A vision for cycling: Monique Hanley interview (part II)

Sean Lee Columnist

By , Sean Lee is a Roar Expert

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    In part one of The Roar’s interview with Monique Hanley, the indefatigable chair of Cycling Australia’s Women’s Commission outlined some of the problems facing women’s cycling today and offered her take on what needs to be done to increase the profile of the sport.

    We begin part two of the interview with a curly little hypothetical. If Hanley could step into UCI supremo Brian Cookson’s shoes for a day and was offered the chance to make just one change for the betterment of women’s cycling, what would it be?

    “I guess it would be ensuring live telecast of all women’s racing ‘owned’ by the UCI. This would mean the entire world cup series and of course all categories at the world championships, most importantly the team time trial, the only chance where major sponsors of women can be shown to a world wide audience.

    “At the world championships, networks would have to sign the agreement to commit showing live telecast of all women’s categories, or else they don’t get the rights.

    “Women’s cycling needs to be treated as a product that needs investment for five to ten years before you start seeing the real returns. I know it is hard to do these days, but you can’t turn things around without a long term commitment.”

    While Hanley is encouraged that the UCI have committed to one hour highlights packages for each of next year’s world cup rounds, she ultimately believes that it is not enough.

    “Live coverage is the bomb. A one hour highlights package would be okay if you didn’t have twitter or social media to provide ‘unseen’ highlights. From an Aussie perspective we are prepared to stay up until 2am to watch tweets on any cycling, and by the time the highlights package is ready we are more likely to be at work sipping our third coffee trying to stay awake.”

    There is little doubt that increased television coverage would have a positive effect on women’s cycling, but networks are reluctant to broadcast shows or events they think won’t rate. And who can blame them?

    They need to make money to survive and investing in something that might not convert into ratings is a big ask.

    And yet, with greater exposure who knows what might happen?

    If the glitz and glamour of women’s tennis can capture the imagination, what about the grittiness of women’s cycling?

    The rivalry between Anna Meares and Victoria Pendleton has been a fantastic draw card for track cycling. They race hard and they always race to win. It makes for great television.

    But lingering in the background is the misconception that women’s cycling, especially on the road lacks the depth to provide a really exciting contest.

    Katrin Garfoot and Ruth Corset dominated the National Road Series (NRS) here in Australia this year sharing six of nine races while internationally Marianne Vos has won five of the last seven road racing world cups.

    But according to Hanley, the results only tell half the story.

    “If you get a chance to watch a highlights package of a world cup race, you will see that they are just like a great Classics race. The best are isolated but they don’t just sit around waiting for Vos to out sprint them, they attack the crap out of each other. Vos just happens to be a truly outstanding talent, but there is never a guarantee of her success. She can, and has, been beaten. Just look at the world championships from 2007-2011 where she finished second five years in a row.

    “The NRS this year was full of aggressive racing with some cracker breakaways that featured neither Garfoot nor Corset. While they might have claimed the overall of each Tour, they did not dominate the race scenes.”

    In fact Hanley is full of praise for the NRS, recognising its potential to become one of the best domestic competitions in the world.

    “The NRS is this wonderful, rapidly evolving development machine that will soon become a series to rival any nation in the world. I have no doubt we will start getting overseas riders applying to join our domestic teams in the coming years.

    “The potential is there, it just needs some further assistance to help strengthen the teams, bring in some more sponsors, and ensure there are development series in each state and territory underpinning and providing a future source for teams to recruit talent from. Having the coverage through SBS is vital for the future success.”

    It is a glowing endorsement for the series but its survival is dependant on, not only media support and sponsorship, but a constant flow of new talent entering its ranks, a problem which Hanley recognises.

    “Retaining young women in cycling is challenging. The transition from junior (U17) women into senior ranks is a massive step. Asking a 16 year old to line-up against women and then race distances more than twice they have raced at before is a mammoth ask. Combine this with final years of high school, becoming independent and away from mum and dad, and all the other experiences on offer at that age means we lose a lot of our talent.

    “We need to change the goal posts, reduce the pressure to perform and succeed, introduce a supportive team based environment, and just keep young women happy enough to ride their bike.

    “We experimented with this through cycling Victoria’s Women’s Development Squad which we would like to continue and expand in 2014. Fingers crossed we can source some sponsors to assist!”

    The important thing for Hanley is that young women starting out in the sport today find the right support and enjoy the journey.

    “Have fun on your bike (and) join a club that is inclusive and welcoming to women. If you decide to race, have a go – don’t just sit in! It is more fun off the front. (Also) find a mentor and stick with them because in cycling everyone has an answer to every issue and they can often conflict. Just find someone you can trust and stick with what they say.”

    It is basic advice, but vital if the cycling world is to produce eager and ambitious young women racers.

    Success grows success but being inspired by Marianne Vos or Anna Meares is not enough.

    Support networks need to be in place to encourage and nurture the new talent coming through while cycling as a whole still needs to experience a seismic culture shift before women will feel truly valued by their chosen sport.

    But thanks to the tireless work of people such as Monique Hanley, attitudes are beginning to change.

    In many ways Hanley is a pioneer, fighting and scrapping for the sport she loves, creating pathways and forcing improvements as she goes and cycling is the better for it.

    So what point would Hanley like to see cycling reach in the future?

    “The vision would be something like this: a sport that treats women fairly, has strong representation in participation in all categories, is accessible to all audiences through excellent tv/online coverage of both women and men, is a vibrant and progressive sport that is also commercially sustainable, and where decision makers represent a true reflection of our society, including women as well as cultural and linguistically diverse communities. Aaaaahhhhh…..”

    Aaaahhh indeed.

    The Roar would like to thank Monique Hanley for the time and effort she put in to answering our questions.