It is the oldest and most prestigious professional cycling race in the world, but the Tour de France shuns female pro-cyclists. For the last four years, in an attempt to give female cyclists a presence, break down gender stereotypes and encourage equality in sport, a 13-strong women’s cycling team – Donnons Des Elles au Vélo J-1 – has completed all 21 stages one day ahead of the men.
Last year, Škoda got on board to amplify the message, but this year it went one step further. The car manufacturer teamed up with cycling royalty, Dame Sarah Storey, to create a cycling academy to coach a team of five women to ride with the J-1 team at this year’s Tour de France.
“There is a disparity in the world of cycling between the men and women, and now it’s time to act,” says Škoda’s communication manager, Lisa Kirkbright, who has spearheaded The Škoda Driver’s Seat Initiative (DSI) Women’s Academy. “The aim is to create a pathway to elite road cycling for women, giving a leg up to those who are committed.”
“Currently, the pathway to elite level is more difficult for women: there’s one female race to three men’s races, so there’s less opportunity for them to get their rankings up. As a result, the number of women racing at elite level is only 10 per cent,” she says. “Added to this, there’s a disparity in prize money and media coverage. Škoda wants to help girls get to the top by giving them the full armoury needed to tackle the male dominated world of cycling.”
Škoda takes action
Female riders between the ages of 17 and 25 were invited to apply to the Škoda DSI Cycling Academy and 37 shortlisted cyclists were invited to Lee Valley Velopark for the selection day, in June.
“They were properly beasted by Sarah,” says Kirkbright. “They did a 12 minute endurance test, measuring power and cadence; a three minute power output and cadence test; a six second peak power test and then two flying laps on the outdoor track to look at bike handling and position.”
Some of the hopefuls were cyclists, some were race cyclists, some triathletes and one had an England cap for netball, but all of them had a passion to make it into the elite arena. “We narrowed it down to five so that we could really focus on them,” says Kirkbright. “Sarah was their mentor and they received media and social media training, and coaching in everything they need to know to be a modern athlete, such as self promotion and gaining sponsorship.”
Storey’s mentorship is second to none: as Britain’s longest serving international athlete, she’s gearing up for her eighth Paralympic Games (the first four were for swimming). After giving birth to her second child in 2017, she won two golds at the 2018 Paracycling World Championships and two golds and a silver at the 2019 Track World Championships.
An added bonus of the programme is that if any of the chosen riders show sufficient potential, they will be offered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the Storey Racing team. Launched in 2017 by Sarah and Barney Storey, this currently comprises 12 riders, from Youth A to senior level, as well as three paracyclists, across the disciplines of road, track, time trials and cyclocross.
Storey says that Škoda’s aims match with her own: “Škoda is a strong advocate for gender equality in professional cycling and I’m proud to support them. The Škoda DSI Cycling Academy is about promoting women in our sport, creating opportunities and clearing a path to race on a professional level.”
Škoda will wait to see the impact of this year’s campaign before deciding the future of the academy, but Kirkbright is hopeful it will continue in the future years. “We want to deliver something good and purposeful, which will hopefully continue in future years,” she says. “Other sports are changing faster than cycling and gender inequality has no place in the Tour de France. As the England women’s football team has proven, women’s sport is exciting and watchable. It shouldn’t be treated as second best.”