Australian Michael Matthews has just missed out on a podium finish at his maiden Tour of Flanders, won by unfancied Italian Alberto Bettiol.
When Monique Hanley talks about cycling, it pays to listen. Even the most cursory glance at her achievements reveals a women with peerless credentials and an unquestionable credibility.
On the bike she has ridden across Canada, chased the Tour de France solo, competed in the infamous Race Across America and forged a successful road and track career.
Off the bike she chairs Cycling Australia’s Women’s Commission and Cycling Victoria’s Women and Girls’ Commission. She is also an executive board member of Cycling Victoria and has held positions on the Membership, Participation and Marketing Commission and the Strategic Plan sub-committee.
She is a tireless worker who has taken multitasking to a new level.
Her passion and love for the sport of cycling, especially in the advancement of women’s cycling, is second to none; which is why I was more than willing to sit up and take notice when she contacted me with some constructive criticism following one of my recent articles.
But more on that later.
Hanley first came to cycling after falling out of love with basketball.
A number of factors, including being diagnosed with type one diabetes at the age of 19, contributed to her leaving the sport, but it was a throw away line from her doctor that provided the spark that would later ignite her passion for cycling.
“As soon as that happened (ceasing to play basketball) I stacked on weight,” Hanley told The Roar earlier this week.
“I remember my endocrinologist (diabetes specialist) saying to me, ‘you are just one of those people who has to exercise every day for the rest of your life’. It really struck a chord with me.
“I started thinking about what type of exercise I could do sustainably. Cycling was it. I rode recreationally as a kid and always loved it. The best thing about learning to ride again as an adult was the chance to do it and learn how exercise impacts on my type one diabetes at the same time.
“After I gave up basketball I never really considered that I could be a top level athlete again. But when you set goals and achieve them, even as basic as long distance recreation rides, you start to realise that maybe it could be possible.”
“I never knew any elite athlete with diabetes, but that never bothered me. I taught myself everything about managing diabetes for exercise, and this was very empowering. I was driven to trying to achieve the same blood glucose levels in competition that my competitors without diabetes would have.
“I wanted to have the best chance to beat them, and to me that meant an equal blood glucose playing field. That drove a lot of learning and also, by default, a lot of success too.”
Basketball’s loss was definitely cycling’s gain, as Hanley was not content to just ride and race.
Having already stared down the challenges conspiring to prevent her becoming an elite level athlete, she felt compelled to tackle the challenges facing women’s cycling also.
“In 2010 I was pregnant with my first child but was still riding in the bunch. We would sit around afterwards drinking coffee and complain about the state of women’s cycling.
“I realised that someone needed to do something about it. Looking around, I knew that I had some time off the bike coming up, so I figured I might as well have a go. I nominated for the board of Cycling Victoria with a commitment to changing the situation for women’s cycling.”
“I was pleasantly surprised to get in but didn’t realise how much I would enjoy playing a part in the strategic direction of cycling in Victoria, not just for women but for everyone. I was asked to chair the Women and Girls’ Commission, which I have run for three years now.
“Two years ago Victoria started lobbying Cycling Australia to establish a Women’s Commission. At the 2012 AGM the CA board agreed, and this was established in early 2013. I was appointed Chair.”
Holding such important positions within Australia’s cycling structure and also having raced at a high level, Hanley is acutely aware of the barriers that women’s cycling needs to overcome in its bid to gain some sort of parity with the men’s side of the sport.
When quizzed about the biggest challenges facing women’s cycling today, she quickly nominates three areas of concern: an under representation of women in decision making, a lack of media coverage and the retention of talent within the sport.
“We need to improve the diversity of those in decision making positions. We need boards with real representation of women, and not just one token female,” she said.
“The evidence is out there: diverse boards are more financially successful and they also enable better decisions to be made. Studies have shown that you need at least 1/3 of each gender to be represented.
“All UCI commissions should be striving to get more females into leadership positions and encouraging them to join commissions, and the UCI should mandate minimum representation targets. We introduced minimum representation targets into our bylaws in Cycling Victoria. It is possible.
“We need to better supply material to media sources about the stories behind women’s cycling, and we need to show live coverage of women’s cycling either online or on TV.
“We need to train our women on the importance of this, and help our teams become more professional in providing material to media outlets….many of the women’s teams do not have a PR person or budget to supply material so we need to get savvy and teach teams how the media works and how to make it work for them despite budget limitations.
“This is not easy.
“As women have retired from the sport for the most part they have simply disappeared into the ‘real’ world.
“They are likely – as most women are – to be well educated, probably still passionate about cycling, full of experience, and even with a kid or two in tow.
“We need to get this talent and experience back into our sport, and work on retaining those currently racing but thinking about life after the finish line.”
To emphasis this point Hanley quotes some damning statistics.
“We only have one female national coach out of 20 positions and only three national selectors are female out of 26.”
While Hanley is all about promoting women’s cycling and assisting in its development, she is not afraid to pull someone up if she believes they have shown the sport disrespect, even if inadvertently.
It’s part of an education process, one that I was on the end of when I referred to our women cyclists as girls in a recent article.
A quick exchange of messages soon set me straight. My ignorance had been exposed, but rather than feeling chastised, I was grateful and appreciative of Hanley’s criticism.
“Referencing women as girls may not seem like a big deal, but it is. It reflects a culture of sport that never took women’s races seriously. In Victoria we have worked really hard at changing this culture to become more inclusive and welcoming to all, starting at how we treat women.
“Cultural change is not easy, and we have been going hard for three years and still have a long way to go. I hope it will become easier for Cycling Australia and the UCI to follow but I don’t know if they truly understand how big a task it is to change a culture.
“Fortunately, the world outside of cycling has changed, and now in everyday life we can easily recognise when women are not being treated fairly. This helps a lot.
“I know in sport team mates might refer to each other as girls, like you would say ‘the boys from Orica-GreenEDGE’. But we haven’t come from an equal starting point, so using the term ‘girls’ by those who are not team mates comes across as meaning a lot more, unfortunately.
“I know not everyone agrees with me on this one, including some women, but I believe they need to reconsider this. Women deserve to be called women.”
For Hanley it is about respect.
“If the women are U19, then the technical UCI category is junior women. If they are U15 or U17, you could consider calling them girls, but I still prefer junior women and junior men. I like to think of the future of our sport also as our future leaders, and I want to give them the respect they deserve.”
That respect has been hard to find.
“Cycling is a sport that has been run and dominated by men since the year dot, save for a brilliant period around 1945 – 1953, but that is a story for another day. The male dominated culture over the years resulted in women being banned from racing, considered as an after thought, or as a ‘side show’.
“I once competed in a race where the men’s event winner won $1,000 and the female event winner took home $40. No one saw a problem with that, because that was how women were always treated!”
Part two of The Roar’s Monique Hanley interview will be posted next week.