A window of opportunity

Thoughts on the Aviva Tour – the biggest stage race in women’s cycling

The AVIVA Tour is the biggest stage race in women’s cycling in our opinion. It’s not only the huge prize money and unrivalled organisational standards, but mainly the media focus on the race. This translates into an opportunity for the team to springboard into the following year that other multi-day events just don’t provide us. It’s the clear focus of our racing year and much of our preparation and racing is based on performances at this event. This year, race organisers SweetSpot took the view that they’d let us, and the world, know early that both ourselves and Pearl Izumi were selected for the race. This gave us an opportunity to ensure we could maximise the opportunity on and off the bike.

For us there were some unforeseen bumps in the road with 3 of our provisionally selected riders becoming unavailable. Molly Weaver had stepped up so much this season she moved to a higher ranked team with our full backing, leaving us with a minor issue of replacing a potential leader. Harriet, who’d been working extremely hard to be in the selection and provide sprint support at the end of stages broke her hand just before the tour. Then there is Baku, the European Games, which has sprung onto the calendar this year and left us lacking Christina in the selection, our consistent finisher from Denmark and a powerhouse of our squad in bunch finishes. But with these losses comes opportunity, and those riders who thought a chance wouldn’t come their way, were ready to step up and grabbed the chance with both hands. Enter Kim le Court and Mel Lowther.

The months preceding the tour are a chain of promotional events for the organisers and the local councils that back the race to try to help promote their region. We’ve travelled thousands of kilometres to events from our base in Oudenaarde, squeezing these appearances in between key preparation races. One of those was in Aldeburgh and not only was it a chance to ride the course for stage 1 of the tour, but also a chance to help some young adults as they look at their career options and education. Professional women riders are such good ambassadors for their sponsors and their sport, it’s always a pleasure to see them inspire future generations to be follow their dreams.

But how does all of this help the team leap forward? Well coming into the race we had one clear goal; be on the podium. The 2014 tour was a tough event for us as an amateur team. It was a case of survival in reality, but we rode strongly, all of our riders completed the 5-day event, and we had some strong performances to look back on. Putting ourselves on the podium in 2015 would confirm our growth as a team, and it puts you in an elite club, as not many teams get that opportunity. The reality is the podium of major races is a lockout in general terms by the big players, and it’s certainly a challenge a team like ours is willing to take on, as we look to join that exclusive club over the next few years.

Confirming that you’re better than last year alone wont help the leap forward, but it does help increase interest in the team. To step forward, we are under no illusions that we need to add a sprinkling of talent to the team, adding more experienced and varied leaders will help our current crop progress quickly. We have a fantastic team behind the scenes. From soigneurs, mechanics, media staff, to Sports Psychologists, physios, Coaches and Sponsors.   But announcing ourselves as a team in the best way possible, by being on the podium, it helps to attract a level of riders that might otherwise skip our team over when they scan the results and ranking in their hunt for a new home.

Media interest around the team was certainly at an all time high during this event. That’s partly the Laura Trott effect, we know that and we’re not blinkered to that. We actually had to bring in staff specifically to deal with the high number of media demands to ensure that Laura could race relaxed and focus on her performance for the team, leading to a top 20 on the GC for her, and us (Last year our highest finisher was 45th). But the general media in the run up to the event has never been higher. ITV featured the team, with 15 minutes of film being produced giving a good view of what goes on at a stage race (Part 1 & Part 2 of the main feature are here), BBC featured the team during the race with a day behind the scenes with the team, and local news featured the team daily.

But how do you convert that interest into structured growth for a team. Well I guess that comes down to the mini window of opportunity we now sit in. The AVIVA Tour is the start of that window, and in reality finishes shortly after the Ride London event that is on live television on 1 August. These two great events are the bread around a La Course sandwich, which is a huge event for us, going out to 150 countries for live transmission. Who’d of thought all of this could even be dreamed about 5 years ago when this team was formed. The sport in some ways has revolutionised.

This mini-window is where we do, or don’t secure our future. It’s where we do or don’t guarantee the future of the riders and staff under this umbrella. We’re in a good position, with loyal sponsors, good media, and keen interest in the team, but to springboard forward means we have to take 2 steps forward this winter. We know we took a huge stride this season; we’ve gone from unlikely survivors to podiums in 12 months. But the sport has also moved forward. The top teams have, thankfully, got stronger. Their dominance is clear, and breaking into the top 10 of the sport is harder every year. You can’t move just one step forward over the winter, or you’re just treading water. You have to move forward two steps, at least, if you have any ambition of moving up the rankings.

To move forward there is a combination of needs. Money, of course we need money, but women’s teams are a cheap entry point to the market for potential sponsors. A £300,000 cash budget is a strong budget in women’s cycling, which when used smartly can see you firmly in the Worlds top 10. Making sure that money comes from sustainable sources is key as stability has always been a core value of the team. Opportunity comes with money when spent wisely, and ensuring as a team we have a winter which is full of training and learning opportunities is going to fast track and polish our rough diamonds into jewels worthy of the World Tour events that look to be put onto the calendar in 2016.

The Women’s Tour gave us the showcase we needed to open our mini-window, with streets lined with fans, television coverage and a commercial and professional organisation bringingw big names to the table. The sport is in the spotlight, and now it’s up to us to use that spotlight to grow.

You can see the AVIVA Women’s Tour Highlights on ITV player via this link https://www.itv.com/itvplayer/cycling-women-s-tour

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