AIS Women’s road programme scrapped: a worrying trend

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Australia's Amanda Spratt (right) and Shara Gillow. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

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Some very bad news made the headlines yesterday – no, not the news we’re going to have to sit through Oprah Winfrey interviewing Lance Armstrong.

Rather, it’s the announcement that the Australian Institute of Sport’s entire women’s road racing programme is to be abolished due to lack of funding.

The programme has been credited with bringing on riders such as Amanda Spratt, Sara Carrigan and Anna Wilson but will now be completely abandoned.

The lack of financial resources for AIS forced the Jayco-AIS team to abandon its Continental status late last year, running instead as a ‘World Academy’ squad, meaning the team avoids having to pay the UCI registration fee that applies to all Continental teams.

Head coach Martin Barras did his best to put something of a positive spin on the matter but told Cyclingnews that the decision to now scrap the AIS development team and to run it as a national team was largely a result of these cuts.

“It’s more than a funding decision, but it is tied up to it,” he told Cyclingnews.

“We’re already halfway there because the program has been merged with the national team program for the last 10 or 12 years but where we used to run an AIS team as the elite international development team, we now run a national team with more flexible selection.”

What it means though, in reality, is that there will now be fewer places for young developing female riders to get access to the kind of equipment and coaching expertise that can help them progress up through to the pro ranks.

Women’s cycling had some good news last week however, when it was announced that the UCI had decided to increase the prize money for the women’s World Championships road race, so that it will now be equivalent to the men.

“The UCI management committee this week approved a proposal for equal prize money for men and women at all UCI World Championships,” the UCI said.

“Coming into effect from January 2013, this decision applies to all of cycling’s disciplines with the exception of the road team time-trial.”

“The [decision] is a simple but very important step forward in our effort to guarantee a healthy and fair future for our sport,” UCI president Pat McQuaid said.

Yet to many it all looks like the UCI is merely opting for a grand gesture rather than providing anything of real substance.

Sure, the winner of next year’s women’s World’s will see her pay cheque as having substance, but how about outlining a plan to bring more women into cycling and racing, to bring in more sponsors, to increase the number of pro teams and to first save the existing women’s road races that are under threat, and then to encourage new races to emerge?

In truth, there seems to be precious little of any trickle-down effect from the wealth amassed by the UCI through the ever-increasing popularity of its male World Tour. Not to junior racing worldwide, nor to women’s cycling.

It should also be noted this is a UCI that became very successful in the era when Hein Verbruggen at the wheel, with a certain Lance Armstrong in the passenger seat.

Certain people made a heck of a lot of money in that era and still are, in fact, while the grassroots of the sport, and the women’s side, have been at best neglected and at worst ignored.

Pro women racers have lost the Grande Boucle, also known as the women’s Tour de France (though the last edition, run in 2009, was only four days long and had just 66 riders, so not very grande at all), and may have raced the last edition of the Women’s tour of Italy, known as the Giro d’Italia Femminile. The previous organizer has pulled out and unless a new one is found, the race will be cancelled.

There also used to be a women’s version of Milano-Sanremo – the Primavera Rosa – but this kicked the bucket too, ending in 2005.

‘Why should we care?’ some may think. ‘Surely a race, and a sport, must live and die on its own popularity?’

Well I agree, but only if that sport has been given a fair chance to prove itself, which women’s racing never has. There’s been too much chauvinism, too many presumptive attitudes that have deemed that ‘people don’t like women’s racing’.

But surely, along with some men (me included), women like women’s racing? Are there not enough female cyclists out there to make it all viable for sponsors?

Well, let’s change that. Women, in case we need reminding, make up 50% or so of the world’s population. That’s a huge chunk of untapped potential – and untapped bike sales.

Surely it’s better for the sport to make a real attempt to attract more women into the fold, which could give the business and the actual sport a substantial boost, than to say ‘well, what can you do?’ and wash our hands of it all?

Much like any real and viable effort against doping, any real effort to encourage more women to cycle and then to race needs a concerted effort, starting with the UCI actually coming out to fight the good fight, to support national programmes such as the AIS one that’s just been cut, and to liase with pro teams and organisers to get them on board too.

There are some incredible female cyclists out there: one, the Netherlands’ Marianne Vos, some even consider to be as good as if not actually better, pound for pound, than a certain Eddy Merckx. She wins everywhere, any way, on anything.

There are others too, and they’ve fought hard to get where they are – in many cases in spite of the hierarchy and entrenched attitudes within the sport.

If those with the purse strings would really put their money where their mouths are we might now have not just one (ailing) Grand Tour for women, have one or more women’s classics, and not have a deceased AIS development team.

Many credit Lance Armstrong with bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the sport. Just think of the numbers we could bring if we all worked together to make the sport appeal more to women.

[Correction: Article updated to link to quotes from Cyclingnews]

Lee Rodgers is an independent pro rider riding for the Crank Punk Coaching Systems-Lapierre Cycling Project, and is a freelance journalist.
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