British Cycling, women's cycling and Brian Cookson

It's been a hard week to be a British women's cycling fan, still waiting for a UCI statement on the debacle that was the Giro della Toscana, then reading Brian Cookson's latest comments on women's cycling, and then seeing the British women's team for the World Championships. Here's what's frustrating.

Brian Cookson's Guardian interview

Brian Cookson is campaigning to be the UCI President, and women's cycling has been something he's been talking a lot about on his blog. I've had some feelings about this, because he's clearly changed his views by 180º degrees on issues like minimum wage, tv coverage etc, but at least he's been referencing things like the Le Tour Entier manifesto and campaign. But then there was this interview with journalist Donald McRae, where women's cycling came up.

That confidence is not shared by many leading British women riders who emerged during his tenure. One of Cookson's key presidential aims – to develop women's cycling – is undermined by glaring failures in this area in Britain. When Nicole Cooke retired this year she repeated her dissatisfaction with the way British Cycling had stymied opportunities for women.

"Nicole has her point-of-view on lots of things and she didn't always see eye-to-eye with British Cycling," Cookson says. "But we went out of our way to support her in the best way we could. Elite athletes are interesting, aren't they? They have personalities that are sometimes difficult to handle – and Nicole is one of those people who has a particular view of things which she's absolutely entitled to."

I find this really disturbing. He doesn't comment on anything Cooke said in her statement, or since, but he implies she's "difficult". Well, it's no secret that Cooke has been described as difficult or spiky - but then so have Brad Wiggins, or Mark Cavendish - but as one of the most successful road cyclists of all time, winning pretty much everything that matters, including becoming the first rider to win the Olympic and World road race golds in the same year, she has more than proved that she knows what she's talking about when it comes to cycling. Read the linked retirement statement, if you haven't already, there are some really serious issues she's raising, so to dismiss them with a criticism of her personality is really not on. But it continues...

It's disconcerting how many other prominent women – Victoria Pendleton, Emma Pooley and Lizzie Armitstead – have also criticised British Cycling. "That's true. But if you speak to Laura Trott or Jo Rowsell you'll hear another view."

So it's not just Cooke he's dismissing, it's the most successful British road women we've had. And I have no words for someone who can give the views of track cyclists as a reason we shouldn't answer road cyclists' concerns.

The interview continues, and gets to the idea of a women's Team Sky. A lot of women's cycling fans, and British cycling fans were really disappointed that when Sky was launched in 2010, there was no women's team - especially as David Brailsford had been running the very successful British Halfords Bikehut team for part of the 2008 season, and we'd seen how well the Cervélo Test Team had launched with a women's team alongside their men's, and teams like HTC-Highroad had both teams.

We all know how British Cycling - a publicly-funded body - was the key driver for Sky, so why couldn't a women's team happen?

Didn't he and Brailsford miss a trick in not persuading Sky to fund a women's team? "You're absolutely right. I pushed very hard for it to happen. But I'm not the only voice and ultimately you have to go by what Sky want to do and the performance advice at that time. My view is we should be trying a lot harder to have a British-based women's team."

I have no idea how hard Cookson pushed personally, but what jumped out at me was the idea that performance advice suggested there shouldn't be a women's team. So I had a look at the results of the top 4 British women in 2008 and 2009, when Sky was being planned - Cooke, Pooley, Armitstead and Sharon Laws, and here's what I found:

  • 1 Olympic gold medal, 1 Olympic silver medal; 2 World Championships gold medals
  • World Cups: wins in Trofeo Binda, GP Plouay and Montréal
  • In the Grand Tours - Tour de l'Aude: 1 stage win, 4 other podium spots, 4th, 5th & 6th GC; Grand Bouclé: 1st & 3rd GC, 2 stage wins & 4 other podiums; 4th GC Giro Donne & 2 podiums
  • Other stage races: GC win Giro Trentino, Tour de Bretagne, 6 stage wins, 5 other podium spots

(If you want to have a closer look, here are the CQ results for Nicole Cooke in 2008 and 2009, Emma Pooley in 2008 and 2009, Lizzie Armitstead in 2009 (she was a trackie in 2008), and Sharon Laws in 2008 (she had time out because of injuries, and focused on MTB for 2009).)

This really frustrates me, because what on earth could have given anyone an idea from that performance that a women's team was a bad idea? I can understand why he's blaming Sky the company, but not the riders' performance!

***

2013 Road World Championships

So maybe Cookson was having a bad day when he was interviewed? There's always the possibility he said a lot more that didn't fit into the interview, or was cut by copy editors. But what's British Cycling's record with the women looking like this year.

Well, if you follow our women's cycling coverage, you'll know it's been frustrating in the biggest international road competitions this year. At the European u23 and junior road championships, where the u23 winner gets an additional spot at the Worlds, Great Britain sent seven u23 men, but no women for the road race or ITT, in either the u23 or junior categories. This is confusing, as last year GB had the Junior World Road Race and ITT Champions in Lucy Garner and Elinor Barker, and British junior riders did really well in the Junior Energiewacht Tour (won by Amy Hill) and Junior Omloop van Borsele stage races.

And then there's the Worlds Selection. Great Britain qualified for six spots, but have decided to only take four riders for the road race (and no rider for the ITT at all) - Lizzie Armitstead, Katie Colclough, Lucy Garner and Nikki Harris. This is strange - we already have more British riders out there with their trade teams for the Team Time Trial, and while Armitstead is a really good contender for this race, and climbing brilliantly, and Colclough and Garner great domestiques, I have no idea why they wouldn't take Sharon Laws, who not only rode with Armitstead for many years, and specialises in the hilly domestique early attacks that will be useful in Toscana, she's also climbing better than anyone other than Armitstead. She had a lot of time out this year, after breaking her back in the spring, but she was 19th overall in the Route de France and 23rd GC in the Tour de l'Ardèche, while racing for her team-mates (the highest-placed Brit in RdF and 2nd highest behind Armitstead in Ardèche).

Nikki Harris, in contrast, who is already preparing for the 2013/4 cyclocross season, only rode 3 UCI races this year, and came 49th in l'Ardèche. It is no criticism of Harris, but looking at her results and experience in the domestic and international peloton this year, I wonder why she's been taken over Laws. And why is she in there when we've left two spots empty? Look at results from Emma Trott's, or the Wiggle Honda trio of Jo Rowsell, Dani King and Laura Trott - or the riders who've done well in the British domestic hilly races like the Cheshire Classic and Curlew Cup - like Karla Boddy, Emma Grant, or Laura Massey, they all have as good reasons for going as Harris... and then there's Hannah Barnes, who had a stellar year destroying the British crit and sprint scene, and who proved she can get over hills, and win against international riders, at the Rás na mBan. She wouldn't necessarily make it to the end at Toscana, but damn, she'd be fun chasing the early attacks - or making them! It's not an issue of "Leave Nikki, take Hannah" - it's more why on earth are we leaving the other 2 spots empty when there are riders with as-good results around.

This isn't the first time British Cycling have made strange choices about Sharon Laws - they left her off the Olympic squad last year, and they've obviously used some criteria that doesn't weight results well. But the reason it's good to take riders to these competitions aren't just because cycling is a team sport, so it makes no sense not to send a full team (especially as we always send a full complement of men) but it also gives riders opportunities - as u23s and juniors to know what it's like racing in a full peloton, with the riders they'll be facing for years to come, and for all riders, to catch the eye of trade teams. And it's also a way of showcasing our teams on the World stage - and on international tv! It says that we support our riders - especially riders like Laws who have given sterling service to Great British teams over the years - and gives them something to aim for. Teams like the Netherlands, Italy, the USA or Sweden would never leave spots unfilled on their Worlds squads - and smaller cycling nations like Norway are happy to send their riders - so why can't Great Britain?

***

I really want to believe that Brian Cookson is sincere when he says he's committed to women's cycling, and as UCI president will make changes. I want to believe his words are from his heart, and not just electioneering, when he blogs and tweets - but I look at his easy dismissal of riders' views, and the actions of British Cycling to support women riders, and it's no wonder I have doubts. I want to think we have a bright future - but it's really no wonder I'm cynical, when I look at actions against words.

***

If you're wondering where Emma Pooley is, apparently she's focusing on her PhD, so chose not to ride. Good luck with the writing-up, Emma!

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