race, Dwars door Vlaanderen. Trek-Segafredo had yet to win a Women’s WorldTour Classic, which had been one of their inaugural season aims. It’s an aim that has remained unfulfilled so far, with van Dijk their joint-best performer in the early season, achieving a podium spot at Ronde Van Drenthe, a finish matched by Letizia Paternoster who came third at Gent–Wevelgem. Van Dijk was also their best-placed finisher at the Tour of Flanders, in fifth.
Their other goal for the season was to finish in the top three in the world team rankings, which is a position they’ve enjoyed for much of the season. Indeed, their placing makes them by far the most successful of the female-led women’s teams. Only Boels Dolmans and Mitchelton-Scott – who share the last five world champions on the road and in the individual time trial between
them – have fared better. For a new team, and the only one led entirely by women, it can surely be considered a successful experiment.
Perhaps the most telling, insightful comment Deignan has on the matter is this: ‘In my experience, the best teams involve differences in culture, personality, strengths and weaknesses and also gender.’
If diversity of experience and talent makes for the best environment on a team, it’s an area in which cycling has been historically lacking, though certainly not exclusively so. Sport is still a man’s domain. Take football, the biggest sport in the world, as an example. A 2014–15 Uefa report found that 80 per cent of women’s teams in Europe were coached by men, while less than 1 per cent of pro licences were held by women. And yet, the few female coaches there are have enjoyed considerable success. Of the nine women-led teams at last year’s World Cup, five – including tournament winners the USA – reached the quarter-finals.
Whether any sport needs a ‘women’s touch’ is somewhat irrelevant. All successful businesses need to be able to draw from as big a talent pool as possible, and to find ways of retaining excellence.
By not having access to female candidates, that potential pool is drained in half. While visibility remains a problem, it is one that is, slowly, starting to resolve itself, with the likes of Teutenberg, Bronzini, Small, Heal and Iris Slappendel, among others. We cannot, however, ignore Teutenberg’s assertion that personal lifestyle and the general tendencies of our gender could be a factor in keeping female numbers low. If that seems an uncomfortable proposition, it should be remembered that the truth often is.
That we have so few mothers across cycling is striking, but probably unsurprising given the demands of the sport. Myself and the Spanish journalist Laura Meseguer, for example, are rare exceptions in the press pack.
The effort involved in setting up my interview with Teutenberg and Bronzini gives a classic example of the difficulties of logistics and travel of this particular sport.
After several weeks of trying to slot into both women’s race and training programme, with the job never keeping them in one place for long, the Tour of Flanders provided the perfect opportunity to talk to them both at the same time. The problem was that I had just had my second child and was supposed to be on a maternity break. Leaving him for the weekend didn’t feel like a realistic option when I was doing the night feeds and with my husband working full-time. Instead, I brought my family of four to Flanders for the weekend, with all the expense and planning that necessitated, in order for me to work.
Does that make me part of the problem? That I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – walk out the door even for a weekend when my son was so little? The question is: are there some sort of invisible barriers standing in the way of our peers, or is it because the majority of mothers prefer to find a way of working where they can be with their children most days? I don’t believe there is yet an answer
to that question, or a resolution to the conundrum.
Not all women become mothers, of course, but maybe more can be done to help facilitate the desire to juggle work with parenthood for those who do. It is perhaps no coincidence that Lizzie Deignan – one of the few mothers in the professional peloton – has chosen Trek-Segafredo for this stage in her career. It’s a team that has allowed her to stay away from team training camps so
that she can organise her own altitude training, with her family in tow.
She is one of the team’s biggest winners this season, becoming the first rider to twice win the Women’s Tour. Yes, it could be coincidence, but possibly not. Could sport start to incorporate more of the flexible working practices seen in the wider working world? One suspects doing so would depend very much on the results and calibre of the individual involved, but it shouldn’t be automatically ruled out as being incompatible with elite sport.
The UCI’s scholarship for women wanting to train as DSs should similarly be applauded. If women can see the sport as being open to them, at all levels, the playing field should start to take on its natural form, eventually.
To return to Teutenberg’s earlier thought, arguably it’s not a question of emancipation at all, but one of expansion. Of showing others what’s possible, and leaving it up to them whether to follow the same path or not. And crucially of showing the men already in the roles – and those doing the hiring – that women can do the job just as well, if not better.
This is where Teutenberg plays a vital role, whether she likes it or not. She has been a role model all through her career, and has become so once again. She is someone others can emulate, someone they can point to as an example of what is possible, should they choose that life, should they choose to pursue that career. The same can be said of Bronzini, of Deignan. They may not have chosen that particular mantle, they may not even be comfortable with it, but we do not get to choose how others see us.
Role models aren’t enough, of course, if we’re ever to alter the composition of a sporting hierarchy. They are, however, a pretty fundamental place to start. Only then can we see what’s possible, and work out whether any barriers – self-imposed or otherwise – can be overcome.