Why women’s cycling is out in front with a groundbreaking new international event
Katie Archibald is riding high and saddling up for a new challenge. After switching from swimming to cycling at 17 and still only 25, she’s Olympic Champion, Commonwealth Champion, World Champion and Multiple European Champion, races for Great Britain and Scotland and has an OBE. Now she’s hoping to match her record on the track with a big touring team victory, and taking women’s cycling with her. With women’s sport attracting growing audiences and prizes, Archibald is championing a new event, the inaugural Women’s Tour of Scotland. Building on the momentum first stirred up by Olympian Chris Hoy and the subsequent homegrown medal success at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, the event is a landmark in Scottish cycling and will be watched live by thousands of spectators and even more on TV.
Taking place over three days, the three stage 350km (217 mile) route will see the world’s top women cyclists in five cities – Glasgow, Perth, Dunfermline, Dundee, Edinburgh – and numerous towns whizzing along the roads in between from Friday 9 to Sunday 11 August. Up to 100,000 spectators overall are expected to watch up to 20 of the world’s top women’s cycling teams as they set off from Dundee’s Riverside Esplanade, Glasgow’s George Square, and Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park and race to finish lines in Dunfermline, Perth and Holyrood again, or gather en route to watch the riders take on the sprints and Queen of the Mountains climbs.
As Ambassador for the Women’s Tour, Archibald is excited to be launching the event and eager to don her blue and white Scotland team colours.
“It’s not very far away and we’ll have the world’s best racing through Scotland. I guess there will be over 100 riders, including some big names. I’m excited that rivals and teammates from the track will be on the road and it’ll be a fun dynamic. And there’s that sense that it will be my home race. And I’ll be representing Scotland too, which is usually just once every four years at the Commonwealth Games, so it’s always a treat to be able to do that. The Scottish team will be myself, Neah Evans, Anna Shackley and another rider we can’t announce yet – we’re fighting for her!” She laughs.
Archibald is enthusiastic and fun, sometimes sporting pink hair, sometimes saltire blue and white, and writer of a witty column in Cycling Weekly, as well as online blogs. Gifted in sprinting, time-trialling and bunched racing, she’s regarded as having the whole package and expected to be in prime position in the Tour peloton.
Talking about the three stages – Dundee to Dunfermline, Glasgow to Perth, and Edinburgh to Peebles and back, Archibald is raring to go.
“It’s funny, people keep joking, saying ‘stage three, Edinburgh to Edinburgh, that’ll be easy’,” She laughs again. “No, it’ll be very hard – and that’s what makes it exciting.”
The new race isn’t just a one-off, the plan is for the event to be staged annually as a permanent professional fixture for the UCI, the worldwide governing body for cycling.
“The big ambition of the Women’s Tour of Scotland is for expansion over the next five years,” says Archibald. “It’s the first time that there’s been a tour of this stature that has not been preceded by a men’s event, so it’s standing on its own two feet and it will be inviting the best riders from around the world. The aspiration is that the event keeps getting bigger and bigger as the years go by and that Scotland holds its place as a world stage for elite sport.”
For those who might not be world class on two wheels yet, or even know their Madison from their omnium (the former being a 50km two-person team relay with sprints while the latter is the pentathlon of cycling, with five events ranging from time trials to scratch races), each start and finish point in the three stages will have family activation zones for fans, spectators, local residents, cycling clubs, visitors and families to join in the fun and get cycling. And for those with big dreams, there’s the chance to ride the final stage of the Tour, which ends in a free family day at Holyrood Park.
“What’s good about road racing is that anyone can get out on the roadside and experience the event, and hopefully see the world’s best go through their own town,” says Archibald.
“And it’s not necessarily about telling kids you should want to be the best in the world or you should want to make it to an Olympic Games or World Championships, it’s just saying that people like you ride their bikes at a high level, people like you can ride their bikes to get to work, people like you can ride their bikes to get to school. It’s engaging people with what their local area is capable of when you see us stormin’ through it.”
So it’s not all about being a world champion, but if you do see the Tour live or on ITV4, and are inspired to follow in Archibald’s tracks, know that it takes hours of rigorous training to reach her level. Something she’s refreshingly honest about not always enjoying.
“I always get sick of my training regime,” she says. “I love to race, but I have to train, that’s how it goes. So I just turn my training into racing when I can.”
Another significant development that the Women’s Tour of Scotland celebrates is a parity of prize money with men’s competitions, that will see the winner cycling away with e50,000.
“It’s a mark of respect for the level of sport that’s going to be turning up here,” says Archibald. “Parity of prize money is a big issue – it’s a world issue, not just in women’s sport.
“I’m in a privileged position as I can say I’m turning out to race and I’m not thinking about the prize money, because if you’re making a career out of this, the exposure gets you more interest and opportunities. But it does make me excited that Scotland is having something with this high level of prize money and it’s nice to be connected with an event that is storming on with quality women’s sport.”
For Archibald, who is now based in Manchester where she does much of her training, the Tour is a chance to go back to her Milngavie roots. It was there she rode her first-ever bike, “a little pink thing with a basket on the front and a seat on the back for my dolly, that in my memory went like stink, though I’m not entirely sure that’s true”.
As she got older she began cycling with her dad and older brother John, also a successful cyclist – he won silver at last year’s Commonwealth Games. The trio would cycle from Glasgow to Edinburgh along the canal paths and catch the train back, or head north from Glasgow through the Trossachs to the twisting, turning climb over the Duke’s Pass, the road that links Aberfoyle and Loch Katrine, with its initial six miles of rapid, rising sweeping bends.
She laughs at the memory of the harder cycles. “I think when I was seven years old there were very few things I enjoyed… I was just a bit of a moany kid,” she laughs.
Then there was the day they cycled Lochinver to Achiltibuie, which may only be around 10 miles but it’s mainly uphill, and nine-year-old Archibald peching along behind occasionally had to hold back tears as she struggled to keep up on a cycle that took all day. A day that ended with her vowing never to get on a bike again. Except she had to cycle back.
And so the resilience that has taken Archibald to the top was born and it was this never-give-up attitude that saw her winning over the crowds in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games road race, fighting her way to a top five finish.
“That was my whole childhood, chasing my big brother around, and it’s worked out for me now, “ she says. “He’s been doing fantastically recently too. When we both raced at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast and both got medals in the same event, that was cool.”
Now her experience riding the roads of her homeland gives her and her team an advantage in the Tour, as well as a pride in showing them off on a world stage. “I guess we’re biased as the home team, but I love the routes,” she says. “The second stage goes Glasgow to Perth and we will be going over roads that I’m familiar with from riding as a kid. And yes, we go over the Duke’s Pass, which is probably going to be one of the most iconic moments of the tour…” she says, then adds “and one of the most painful. I’m REALLY excited for that and REALLY scared.
“It’s one of those roads that so many cyclists talk about. It’s gonna feel nice to go over that in a professional way.
“So we’ve got an advantage in that we know the route, but at the end of the day it’s your legs that do it,” she says and laughs. “We’ll see how it works.” So how are the legs doing at the moment? Archibald is circumspect and cautiously confident in response. In the past she’s come back from injury – in 2015 she ruptured a posterior cruciate ligament in her knee and fractured her elbow, falling off her, ahem, motorbike, then in 2016 fractured her wrist in the Track World Cup in Glasgow. It’s a measure of the woman that she did it in lap 18 of the 80-lap Madison with teammate Manon Lloyd but they still went on to clinch the women’s gold.
“Yeah, my legs are all right, good enough, good enough,” she says. “I think I’ll be keen once I’m with my Scottish teammates and we do a bit of reconnaitre, ride the route, and chat through what we want to get out of the race.”
At this stage in her career, with Olympic, Commonwealth, World and European medals to her name, Archibald isn’t about sitting back in the saddle and cruising. She’s keen to win more road titles and the Tokyo Olympics also beckon. When we speak, Archibald has the countdown down to the day.
“It’s 381 days so that’s really exciting. We’ve just had a new medal introduced in the marathons with the women getting the Madison event, so that’s consuming my every waking moment. That is my dream, my target.”
So how does it feel for the girl who dragged herself up the Duke’s Pass, refusing to give up, to find herself now riding a successful career as a professional cyclist with the medals stacking up?
“Scary I suppose,” she says. “Yeah, it feels good, and it feels intimidating. You just pinch yourself and think ‘how have I been so lucky?’ And obviously it’s quite a big responsibility, to be this privileged and not want to waste it, you know. It’s almost not fair because there are so many people aspiring to be in a position like this.”
And many of them will be out in August cheering Archibald and her teammates on at the Women’s Tour of Scotland as they speed their way towards another landmark in Scottish and women’s cycling.
Women’s Tour of Scotland, Friday 9 - Sunday 11 August.