Sunday, 29 January 2017

 “British Cycling is sexist” Cooke tells MPs

Former Olympic and World Road Champion  Nicole Cooke has told the Parliamentary inquiry  investigating  “possible wrong doing” in British Cycling that she is sceptical of Team Sky’s explanations for the contents of the Jiffy bag and Wiggins use of TUEs allowing him the use of an otherwise banned drug.

But what shocked MPs was her insistence that British Cycling is sexist, and has always provided a disproportionate amount of support to men than to women.

In so saying, she has re-ignited the embers of the fire British Cycling hoped they had doused last year, when an investigation found ex-British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton guilty of using sexist language towards Olympic team sprinter Jess Varnish.

And it begs the question, are the chickens at last coming home to roost?

For here is the great irony.   When Cooke fulfilled her dream and carried off that historic gold medal in the 2008 Olympic road race at Beijing she had done so in the absence of any cohesive plan for women’s road racing.

 And yet it was this performance which  launched British Cycling on its famous medal winning trajectory at that Olympic Games which has brought cycling £millions in Lottery funding and £millions in Sky  sponsorship. It led to the creation of Team Sky but the there was no such deal for the women, despite the explosion in talent here in the UK

Even BC acknowledged that Cook’s victory in Beijing was down to her own hard work,  enterprise and training perfected over the years, and had very little to do with British Cycling’s still evolving World Class Performance Plan which was designed for  and has underpinned the track team’s successes this Millennium.

For whatever the undoubted merits of the Plan - fashioned around the track because of the greater medal winning opportunities to be had there than on the road - it was nevertheless Cooke’s road victory at Beijing which provided the spark for the British track team’s unprecedented gold medal haul which elevated British Cycling to number 1 UK Olympic sport.

When Cooke gifted British Cycling with a unique double two months later by winning the world road title, the national body once again bathed in reflected glory. 

Now, here we are, more than eight years on, and still women’s road cycling is the poor relation to the men’s.

Cooke’s claims reinforce those already made by the current crop of British internationals - Olympic medallists Lizzie Deignan and Emma Pooley who say the problems go all the way up to the UCI.

Cooke has never been afraid of expressing an opinion, never afraid to mince words with the national body or fellow riders if something irked her.  She was dubbed  “ Her Majesty” by her compatriots!

I recall this self-assured immensely talented 15-year-old schools champion after her victory in Milton Keynes confidently   declare her aim was to win the Olympic title one day.  She knew what she wanted.

She will tell you - is reminding us now - she did it her way because the national body was always more concerned with the men.

British Cycling insists this has changed now. Now they have a strategy to encourage women in the sport.

And they report that in the past seven years 254,000 women have taken up cycling.

British Cycling now has 20,000 female members – up from 3000 in 2008.

They also have 1,100 female coaches.

This is all to the good. But for grass roots to develop they need something to inspire them, which was the story, fed Sky when they first backed British Cycling in 2008 and so Team Sky was born.

British Cycling should show some initiative and twist the arm of their new backers - the bank HSBC – UK - and get them to put in a few £m by sponsoring a British professional women’s road team the equal of the men’s outfit at Sky. 

Until then they do that, the Tour of Britain will remain the torch bearer in the struggle for equality in women’s road cycling.  They had the foresight to introduce a women’s professional Tour of Britain in 2014.