A number of events ignited the wish to start this website. This one was quite trivial but illustrated the loaded way gender issues are often reported in the media.
The Omloops Het Nieuwsblad women’s cycle race is not a subject that would normally reach the front pages of national newspapers or be reported on the BBC Radio 4 Today Program, but in March 2019 that is exactly what happened. So, what occurred to make this race worthy of coverage away from an obscure corner of the sports pages? Well, according to the BBC website the women’s race was halted because a rider caught the men’s race and according to the Guardian Online (never a place to go to for objective reporting of gender issues) Nicole Hansman had made up the gap on the male riders in spite of starting 10 minutes after them.
The message behind a lot of the reporting was that this event mirrored life in general and women were being held back by their less able male colleagues. Why shouldn’t the men’s race have been paused to let the women’s race go past? This made an obscure cycle race worthy of reporting by feminist hacks with an agenda.
So, what was the truth behind these reports? I was immediately suspicious because humans are a dimorphic species and while it doesn’t make men superior, they are on average physically stronger than women. It would be surprising at an elite level if a women’s race caught up with a men’s race, particularly if the former started 10 minutes later. The true story actually revealed no evidence of sexism, of men holding women back to preserve their fragile egos or internalised misogyny of the race stewards (choose your own feminist clichés). The story revealed a little bit of poor planning by the race organisers and on the part of some journalists, wishful thinking, bias and a lack of fact-checking.
The men’s race of 200km started just under 10 minutes ahead of the women’s race of 123 km. Both races followed the same route through to the early section of cobbles and that was the cause of problems. The leaders of the men’s race reached the cobbles with a 14-minute lead over the leaders of the women’s race so they had gained 4 minutes not lost 10 minutes. When Nicole Hansman was approaching the cobbles, she had a 43-second gap over the other female riders. The race had to be suspended not because she had caught the male cyclists as was reported by gullible journalists, but because she had caught up with the following support vehicles. This occurred because of a bottleneck where the road narrowed to enter the cobbles. Support vehicles now had to go in single file resulting in a tailback, much as you see on a motorway when a lane has been closed. Because the convoy of vehicles following a race is a dangerous place to be for any cyclist the women’s race had to be neutralised for a period.
Nicole Hansman did report that she could see male riders in the distance. This means nothing. I used to be an amateur racing cyclist of limited ability and I know a thing or two about seeing competitors in the distance. First, depending on conditions they can be an awfully long way ahead. Second, it seldom means that you are about to catch them up or that they should wait to let you overtake them.
So, in answer to the question posed by some feminist commentators why force the women to pause, why not force the men to pause and be overtaken? The men were never caught at all. Not only that, if you compare like with like; that is, the leaders of the men’s race with the leaders of the women’s race -the men had gained 4 minutes on the women by the time the race was neutralised.
The winner of the men’s race of 200km would average 41kph and the winner of the women’s race of 123km averaged 36.7kph. Even the slowest male rider did better than this averaging 39.8kph. In short, the women were slower over a shorter course. This doesn’t mean that the women’s race was not a compelling spectacle or a remarkable athletic achievement but it does mean that the women were not held back by the men as some feminist commentators claimed.
Did Nicole Hansman lose out as a result of the poor organisation of this race? Probably not. Race suspensions or neutralisation are not unusual in competitive cycling and can occur due to crashes, unexpected obstructions or other dangerous conditions. When the race is resumed the riders restart in the same relative positions. Nicole would have resumed with a 43 second lead over her nearest female rival. Although she might have lost some momentum the chances of anybody maintaining a long lone break from the 35km mark to the 123km mark are very slim indeed and such breaks in men’s or women’s cycling almost never succeed.