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May the best woman win

VecchioJo goes to the Wiggle Honda Pro Team launch

Women’s cycling is very much on the up if this place is anything to go by. The Wiggle Honda Pro Cycling Team are hosting a press camp at Castel Brando in the Treviso hills of northern Italy at the foot of the Dolomites and not somewhere like a Premier Inn conference room in Havant.

Castel Brando is Quite Posh, in a former life it’s spent 2,000 years or so being a castle and home for Italian nobles and now it’s been restored and converted into an 80 room hotel, with its own funicular railway no less. It’s incredibly grand with massive staircases, lavishly decorated high-vaulted rooms and a warren of corridors to get lost in. A junction off the M27 with easy rail links it is not.

To be fair there are practical reasons for this unfamiliar opulence, most of the Wiggle Honda team are based in mainland Europe so for budget and logistical reasons it makes sense to keep them all over there rather than drag them across the water to the UK to talk to the press, and whilst they’re all in the same place they can do a week of training and morale boosting bonding together in the warm sunshine rather than face the chilly vagaries of English spring weather.

As this is Italy as soon as we arrive there is food and the standard lunch of salad and pasta and cake, I decide I’m not quite worthy enough not to join the table that Mr Colnago himself is on and sit on an empty setting for eight and wait for the chairs to fill with more ordinary people. There is polite and friendly chit-chat with Wiggle staff who have been out here all week manning the training camp and are now a little tired of the daily salad and pasta and cake carousel, lovely though it is.

Refreshments over I wander through several small rooms displaying historical tableaus of the varied past of the hotel with mannequins dressed as monks and suchlike, it’s a bit weird, into the main hall where the 16 strong Wiggle Honda squad are presented in their team kit with all the awkwardness of young women in lycra paraded in front of middle-aged men in normal clothes. It’s a bit weird.

It would be easy to dismiss the team as a bunch of young pretty things chosen just to get cameras happy and splay the sponsors brands scattergun across pixels and print, for they are all young and pretty, and there have already been a couple of casually sexist remarks that are horribly cringingly out of place. It would be all too easy to do all of that were it not for the fact that the Wiggle Hondas won 22 UCI races and had over 50 race wins in its first year. That and the fact that there are three Olympic medalists in the squad, and enough National, European and World champions to dismiss any notions of photogenic fluff.

A simple way of seeing how much women’s cycling has progressed and upped it’s game to be equal in stature to the men’s is to cast an eye over the bikes the Wiggle Honda team are riding. This isn’t last year’s hand-me-down kit, with second tier equipment; the team are all astride top of the range Colnago C59s on Bora Ultra wheels, with colour-coded decals no less. Campagnolo Super Record 11 performs groupset duties with 53/39 chainsets, no girl’s gearing here, and the full compliment of Deda and Fizik components rounds things off with an SRM PowerMeter bolted to the bars. Not so second-hand second division any more then.

Wiggle Honda Pro Cycling Team owner and manager Rochelle Gilmore takes to the mike and we’re given a run-down of the make-up of the team, I’m not sure that was meant to be funny, and the changes from last year’s incredibly successful season made to bolster the depth of the squad and strengthen any weak areas, with specific rider selection according to the abilities and personalities that will blend in with the existing team. There is the usual stuff about Passion and Inspiration, yes, it’s said with a capital letter, but here it actually sounds like they mean it. Women’s cycling is very much A Thing now and the events and races of the last few years have definitely taken it at speed over the tipping point and created a flood of interest and participation.

There’s a sudden switch of subject here and we’re given all the blurb about Wiggle as a brand and a whole bunch of stats that I won’t bore you with right now. Safe to say they have a very big warehouse, stock a lot of brands and are reaching out to new territories, yes, reaching out. As it is 50% of their product goes overseas, with Japan and Australia forming the bulk of that. I didn’t know that. I ponder if certain of their riders are chosen for their nationality and their marketing territory potential as well as their legs. There’s a lot of chat about how Wiggle are Passionate (there’s that word again) about growing female participation in cycling, and as there are twice as many female products in their portfolio since a couple of years ago and women’s sales have more than doubled then as a retailer they would be stupid not to be Passionate about it.

It’s about now that the riders start to look a little bored and study their shoes and the ceiling, and check their nails.

The dhb marketing manager stands up now and takes us through the new product lines in Wiggle’s popular house brand clothing. It’s the second season working with the team and they’ve used their experience and feedback to produce new high performance technical clothing. There are whole new ranges of better kit, with bright new colours, examples are at the back to fondle later with a bag of kit for us to take home. That was a bit weird and felt a bit shoehorned into the team presentation. Never mind.

All that over it’s time to focus on the riders and their aspirations for the coming season. Their amazingly successful 2013 is a hard act to follow but the Giro d’Italia is high up the list, especially as they’re sponsored by big Italian brands Colnago, Campagnolo, Fizik, Deda and Vittoria. The team want to repeat the success of last year’s Route de France and they’re eager to win a World Cup and of course there’s the inaugural Women’s Tour in the UK, that’s pretty bloody important. For lots of reasons.

Each rider has their moment to do a little turn on the microphone whilst their image is projected disturbingly large behind them, as you’d expect they all mention how excited they are about the following season, their aspirations and how great it is that women’s cycling is surfing a wave of popularity. The team are then herded outside and prodded and poked into place by photographers for a whole collection of marketing shots; portraits for websites and postcards and a variety of group poses. At one point Ernesto Colnago would like a picture with all the girls, he is giving them a lot of bikes so I guess he’s allowed, but the sight of an elderly man in a suit surrounded by young girls in tight fitting clothes raises an eyebrow in these delicately aware times.

Whilst they wait their turn in front of the camera the girls sit around and chat trying not to get cold, they look at their phones, they lark about first like good friends and then like good team-mates. It’s obvious that as a team they’ve bonded incredibly well and you can appreciate that when this closeness and understanding gets transferred to a race situation it can only play dividends.

As the photoshoot over-runs riders are cherry-picked off and rushed back into the imposing hotel/castle to do their questions and answers bit, each of the invited journalists has been given a time slot to interview to their preferred rider, as is the way of these things, and the clock is running away fast. Riders get shuffled from seat to seat to answer the same questions again and again. The days of microphones and recorders are long gone, smart phones are simply placed in the middle of the table to capture everything, although the journalist will always have an old-school pen and paper to hand, like a crutch.

I get to talk to some of the riders, and I’m terribly aware of trying not to ask The Same Old Questions although a certain amount of that seems to be required, as a polite way in to other stuff, it is expected, professional riders want to talk about what they’ve done and what they want to do after all. Amy Roberts and Elinor Barker are shepherded towards me and the Dictaphone is turned on. I know this sort of thing is probably a pain in the chamois for any professional cyclist, but it’s an essential part of the job in these media saturated days even if they’d rather be riding their bikes or resting their legs or anything else really, but all of the Wiggle Honda riders are cheerful, polite, eloquent and knowledgeable. Probably long-suffering too.

Amy and Elinor are just twenty but already have a collection of Championship medals between them that would make anyone significantly older pretty proud. Despite their palmares they’re still the youngest riders on the squad and equally honoured and a little scared to be in such company that has such history. It’s massive step up for them, as is the change from their previous track experience to that of racing on the road and the differing demands that makes on leg muscles.

Pleasantries over I throw a bit of a curve ball and ask if they’d prefer to be called girls or ladies or women. In these aching to be seen as correct times each of those terms seems to have some sort of negative or frumpy or dismissive or patronizing connotation to a talented rider. It’s not a thing that happens with male cyclists, but then they tend not to be described as blokes, or men, or boys, or gentlemen, they’re just called cyclists. Plain old riders and cyclists. Which leads to the question as to why female riders can’t just be described as riders as well, and why does there have to be any kind of gender distinction anyway, it’s all just cycling isn’t it? People on bikes.

I ask the two girls, ladies, women, riders and slightly surprisingly they’ve never even thought about it. Oh. They’re not even overly bothered about it. Ah. That’s that discussion scuppered. Can we just call them riders from now on, for that is exactly what they are? Good.

The switch from being a young professional cyclist to being a young person is instant and as soon as they’re relieved of their media roles Amy and Elinor are checking their phones, chatting, laughing and being normal 20 year olds. Next I am shuffled towards Joanna Roswell, Laura Trott and Dani King, where there is no small amount of dry mouthed awe, speaking to people you’ve shouted for on the telly will do that. It’s a bit weird. I thank them.

They all cite the 2012 Olympics as the crucial turning point in women’s cycling, an event where the men’s version mostly involved making sure certain people didn’t win the women’s race was proper balls out racing and noticeably and world-changingly more exciting. Despite all that might have been achieved beforehand leading to slow steady marginal gains, it was this moment that everything suddenly lunged forward. Despite a huge backlog of thrilling women’s track and road and cyclo-cross racing that preceded it the spectacle of Vos and Armitstead racing tooth and nails in the rain irrevocably proved that women’s racing can perform alongside men’s and can be grittier and more exciting. Having this play out on the world stage was the flashpoint that grabbed the public’s attention and shoved their faces in it.

Rowsell, Trott and King are acutely aware of where they stand in the great scheme of cycling, and having the privilege of being at the top of their game at such a pivotal point in the history of women’s cyclesport is something they find totally amazing. But it’s also something they’ve had to struggle towards and helped to create, so they’re allowed to be a bit proud as well, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. On top of this they are also hyper conscious of their influence both on those following in their racing footsteps and on the vast swirly peloton of women on bikes as a whole. I’ll add men too here if I may.

The rise of women only cycle events shows that this swell of interest is growing from a grass roots level with activity on a Pro level encouraging mere mortals, something that’s more obvious with the swarms of MAMILs but just as relevant for the female of the species. I ask why we need women-specific events as it’s all just cycling innit? The Wiggle Honda girls say a lot of women feel intimidated riding with men and mention that even they can sometimes be intimidated by mixing it with certain aggressive males, so if even pro level female cyclists find it intimidating riding with men then a nervous beginner could find mixed riding an insurmountable hurdle and will welcome a same-sex ride with open pedals. I mumble that a lot of men are also intimidated by group rides but have grown up with the culture of shutting up and getting up with it, or just going out on their own. Neither of which are often viable options for a lot of women.

The girls are very happy to wear their femininity on their sleeves. The Wiggle Honda riders prove that you don’t have to be a short-haired tomboy to do sport, and do well at it, you can be both girly and win gold medals. Not long out of that problematic stage of life themselves they know that as a teenage girl your priorities, or peer pressure priorities, are to be social and go out and Be A Girl, you don’t want to be the sweaty and messy one. If their pretty fast, pretty and fast, attitude encourages just one “normal” girl out on a bike then it’s a win in their book.

We discuss the contentious Pink Issue and how that splits the female community in two between those who want to appear girliegirl, and those that can’t stand it and how it stereotypes and simplifies women’s cycling with the ‘Shrink it and Pink It’ marketing model. Men are much simpler, they’re more than happy for racks of black, red and white kit. Apart from the ones that are bored to death of it. Each of the three champions doesn’t mind The Pink Thing at all. Maybe when you’re good it doesn’t matter what colour you wear, you’re still going to kick arse.

Anyway, this leads us to the unprecedented and continually growing choice of clothing and equipment that women cyclists have these days, which no matter what colour it is all helps to move the feminine side of the sport forward because it removes all old excuses and obstacles. Just as for male cycle kit there’s clothing out there that doesn’t have to turn you into a racing sausage, there’s comfortable, flattering, comfortable clothing that will be efficient on the bike and won’t make you self-conscious in the pub. The racers, racing, the rides, the kit, all of these things are tumbling together to form an unstoppable avalanche of extra X chromosomes in cycling.

To round things off we’re all invited to a posh evening meal, there is fizz and canapés to start whilst everyone mingles, and then a traditional multi-course Italian meal. I’m sitting on a table with a mix of grown men, young ladies, talented cyclists and Olympic athletes. The conversation is as varied as you might imagine but the stand out moment is the revelation that a certain world class athlete relies on home-delivered meals. It’s been a weird day with the Wiggle Honda Pro Cycling girls. I mean ladies, women, chicks, lasses. I meant riders, just riders. Good ones.

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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