Just days ago the women’s edition of a notable one-day cycling race in Belgium was halted by officials after a breakaway rider almost caught the men’s race, which had started on the same course ten minutes earlier.
It spoke volumes. After decades of a head start for men, women are closing the gap in cycling and in sport even if there will always be someone trying to slow that progress.
Last summer 13 women, protesting at the ongoing absence of a female equivalent to the world famous Tour de France, cycled the very same 2,802-mile mountainous route cycled by their male counterparts to make a point that they are worthy and capable of tackling more than the token one or sometimes two-day event that is managed by the Tour organisers annually but that falls well shy of the 23- day platform afforded the men.
It is against that backdrop that Katie Archibald is helping launch the Women’s Tour of Scotland event and she is excited about it.
The fact that the latest addition to the UCI world calendar is a stand-alone race, and not simply an add-on to a long-standing men’s event makes it unique. The idea that it will, from the outset, offer prize money equal to that of a comparable male race is even more laudable.
“It sets a huge precedent and it is a huge tour event to bring to Scotland,” said Archibald. “Showing gender parity in the prize fund and all of that makes me quite proud to be Scottish and, more largely, British because I do think we are gaining a reputation for leading the way. We have conversations in the pro ranks and we have all been at races when we hear the Italian or French riders and hear them talking about the contrast in terms of prestige when it comes to cycling for women in the UK compared to elsewhere in Europe and I’m so glad that Scotland is part of that.”
The deal is initially five years but, with plans to grow it and aspirations to possibly even expand it from three days to five days, there is excitement among elite riders.
Around 18-20 of the world’s top teams will arrive in Scotland for the event on 9-11 August, with the first stage taking them from Dundee to Dunfermline, the second sweeping through the Trossachs from Glasgow to the centre of Perth, while the third and final stage will start and finish in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park and take in the Borders and Midlothian.
It is the second day that has really whetted Archibald’s appetite. “What is quite fun is that those are the roads I know well. Going through Dukes Pass, that can hurt quite a lot when you are on your own, but I think it is going to hurt even more in an aggressive bunch, so that will be very interesting. But it is a huge advantage that I ride these roads all the time.”
Archibald admits that, as a teenager, she “fell foul of all the cliches”. She stopped taking part in sports, preferring, instead, to hang out with friends. Fortunately, she realised that she could combine both.
“What pulled me back into cycling was the social ambition. Maybe I should feel embarrassed admitting that but I wanted to go away racing with these people that I thought were cool. By sheer chance and circumstance that springboarded me into the position I am in now. For me, cycling is about more than just lining up for a race and trying to be the best, although everyone likes to win.” Becoming an Olympic, World, Commonwealth and European champion certainly wasn’t what drove her as she cycled those roads all those years ago, which is what makes the thought of returning to them in a UCI event surreal.
“It is interesting to think of the kids who will be along the side of the road watching and hopefully feeling inspired,” Archibald added.
“That is the big ambition with events like this, to get more people on bikes, more kids on bikes and, more specifically, girls into racing and riding. We want to continue this wave of enthusiasm that the UK has for cycling.
“For years and years I have carried around this heavy, heavy guilt about the amount of support and help I have received from people at grassroots level, who lent me a bike or they helped me get on the track at Meadowbank, people who thought it was nice to be nice. What’s that they say about the flap of a butterfly’s wing…that it can ultimately cause a typhoon, or something like that. These people drastically changed my life, but, if we can race in the Tour of Scotland and inspire some more to start cycling and help build the enthusiasm at grassroots level, then maybe in a very, very small way that helps me to pay back a little of what I owe the sport.”
She would eventually love to move into coaching but August will be more than just a recruitment drive. After last year’s road season, which she describes as, “an accumulation of meh and more meh’, she wants to see progress.
“It felt like disaster after disaster,” said Archibald. “I broke my collarbone, bruised my ribs, sprained an ankle. It was one thing after another.”
Which is why she remains enamoured by the track as much as the road and has no idea when or if she will eventually leave the velodrome behind.
But she has still had to deal with disappointment and bumps and scrapes. The nasty graze on her elbow is a reminder of the tumble she took while serving as omnium understudy for Laura Kenny at last week’s World Championships.
Until then she had still hoped to add a gold to the silver she won in the Team Pursuit by successfully defending the madison, an event she has dominated since it was introduced to the women’s programme in 2017, riding in six international level madisons and winning them all.
The tumble in the omnium denied her that opportunity. Concussed, she was forced to sit it out on doctors’ orders.
“I have been burying my head in the sand a bit since,” she said. “But it’s the kind of event you come back from already excited about next year and how you can put things right.”
Whether paying it forward to grow the sport or looking to add to her already lengthy list of successes, working hard to balance the books is what it is all about. That and hanging out with her cool friends, having fun.