Velonews reports that Amgen Tour of California organizer AEG are set to add an elite women’s time trial to accompany the elite men’s stage 6 time trial in Solvang, this May. While AEG President Andrew Messick has yet to confirm such an event at the 2011 edition of the Tour of California, media speculation has already generated a spectacular amount of publicity: most of it negative.
In a sport often criticized for the disparity between its treatment of male and female competitors, it’s unusual for fans to react so strongly against the addition of an elite women’s event. The difference is that the proposed elite women’s time trial at Solvang will allegedly have prize money paid out based on how competitors fare against their elite male counterparts.
The proposed event is a move that would work against any progress towards gender equality in the professional peloton. At best, it is a crass attempt to infantilize women’s professional cycling, and make a gaudy spectacle of it. At worst, it is a slap in the face for all who believe in any kind of gender equality.
There is a temptation to view the male dominance of traditionally male sports as a problem of masculinity and machismo within the sporting culture. Such a simple view is difficult to support in the case of professional cycling. Elite male professional cyclists routinely speak of the need for greater support of women’s cycling. Garmin-Cervelo team manager Jonathan Vaughters and HTC manager Bob Stapleton both have elite women’s teams, and stress the need for greater gender equality in the cycling world.
Like most professional sports, cycling relies on media for its revenue stream. Television, newspaper, magazine and internet coverage provides sponsors with incentive to invest in the sport. Professional cycling, therefore, is about two things: sports and media. If the problem of gender equity has as little to do with the sporting aspect as it would seem, perhaps a more thorough examination of the present media system of professional sport is in order.
There are many problems with the media treatment of women in our society, but one in particular is at play in the case of AEG’s proposed elite women’s Solvang time trial: an inability to view women in their own context, distinct from males.
Patriarchal values are deeply entrenched in the world of modern media conglomeration. Globalization necessitates that mass media turn its back on diversity in favor of reinforcing a dominant worldview in order to reach the maximum number of potential consumers. This media hegemony has contributed greatly to the current predicament of gender roles in professional cycling.
While a minority of the European peloton still suffers from the problem of machismo in gender politics, the more ‘progressive’ American perspective brings with it greater problems with media hegemony. Jonathan Vaughters and Bob Stapleton understand professional cycling and it’s fans well enough to know that women’s cycling is both an opportunity for positive social change and a viable business model. Andrew Messsick, however, seems limited in his view of professional cycling.
Messick’s limitations are most immediately visible in how the Tour of California handled the return of Lance Armstrong, and their subsequently poor handling of the Floyd Landis doping accusations in favor of coddling their economic stake in Armstrong’s participation in their race. The proposed women’s time trial’s prize structure runs contrary to Messick’s claim that AEG is “deeply involved in women’s sports”, as it shows only the shallowest understanding of both cycling and gender politics.
The proposed women’s ATOC Solvang time trial prize structure is deeply flawed. It engenders both the worst sideshow treatment of women’s professional cycling, as well as the idea that women are feeble creatures, precious in their attempts to succeed in a sport where men are the measure of true accomplishment.
Professional cycling may not ever become completely gender equitable, in economics or in media. But until the women of professional cycling are given a legitimate opportunity to distinguish themselves in sport, in their own context and on their own terms, we’ll never have the chance to find out.