Sexism and Shame - Our Mixed Support of Women's Cycling

Sexism and shame - our mixed support of women’s cycling

Evan Wedsworth


Pinarello, one of the most upscale bike manufacturers, recently released a slew of laughably insensitive ads to showcase their new electric-assist road bike, the Nytro.  Like some 1950s commercial for vacuums, they used openly condescending language towards women. The sexy new “eRoad” bike (which handles like a “real” Pinarello according to Pinarello themselves) would ostensibly allow women to keep up with their boyfriends, a feat previously “impossible.”  The backlash was swift, severe, and unequivocal. The cycling community was quick to condemn and satirize Pinarello. On the section of their website promoting the Nytro the top comment was, “For girls who can’t keep up, right? This is lame and so is your communications person.” However, although we were quick to correct Pinarello, we as cyclists have been slow to support women’s cycling as much as it needs, and I hope our response to the Nytro signals a change in the wind.  

As a community I think we deserve a pat on the back for letting bike companies know we won’t hold with such prejudice, and as consumers we’ll take our money elsewhere.  But it’s easy to denounce companies and corporations, faceless as they are. Especially in online comments, our weapon of choice is shame---an easily accessible, morally righteous tool perfect for attacking just the sort of misogynistic faux pas Pinarello committed.  In shaming a company we not only highlight their errors but also capture the high ground. Such an approach requires us to dehumanize the object of our scorn (again, easily done when we’re dealing with a company). The exchange is polar: we’re right, Pinarello’s wrong, full stop.  And it feels good. We struck a blow to backwards, condescending chauvinism.

Most of the time, however, the waters are murkier.  When Jess Varnish accused former technical director Shane Sutton of cutting her from the elite funding program for sexist reasons, telling her to “go on and get on having a baby,” the forces were divided.  Some rallied to Varnish, others behind Sutton, notably Sir Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy. Although many of Suttons supporters made levelheaded comments (Sir Hoy restricted his statement to Sutton’s coaching abilities, refusing to speculate on his character) there was nevertheless the predictable response any woman enjoys if she accuses a man of sex discrimination: ridicule.  After an investigation Sutton was fired, but Varnish is now, 18 months later, bringing a lawsuit against British Cycling for “sex discrimination, detriment suffered from whistleblowing, victimization, and unfair dismissal.”  The organization has been, according to Varnish and her team, dragging its feet and inconsistent with its private versus public statements. An independent investigator concluded British Cycling’s case had been “sanitised,” (though Sutton published a long draft disputing the investigations findings with evidence of his own).   

As in most sex discrimination cases we’re in the realm of “he said, she said.”  Where we align ourselves depends more on how we feel about each person, or sexism in general, and less on concrete evidence.  With Pinarello, the ads were there for all to see and judge. With Varnish (or any other female athlete coming forward against similar treatment) things are more circumstantial.  Cue the shaming. Besides the baby comment, Sutton allegedly told Varnish that her “ass [was] too big” to be in an Olympic team sprint---this was followed by Varnish saying, “I’ve got a list of comments as long as my arm about my figure and it’s not right.”  Given the importance of power-to-weight, cyclists are particularly susceptible to body dysmorphia and shaming a female cyclist for looking fat is an easy dig from armchair commentators.    

This is exactly the wrong precedent we need to set.  By ridiculing and dismissing a woman when she speaks out against unequal treatment we only make it easier for the next woman to stay quiet.  Without them we’ll never know the scale of the problem, and without knowing the scale we’ll never fix it.

Unfortunately, Varnish’s example is distressingly typical.  Anyone familiar with pro cycling knows the women labor under a heavier weight than the men.  Minimal salaries, unequal prize money, lack of tv interest, lack of sponsorship money, lack of support in general.  Granted, this is changing, but it’s by no means eradicated.

In an article written in February 2017, PezCycling and The Outer Line shed some light on the horrid conditions some women put up with to try and make it as pros.  As they say, “Rather than being rare exceptions, abusive behavior and rampant harassment actually define the standard working conditions faced by many women racing today.”  Teams and directors routinely change riders’ contracts on a whim, often going so far as to charge them expenses for traveling to races, food, and even gear broken during a race (one woman was charged 2000 euros for crashing a sponsored wheelset in a race).  Wages go unpaid years after. Training camps sound more vindictive hazing ritual than team-building exercise with women feeling fat-shamed if they don’t perform. Their meals are restricted---even on hard training days---so they will drop weight. Translators are found so the woman understand verbal tirades against them.  In one particularly egregious episode a woman decided to quit the team altogether after receiving so much verbal abuse from one directeur sportif, but before she could leave, the DS presented her---in front of the entire team---with a fake penis mounted to a plaque. It was her “award”, the DS said, “because she was the first woman on the team he made cry.”    

This is far, far worse than a few idiotic ads.  Pinarello’s marketing blunder is small potatoes compared to these women’s miserable reality.  And yet, as far as I can tell, the Nytro is much better known, much more viral, than reports of abuse and psychological manipulation.  

As fans and consumers we wield a certain amount of power.  Social media makes it easier than ever for us to talk to governing bodies, manufacturers, and teams.  If we choose to we can exert tremendous force onto cycling to fit itself to our vision, just as we did with Pinarello.  As a group we made a statement to bike manufacturers that discrimination should never be used to sell bikes. Women’s cycling as a whole deserves the same stance: we shouldn’t support a system that abuses and discriminates against women.  Not only is this degrading and unjust, but women’s cycling, being less established than men’s, is a good opportunity for us to try a new, better format for pro cycling. Much has been made over the lack of a women’s Tour de France and the pittance that is Le Course, but instead of copying the men’s WorldTour why not strive for something more sensical?  A calendar of races with a yearlong narrative, for instance? Or test some kind of revenue sharing system? Maybe even a league that would shelter teams from the whims of private sponsorship? Degrading women keeps the sport from innovating and reaching its potential.

 In a statement following the mixed response to her whistleblowing, Varnish said, “I wanted to shine a light on the culture of fear at British Cycling.”  We need to do the same on all of women’s cycling, both to improve the sport and to rectify acute inequality. Shaming Pinarello may have been effective, but shame in general is a harsh tool.  In shaming someone, we do ourselves the disservice of forgetting they’re human, with all the attendant complexities. Instead, we need to present logical, well-rounded arguments that refute the sexism ingrained in pro cycling.  Shaming also alienates, and the fact of the matter is that change will come faster if we win over team directors, organizers, and officials.

With Pinarello’s ads, we did pretty well.  But we can do better.

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