RACERS WITHOUT BARRIERS
The special relationship between female pros and the fans
The memory of that rainy, windy and unusually cold day in the heart of the Basque Country remains vivid. It was 9 June, 2013, and the last stage of that year’s Emakumeen Bira, the most important women’s road race in Spain. A day of epic racing. I was there with a friend to enjoy the race as a fan. After the final podium ceremony, we went to meet the charismatic and likeable Evelyn Stevens, third placed in GC.
We had been chatting with her before the stage and she quickly recognised us. A few seconds later I found myself accepting a big, silver, sparkly cup in my hands. “This is for you guys. Thanks for your support.” I could barely hear myself saying “I don’t have words for this, Evie.” Evelyn Stevens, current Hour Record holder, twice Olympian, multiple Giro stage winner and Worlds medalist had given us her trophy as a gift, just hours after we first met her.
Isn’t that amazing? The thing is, women’s cycling is full of such stories between the riders and the fans, stories that would seem rather unlikely in the much bigger, highly professional and star-populated world of elite male racers.
This special relationship between fans and riders is one of the most recurring topics when people discuss the future of women’s cycling. Everyone wants the sport to become more professional, grow and have higher salaries, but would that distance the fans? It’s perhaps a selfish thought but it’s precisely this closeness that makes women’s racing so special to its fans and it’s sad to think that it might disappear if the women’s sport ever becomes as big as it deserves to be.
Female professional cyclists don’t earn a lot and few can make a living solely from racing. Most have another job, others are still students. And all of them ride a bike because they love it – it’s their passion. However, their peculiar situation makes them aware that cycling isn’t everything. They don’t live in a cycling bubble – they are smart, educated, have several interests. Most of all, to quote the words of Wiggle High5’s twice-in-a-row French TT champion Audrey Cordon-Ragot, “They are not in the star system”. That makes many of them great people to have a conversation with. This is why fans tend to find it so gratifying to meet them, whether virtually or in person. On Twitter you’ll find several enthusiastic fans who have dozens of pro women riders as followers. The coverage of many women’s races is poor, so cyclists themselves often have to rely on well-informed fans to know what’s happening in some of them. Other times they simply follow them because they are interested in knowing their thoughts – the role and voice of the fans in women’s cycling is more important than you think. This has happened to some of my colleagues, and also to me. It’s lovely.
I recall now the times when I was a teenager and tried to attend as many (men’s) races as possible. Obviously I hardly knew anything about women’s cycling back then. Most kids would try to approach the big guns. However, I was always meeting the neo-pros. Friendly, accessible, with no people around – it was so much easier to have a chat with them, to ask for an autograph or a photo. Many loved the fact that a kid recognised and wanted to speak to them. Of course, I was delighted at that.
In hindsight, that reminds me of what I see in women’s cycling now. The difference is that, in this case, it’s the top names of the sport who are so accessible. If you ever attend a women’s race and feel like it, go to meet the riders and don’t hesitate to say a polite ‘Hi!’ if you see them around in a relaxed, accessible mood. You’ll probably go back home with a huge smile.
Saul Miguel is an occasional race commentator for Spanish Eurosport and a hugely enthusiastic fan of both women's racing and cyclo-cross