Women’s cycling as the main event ‘The best is yet to come’

Women’s cycling is changing rapidly as new fans discover women’s racing. Its participants are among the best athletes in the world, taking part in an exciting mix of traditional races and brand-new global events.

This has sparked rapid investment, more media focus and opportunities for growth in all disciplines of women’s cycling. Women’s cycling is telling amazing stories through racing and its bright personalities and as a result, is inspiring a new generation of riders.

Senior Sports Marketer Frank van den Wall Bake: “Something new is happening in women’s cycling. The sport is on the way up, just like women’s football. People are talking about it, it is attracting more attention and sponsors want to associate themselves with something new. Women’s cycling is still in its infancy.”

Outside Magazine: “Invest in women’s cycling and double your return on investment.”

The Guardian: “Nothing stopping women becoming a tour de force in their own right. Here is a major potential growth area worldwide which is waiting to be tapped.”

Development is women’s recreational cycling

Cycling has a 50-year history of female under-representation in the sport and currently, four times as many men as women ride bikes.

Parallel to the development of women’s cycling is the increase in the number of women on racing bikes. In the past, women were only rarely seen riding racing bikes, but in the last 10 years, there has been an enormous increase which is still continuing today. Cycling has been transformed from a conservative men’s sport into a hip sport for young women.

The rise of brands that focus exclusively on female cyclists characterises a new developing market. Where previously the average collection of women’s cycle wear consisted of a more fitted man’s shirt in black with pink, nowadays real thought is being given to what women cyclists want.

Sports marketer Renate Groenewold: “We’re seeing huge development for women in terms of sportswear. Major brands like Nike, Under Armour and Adidas are focusing specifically on women and how they move and now that so many more women are cycling, the market is enormous.”

  • There is a huge market for women who want to cycle. People for Bikes in the US conducted a large-scale survey back in 2014 which revealed that: 45 million (43%) women compared to 59 million men (57%) rode a bicycle in 2014. Of that 45 million: 29 million women rode a bike for recreation, 3 million for transportation and 13.5 million for both. 54% of the men and 52% of the women want to bike more often.
  • British Cycling has influenced 723,000 women, who weren’t cycling previously, to get on a bike since 2013, the sports governing body announced in 2017 – four years after announcing an ambitious target to get one million more women cycling by 2020.
  • Touring version of the Amstel Gold Race: In 2002, 1.7% of participants were women. In 2012, 8% of the 15,000 participants were women. In 2019, almost 17% of all participants were women.
  • Limburgs Mooiste Tour: In 2014, 10% of the participants were women. In 2018: 15%.
  • NTFU (Dutch Cycling Union) reports that the percentage of women taking part in tours in the last few years is stable at around 17 to 18%. More women are taking part in terms of absolute numbers, but the total number of cyclists is greater. The same is incidentally true for the number of women who cycle. The ratio of men to women has been 80:20 for the last few years.
  • The bicycle manufacturer Specialized currently makes ‘Beyond Gender’ racing bikes. This is in response to the enormous increase in women buying racing bikes. The bicycle brand Giant has even developed a special line of racing bikes for women with the name Liv.

Developments in women’s cycling in the last five years

The launch of the World Tour for women, mandatory live television coverage for all World Tour races, races for women linked to major men’s races and WT men’s teams which also have a women’s team competing at the highest level have all led to women’s cycling becoming increasingly popular in recent years. The number of licences for women granted by the Royal Dutch Cycling Union (KNWU) rose by some 19% between 2014 and 2019. The number of female cyclists with licences from British Cycling increased from 3,000 (2008) to 20,000 in 2018.

The UCI reports that no fewer than 147 million viewers watched the Women’s World Tour on TV in 2018 and that the race produced a total of 1430 hours of television.

David Lappartient, president of the International Cycling Union UCI: “Organisers must take care of promoting women’s cycling, that’s also part of our global responsibility. We need to have women’s races on TV.”

Daam van Reeth, Professor of Sports Economics at the University of Leuven: “Consumption of women’s cycling content is one of the fastest growing segments of broadcast viewership in the sport today, with many women’s events pulling equal or greater numbers than co-broadcast men’s events.”

The number of live broadcasts of women’s cycling by Eurosport 1 has increased considerably in recent years. In 2015, it only showed ‘La Course’. In 2016, ‘La Madrid Challenge’ was added. In 2017, the Strade Bianche and Gooik – Geraardsbergen – Gooik and parts of the world championships were broadcast. And in 2018, many more were added, including Amstel Gold, the European championships and highlights of the Giro Rosa. The number of viewers was lower in 2018 than in 2017, but it is more difficult to reach high viewing figures when you broadcast more races.

  Number of broadcasts Number of LIVE hours
2015 1 1
2016 2 2
2017 9 10
2018 20 22

Daam van Reeth: “The World Tour Women’s classic in Vargarda in Sweden (19-8-2019) was the best watched (86K) cycling programme that day on Eurosport NL, beating BinckBank Tour (31K, but also shown on NOS Sport), Arctic Race (22K) and Tour of Utah (3K). It was also the best watched women’s race ever on Eurosport NL. Last year’s best watched women’s race was the Innsbruck WC ITT (52K), so this is a remarkable improvement on that record audience.”

More and more major brands are promoting women’s cycling. One of the most well-known advertising campaigns is that of the car maker Skoda: ‘This is our time to promote woman cycling.’

  • 2019 saw the creation of the UCI Women’s World Tour: a competition at the highest level.
  • The introduction of enhanced organisational standards for the organisers of the UCI Women’s World Tour and the UCI ProSeries, aimed at providing better visibility for the events.
  • Race organisers facilitate at least 45 minutes of live broadcasting for World Tour races in order to maintain accreditation in the UCI’s premier calendar.
  • Many major men’s races are now also part of the Women’s World Tour, such as La Course, the final day of Vuelta, Amstel Gold Race, Waalse Pijl, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Strade Bianche, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
  • More and more World Tour teams have set up a women’s team in response to demand from sponsors: Team Sunweb, Movistar, Mitchelton-Scott, Lotto-Soudal, CCC-Liv, Astana, Trek-Segafredo, FDJ.
  • The introduction of a minimum salary and other benefits for riders, including a maximum number of days of racing, sickness cover, maternity cover, life insurance and increased prize money.
  • A women’s Tour de France lasting several days and a women’s edition of Paris-Roubaix are being planned.
  • TV broadcasts: Amstel Gold Race for women 2019 1.2 million viewers in Netherlands, France, Flanders and Denmark.
  • Live-coverage of Ghent-Wevelgem for women in 2019 attracted 25% more TV viewers in Flanders than in 2018, increasing from 412K to 516K. It now equals 74% of the men’s audience.
  • Licences for KNWU women: 2014: 470; 2018: 558 An increase of around 19%.
  • British Cycling now has over 20,000 female members – a figure which represents a huge growth on the 3,000 who were members in 2008.
  • UCI will introduce a minimum salary for the World Tour team in 2020 – an important step towards more professionalism.

What does women’s cycling cost compared to men’s cycling?

  • The World Tour men’s team that competes at the highest level costs on average 15 to 25 million euros. The team that competes at the highest level of the Pro-continental competition costs between 2 and 4 million euros. The women’s World Tour team that competes at the highest level costs between 1.7 and 2.5 million euros.
  • ProCyclingStats has noted that when major men’s and women’s races are combined, the results of the men’s race get five times more clicks. However, a top women’s team costs ten times less than a men’s team.
  • In 2018, 5.1 million people watched at least a minute of men’s racing live on Eurosport 1. At least one minute of women’s racing was watched by almost 700,000 people.
  • Women’s cycling lags well behind in terms of the number of hours of races broadcast live on TV. In 2018, 22 hours of women’s cycling was shown live on Eurosport 1 compared to 411 hours of men’s cycling broadcast live. There are however signs that the number of hours of women’s cycling is on the rise. Eurosport has expressed an interest in broadcasting more hours of women’s cycling live.
  • Daam van Reeth: “In the UK, TV viewership of the men’s and women’s races in Strade Bianche was almost equal. In the Netherlands, NOS Sport’s coverage of the women’s EC Race in Alkmaar had 9% more viewers than the men’s race: 388k v 355k. In Flanders, Sporza viewership was down by 35% (286K v 441K). In Sweden, women’s races had double the audience of men’s races.”

Where are the opportunities for growth in women’s cycling?

The first official World Championship for women was organised in the 1950s. Women’s cycling had not been recognised by their unions before and therefore lagged far behind men’s cycling in terms of history. The sport only really seems to have developed in the last ten years. And… the best yet has to come.

Compared to other worldwide sports, such as tennis, golf, football, swimming and athletics, women’s cycling is still relatively insignificant. But that just means that women’s cycling has a lot to gain.

It can capitalise on everything that women’s sport has to offer: a direct marketing driver for diverse and growing marketing demographies, the opportunity to come into contact with new investors who are not tied in to the traditional economic circles around cycling and creative rights to deliver a dynamic sport to a new audience in innovative ways and, at the same time, delight cycling’s hard-core fans.

Female athletes are increasingly starting to realise their value; team members can see new routes to more investment by sponsors and some race organisers are starting to see new marketing and sales opportunities which the male-oriented side of the sport has just not been able to activate.

Velonews: “Successful women’s sports have always found a way to flourish, not by blue-printing men’s sports, but by choosing their own path. The LPGA (golf), WNBA (basketball), professional soccer (multiple European associations and the WMLS in America) and WTA (tennis) have each capitalised on unique market characteristics made available by fans of women’s sports. Many of these sports are still growing while others, such as mixed martial arts, represent huge new markets, and may be amongst the most profitable realms of sports entertainment in the future.”

Outside Magazine: “With more voices calling out inequity, more sponsors and media standing up for what’s right, and more races like Colorado Classic stepping up for women’s pro racing, we’re one step closer to equal opportunities in cycling.”

The number of live TV broadcasts of women’s races has increased enormously in the last five years. There is an upward trend in media focus. More major women’s races organised at the highest level appear every year. And we are seeing an increase in the number of sponsors. This trend is expected to continue, certainly now that the Tour de France has created a working group to organise a 10-day Tour de France for women in July which will be linked to the ‘major’ Tour.

Marketers are openly talking about the enormous potential of women’s cycling. There are also plans for various other major competitions. There is talk in France about a 10-day Tour de France for women to be held simultaneously with the Tour for men. The upwards growth in the number of women cycling recreationally on racing bikes also offers huge opportunities for the competitive sport, certainly because there are more and more brands making cycling products for women.

The massive growth in popularity of women’s football in the last 10 years is seen by many as an example for women’s cycling to follow. Many other women’s sports have a major platform too. The Guradian: ,,The success of football’s Women’s World Cup on ASO’s home turf in France this summer will have played a part in the shift of mindset to start a Tour de France for women.”

Furthermore, more and more new cycling races specifically for women are proving to be successful. The success, and expansion, of one standalone race in particular, the OVO Women’s Tour in the UK and the Colorado Classic in de US. And the arrival in 2021 of a major women’s event in the calendar, the Battle of the North, over 10 days through Norway and Sweden. This year also saw a new Tour of Scotland in August.

Mauro Vegni, the organisor of Giro d’Italia: “We can only hope that women’s cycling will undergo good organic growth. The potential for attracting certain commercial brands is enormous.”

UCI president David Lappartient: “What’s missing in our sport is a big stage race for women that can be viewed worldwide. The Tour de France can really help with this. If we want a women’s Tour with 10 stages (in the shadow of the final 10 stages of the men’s Tour de France), we can. I’ve had serious discussions with (ASO) and I hope we can reach an agreement for the future.”

ASO official: “Women cyclists need a race which means the same to them as the Tour de France means to the men and we need to find a solution for that. We will launch a working group in September.”

Daam van Reeth, Professor of Sports Economics at the University of Leuven: “The experience of cyclo- cross has taught us that as the availability of live TV broadcasts increases, audience ratings follow. That availability has certainly increased in women’s cycling. Up to 2013, most countries usually broadcast two women’s races: the National Championships’ race (and even that was not shown in all countries) and the World Championships (usually only the race, sometimes the time trial). In an Olympics year, the women’s race was often added. The introduction of La Course (2014) and the Madrid Challenge (2015) brought some improvements but the real acceleration in the number of women’s races broadcast live on TV only happened from 2016 on. I think that there are certainly 10 races being shown live in Flanders in 2019: National Championship, European Championship (ITT & RR), World Championship (ITT & RR), La Course, Madrid Challenge, Strade Bianche, 3-day Bruges-De Panne, Ghent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Amstel Gold Race etc. The main thing now is for sports broadcasters such as Eurosport to jump on the bandwagon. Eurosport already has a pretty perfect equal gender balance in its live reporting of almost all winter sports and tennis; it would be great if they were to take substantial steps in that direction for cycling too.

What is Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team’s position in women’s cycling?

  • The Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team has been the most successful women’s team in the world in the last four years.
  • It has been at the top of the UCI ranking for women’s teams since the end of 2015.
  • Winner of Women’s World Tour 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
  • Women’s Olympic champion in road racing 2016: Anna van der Breggen.
  • World champion in road racing 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018: Lizzie Armitstead, Amalie Dideriksen, Chantal Blaak, Anna van der Breggen.
  • World champion Team Time Trial 2016.
  • European champion 2019: Amy Pieters, 2016 Anna van der Breggen.
  • Winner of Giro Rosa 2016, 2017: Megan Guarnier, Anna van der Breggen.
  • Winner of classic races such as Ronde van Vlaanderen, Amstel Gold Race, Waalse Pijl, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Strade Bianche, Omloop het Nieuwsblad, Ghent-Wevelgem.

Impact of the Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team

  • The team was founded and gradually grew to become the best in the world. By 2020, its team management will have 10 years’ experience of women’s cycling. It has won and dominated all the major races.
  • The Boels-Dolmans Cylcing Team has taken women’s cycling to a higher level since 2013 due to its professional guidance and image.
  • The first team prepared to pay higher salaries to its top women cyclists.
  • Persevered with concept that you can be the absolute best in the world with only a standalone women’s team (not linked to the World Tour men’s team).
  • International character of the team which includes eight nationalities of cyclists.
  • Team that reflects the social character of a women’s team.
  • Focuses entirely on women’s cycling.
  • Competes with the absolute best in the world for a relatively very modest amount of money in terms of a world class sport. If you compare this to men’s cycling, the amounts of money are also small, whereas the returns are increasing every year due to the growing amount of live television and other media exposure.
  • 4.25M people in organic reach over 2018 and 2019 seasons on only Specialized Instagram channels.
  • The Pink Ribbon campaign (combating breast cancer) made 58,000 euros and was picked up by the Dutch broadcaster NOS, national and international television, L1, Dutch newspapers such as De Telegraaf, AD and de Limburger, by ProCycling, Wieler Revue and many foreign newspapers and magazines, etc.
  • Social media for the team, 20,000 followers on Instagram, 12,000 on Twitter, 15,000 on Facebook.

Boels Rental and Dolmans Landscaping: all aims have been exceeded

Boels Rental and Dolmans Landscaping will terminate their sponsoring of the women’s team at the end of the current contract, 1 January 2021. Boels Rental has been involved with the team for eight years, while Dolmans Landscaping was involved from the beginning, in 2010.

Both family businesses in Limburg say that, due to their sponsoring of the women’s team, their aims with regard to brand awareness and visibility have been exceeded. The cycling team has also provided vast goodwill and both companies were extremely engaged. They emphasise that a huge amount has been achieved with a relatively small amount of sponsoring, in terms of international top-class sport. Women’s cycling is one of the few worldwide sports in which participants can currently become the best in the world with this amount of money.

Neither Boels Rental nor Dolmans Landscaping have any new plans for future sponsoring. They emphasize that they continue to firmly believe in women’s cycling. This is the reason why they have announced the termination of their sponsor contract so early. It will give the team plenty of time to find new sponsors.

Team ambitions for the next five years

  • Further professionalise women’s cycling.
  • To remain the number one in terms of teams in the women’s cycling world.
  • To compete for victory in all the major competitions, both one-day races and stage races.
  • To grow to become a team of 16 to 18 cyclists so that a double programme can be ridden.
  • Focus of coaches/management on women’s cycling. Specialisation so that team sponsors and equipment sponsors can really focus on women’s cycling.
  • Clearly give young talent a chance every year.
  • Actively contribute to new/improved cycling products for women.
  • Stimulate social development for women in sport. Put the primary focus on one project every year, such as Pink Ribbon in the Amstel Gold Race in 2019. We would moreover like to learn more about the woman behind the athlete. We want to give people a better idea of women’s cycling through our own content/social media.
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