Last week came the good news that Horizon Fitness has decided to continue their support for the women at On the Drops. The deal means another year of racing for the young British team. On the Drops puts a big emphasis on developing their young riders step-by-step and in making sure that the fans and sponsors can share in the adventure. The riders share their stories over at the On the Drops blog, and team manager Stefan Wyman considers the riders’ willingness to tell their stories and the team’s internet presence to be a big part of the team’s appeal to its sponsors.
I had the chance to chat with Stef about the Horizon renewal and the future plans of On the Drops. The conversation also turned to the bigger questions of growing women’s cycling and broadening its appeal. Below the fold, follow along as I chat by text with Stef Wyman and learn why women’s cycling needs to be changed from top to bottom and why 2 minutes of television time is worth celebrating.
Gav: Congrats on the sponsor renewal! That's great news.
Stef Wyman: Yeah, really happy. Such a great sponsor to work with. They invest in the sport, to make sure that it’s going forward.
Gav: From what Stuart has said, it seems like they really feel they get quite a lot out of the relationship. What do you think the appeal of supporting On the Drops is for them?
Stef: It’s not just about the pure return for them. Obviously we make sure everyone gets a huge return for their investment, but so nice that they care about the riders and sport itself.
Stef: I think there are a few things for them really.
Stef: I come from a business background (Although I was a cyclist myself until not too long ago), so it's not just about the bike. I understand (or at least I think I do) the way that we need to connect with our sponsors from a business point of view.
Gav: It's not about the bike, ha!
Stef: Then another point is that we do things that aren't just the standard team way of doing things. We've involved them a lot in what we do, and also in our planning for the future. For example the expansion of our online side.
We don't like to keep big secrets. We want to be open.
Gav: The online presence is really unique and I think it's a great way to reach fans - and create fans. I wish more teams would see the potential there, because it could really grow women's cycling a great deal.
Stef: It's strange, I was talking to a journo from VeloNation yesterday and we were chatting about transfers in women's racing. And we said how different men and women's cycling is.
Men get the news out there. Women's teams are all a big secret. I think the only way we'll move the sport forward is to be open. [VeloNation has since posted a brief women’s transfer story.]
Gav: Yes, they do seem secretive - though I wonder how much of that is fewer journos chasing the women's stories, you know? Like everyone wants to know where Cancellara is racing next year, maybe not as many people are wondering about Emma Pooley.
Stef: We have nothing to hide. It's a great, fast moving sport. And to make it bigger, we need more people to watch the sport. That means captivating them somehow. I think that if women's teams put the news out there, it would be used. And that could help the sport.
Gav: It does seem hard to find out news about the women's races and teams - I know we are always doing that at the Cafe!
Stef: We don't even know for sure what the new teams will be for next year in women's cycling..... So how do the riders try to get a place on them?
A funny little world....that we all love.
Building On the Drops, Year One
Gav: 2010 was the first year for On the Drops, right? What would you consider the biggest accomplishment so far?
Stef: Yeah it was the first year. I think it’s been a great year. We've been well accepted. I think the addition of Sarah Storey to the team has been a major plus for us. A true champion. Great results. Great with the other riders and fantastic to work with.
Gav: She does have a great story, and I'm really looking forward to reading the interview that Sarah (Pigeons) did with Sarah Storey. That should be great!
Stef: I also think that taking our young team to some major races like Tour Limousin, and doing 'ok' was also a plus point. There is never an easy place to start when you have lots of young riders. But we’ve done well. The riders got on great, and learnt a lot.
Gav: That is a big ask, but based on the online stories, it seemed like you have picked a group of riders who are... resilient and willing to really learn from everything they're doing.
Stef: And I think when we have raced as a team in the UK, it's been all eyes on us. And we've always gone well. Some great performances. I think if they learn something each day, and never let mistakes get them down, they can all be great riders.
Gav: I would also say that it seems like fans really relate to stories about races that don't turn out well when a rider is really honest about what happened. That's something we don't really get from the men all the time.
Stef: I agree. I ask them to blog for us, and they do it very well.
Gav: Yes, they're really good at telling their stories. And I think that's something the other women's teams need to do better. Fans need stories to follow.
Stef: We never change them. Not even a spelling issue. These are their blogs. And we want them to own them. They are real. And they are great stories. Very funny, very honest.
Gav: That really shows through. And again, not something we get from the men's side of the sport as often - lots of pr people intervening between the riders and the media.
Stef: Yeah, it takes the edge off things.
Why Women’s Cycling?
Gav: To me, this is one of the appealing aspects of women's racing - the accessibility.
Stef: Yeah, and that goes for all disciplines of women's cycle sport.
Gav: When people ask you why they should follow the women, what do you say?
Stef: I always say that you'll get an honest race. A real fight for the win. And a more 'raw' race. The tactics in women's cycling are getting better, very fast. But it's much more of a fight from the start line to the finish line. No rolling around, and pulling a break back just before the finish.
Gav: Yeah, the smaller teams and the shorter distances, you really see some aggressive racing from the women, it seems to me. It always seems vaguely irksome that the UCI limits women's race distances, but I think it does make the sport better. Maybe the men's races need to be shorter, ha!
Stef: I'd love to see the day when we can have more races with 8 riders. A more complete team tactic. But think it’s a few years away.
Gav: Ah, right. That would be great - but most teams don't yet have that kind of budget.
Stef: I agree, if they shortened mens races, might remove some the bad element of the sport. A friend of mine that is pro always said you'd have the same winner anyway!
Change from Top to Bottom
Gav: What do you think the women’s sport needs most to grow, to reach a point where there are bigger, deeper teams?
Stef: Well I think it needs to change from the top and the bottom. From the top, there needs to be greater input from people with knowledge in the sport to the UCI. I managed Pro teams for 6 years (This is the first year as a non-pro team), and I never once got asked for any feedback in respect of the sport.
Gav: Whoa, for reals? Yikes.
Stef: If there isn't proper representation from women's teams, riders and even its sponsors, there will always be strange rules, regs., etc.
Gav: Right, because the people making the rules don't know too much about how the sport works. So the women need better representation at the UCI level - makes sense.
Stef: I also think that women's races are too easy to get into. If I run a small non-pro MENS team in the UK, I wouldn't get a place in a major UCI stage race. But when we went to Limousin, there were something like 18 club teams, including ourselves. This is because there is one 1 level of 'pro' in women's racing, but there are 3 levels in mens cycling.
Gav: Hadn't thought of that, but it does make sense - it means that you have races where not everyone is good enough to be there, which lowers the quality of the races, and reinforces the idea that women's racing isn't pro.
Stef: I think the UCI needs to bring in a 2nd level of pro team. Cheaper to set up in terms of UCI guarantees etc, but meeting certain criteria. Then, I think UCI races would be able to take less teams, (But maybe with 8 riders), and the actual quality of the race would go up. I know this isn't going to be popular with everyone, but it would give all the team, including ourselves targets if we want to get up there in the rankings with the big teams.
Gav: This makes a lot of sense to me - that you would have one level of pro team that involved teams like Cervélo and HTC and another that was above club level, but still pro. That way, yeah, you don't have pro races filled with club teams. And right, you have a clear quality criteria for teams to meet to get into the bigger races. When I was talking to Noemi Cantele from HTC, she made a point along these lines that women's cycling, it needed to keep raising the quality of the product.
Stef: Yeah, and the 1st class teams have a guaranteed entry to the biggest races (I guess a bit like the pro tour), 2nd choice is the 2nd class teams. Then a limit of club teams.
Gav: it would also make it easier for the fans to follow - because you'd have a clear idea of who the main teams were and you'd see them at the various races...
Stef: Lets face it, when people come and watch our sport, they are normally used to watching men’s races. I've never been to men’s pro race where people have been dropped in the neutral zone.
Gav: Ouch! But yes, that's totally true.
Stef: I mean why on earth are teams taking these riders to races in the first place. It’s destructive to the rider, and to the sport.
Gav: It makes the sport look bad if teams are bringing riders who aren't fit enough to do the race, for sure.
Stef: Imagine how that looks to a potential sponsor who you have riding in the team car with you!
Gav: Gah! That would be embarrassing! So, here we have this great sport, well, never mind don't mind the girl going out the back, look, over there! A bird!
Stef: You must have heard my conversations in the car before!! Haha!
Our sport has a huge amount of winner. Massive champions like Vos, Ina, Pooley, Cooke, and young superstars like Armitstead. It's the strength in depth that’s lacking. But I think with some more responsible rules in place, that would come very quickly.
Gav: Oh, I quite agree. The top girls, they're amazing athletes - and I do think with better structures and more support, you could build the depth relatively quickly. There's some good women athletes out there, for sure.
Stef: I totally agree. We have great young riders. And I think taking them to a huge race (well many of them) would be really destructive. But I think a lot of team are run in a very different way to ours. The people in charge get an invitation and accept without thinking of what they are doing to their riders.
Gav: Yes, I could easily see managers not having the patience to develop riders or the insight to understand what they can and can't do. Especially in cases where you're dealing with women who have to work other jobs in addition to cycling.
Gav: So what do you think about the comments from Marianne Vos about more doping controls? I read that to some degree along similar lines to what you're saying here - that the sport needs to be more structured and more professional. What did you think?
Stef: I totally agree. I think I was also quoted in her interview with Bike Pure. Testing in women’s cycling is getting towards being a joke. It's a shock when they turn up. A real shock.
Gav: That's a shame. Because to me, the sport needs the credibility that in-competition testing brings. It's not that I think women's cycling is rife with doping - far from it.
Stef: You'd never go to the Tour de France and go 10 days without someone from a team being tested......but that happens all the time in women's racing.
Gav: Yeah, and it shouldn't. Especially at a race like l’Aude or the Giro Donne - where it's a big race and they're doing hard stages. You need the assurance that the racing is fair if you're going to attract fans and sponsors.
Stef: Well men's teams are all about publishing their results. It would be good in women's cycling too..........but you have to test them first!!
Gav: Well, you could make them up, but that might be a bad idea ;)
Stef: Haha. I think the only thing you can do is enter into an expensive round of testing with a trusted team doctor.
Gav: Which, most women's teams really can't afford. Really, this is something the UCI needs to step up and do.
Au Revoir Tour de l’Aude
Stef: I heard now the Tour de l'Aude is finished. A real shame.
Gav: Bah! I'm so disappointed in the l'Aude leaving. That's a great race with lots of history for the women.
Stef: It can never be replaced as the UCI have a rule that all new women's races have to only be up to 7 or 8 days. So it simply can't be replaced within the rules of the sport.
Gav: Whoa. I did not know that. That's crap, seriously. Whose idea was that thing?
Stef: Well, another rule made up by people who aren't involved in the sport on the women’s side.
Gav: Is that part of the reason the race is gone? I had heard it was more than just money, but no one seems to have a straight answer.
Stef: I heard it was political problems with the federation. I really don't know for sure. But I'll try to find out for sure. We stay to train in that region a lot, and I'll try to get the truth one day. Such a massive loss.
Gav: At the Cafe we're trying to build up the audience for women's racing. We're teaching people the races, trying to acquaint them with the sport. So we say, okay, this l'Aude thingy, it's huge. Eh, yeah, now it's gone. Not so huge. Look! It's the Giro Donne! It's huge!
Stef: I can see some great events that are taking the sport forward. Like Sparkassen Giro, a cool event, run along side a major mens event. [It is a] weekend festival of racing, tens of thousands of people out watching.
Men, Women, and Television Time
Gav: What do you think about running men's and women's races together? I'm a fan, but I've heard some say they don't like it?
Stef: Personally I think it's the way forward. I've seen how the cyclo-cross scene is developing for women for exactly the same reason. And I'm sure it will be good for women's sport.
Gav: Me too - everything's there - fans, infrastructure, media. Media, they're not going to spend cash to send someone just to a women's race but both? Yeah, they'd do it.
Stef: But remember.... If you have these events together, the people watching don't want to see girls out the back after 3km's, or them crying because they got dropped. When we link the sports up, it’s serious business. This could be the big area of advance for the sport, and we need to make sure we take the opportunity with both hands.
Gav: Ah, very good point. Because if the two races run together, the contrast in professionalism is going to be obvy - if in fact there is a contrast. So the women's level needs to be high.
Stef: The difference in budgets is directly related to TV time.
Gav: Yep - and in fan engagement. When fans see women's racing, they're into it. But if they can't see it... really hard to draw them in.
Stef: I hear people moan, that during the Tour of Flanders, the women only get 2 minutes, etc. But let’s get 2 minutes every week this year, then as the level gets better, we might get 5, then 10. In a few years, we might have our own programs.
Gav: This year's highlights on Sporza were pretty good for Flanders, actually. But Flèche, well, it was the usual two minutes.
Stef: But now Flanders has been on for a few years on Sporza, it’s moving forward. Hopefully Flèche will be the same. You have to remember the difference between the love of the sport in Flanders compared to Wollonie.
Gav: Oh, yes. Flanders, it's so huge.
Developing Women Riders
Gav: What differences do you see in managing a women's team versus a men's team?
Stef: Are, the worst question!
Gav: Ha ha, well, you can skip it if you like! I won't cry ;)
Stef: I'm a man, and I'll never understand a woman. I've been married for more than 6 years. Still don't understand women. So it's never going to be easy.
Gav: I was thinking specifically about the development side, developing riders.
Stef: One of the issues with women's racing is the amount of women that just drop out of the sport. So you can invest a lot of time into developing a rider, and the following year they decide to call it a day, and go to Uni or travel, etc.
Gav: Ah, right. So better structure in the sport - more budget, more clear levels for the teams - that would help avoid some of that wasted effort.
Stef: I think so. There is always going to be riders that don't make it. But with a good structure to the sport, people will know what to expect from a team, and how to get to the next level.
Now you get a lot of riders that'll jump to another team because they think the program will be better....but end up disappointed.
Gav: Right, because you can't tell from the outside what level a team really has or how it's organized.
Stef: Who knows if they'll ever get to be a 'pro'? But if they [the men] know that a team is regarded as a conti team, they know they need to get to 'pro conti' then from there they go 'pro tour'. There is a structure. Now we [the women] just have many teams, in 2 big pools. Pro and non-pro.
Gav: Yeah, it's way more clear for the men, for sure. Covering women's racing, we often run into this - like, what level is that team, really?
Stef: Yeah, someone asked a question on twitter the other day. What level of team are Moving Ladies? Even I found it hard to explain and I know the manager of the team, and several girls.
Gav: Well if you don't know! Dear UCI, Please make this easier for all of us...
The 5% Rule
Stef: Yeah. I've always said the UCI should make all Pro-Tour teams put 5% of their budget into a women's team. It's a tiny %, but would change the sport over night. I've heard others say that now, so hopefully there will be some people listening.
Gav: I agree with that, and we actually recently had a convo on the Cafe about that one. I think it would make a world of difference, especially if it were presented as a short-run thing to build women's cycling. It's certainly in the interest of the cycling industry to have a healthy women's sport! Like, chicks buy bikes and stuff.
Stef: Yeah, and I think 5% represents a fair amount, for the guaranteed return. It would only get bigger in terms of its return.
Gav: it would also be easier than asking them to run teams like Cervélo did.
Stef: Yeah, Cervélo put their necks on the line. And I think they did well. In fact, I think the guys at the top of Cervélo said the same thing about all PT teams having a women's team.
Gav: Yes! Vroomen called for that! I heart that man. He wants everyone to run a women's team. I wonder if he made the women's team a condition of the dealio with Garmin - no way to know though. Garmin's never shown interest in women's racing before, that's for sure.
Stef: I fear it will be a one year thing. I hope it isn't.
Gav: Gah! I will personally fly to Boulder and beat Vaughters about the head and shoulders with my Silca if he abandons the women.
Stef: I'll be there with you. They have a great bunch of riders, and are still getting better all the time.
Gav: I'd love to see Garmin put some of its PR machine behind the women's team too, though I fear that's too much to ask. Vaughters is interesting, of course, because he is involved in the governance side of the men's sport. Someone should grab his ear about women's racing...
Stef: All we can do is keep blogging away, and doing what we know how. Develop riders, be open, and hope that people in places of power take the sport forward.
Gav: For sure. Build it, they come.
Okay, I should probably let you go. This was super fun, hopefully we can do it again at some point soon!
Stef: Defo, I'm always around online, so look forward to chatting.
Gav: Ciao for now!
Stef: Ciao! Thanks for the chat.
Interview by Jen See.
Photo: On the Drops