Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Women's Tour (The Oundle Chronicle)

In its long history, Oundle has never seen anything as exciting as the big day when cyclists took over the streets. The Grand Depart of the inaugural Friend’s Life Women’s Tour on 7 May attracted thousands of spectators who gathered in the Market Place and lined the race route through town to wave the cyclists off on their five day tour.

It was also an historic day for elite women’s cycling, with prize money, racing conditions and media exposure equal to and even exceeding those offered to men’s tours. There was an undeniable sense of anticipation and enthusiasm as Oundle prepared to welcome 96 of the world’s best women cyclists, including Dutch Olympian Marianne Vos, and British Olympians Lizzie Armitstead and Laura Trott.

The town pulled out the stops; three days of activities, events, fun and festivities led up to the race day. The bunting went up and every shop window was decorated with cycling themed displays. On Tuesday night the Market Place was filled with food stalls, live music, professional stunt cyclists and even a crazy bike collection.

The race was won by Dutch star Marianne Vos, followed closely by Swede Emma Johansson. Vos told BBC Sport "I have won many titles before, and some gold medals, but this women's Tour is really special because it means so much to women's cycling," and she continued: "I have good memories of Great Britain with the Olympics, but these crowds really made a difference."

In August 2004, the men’s Tour of Britain had its somewhat hesitant inaugural event. Men’s stage races go back to the 1940s in the UK, but a women’s event of this scale is certainly a big step, and one that Oundle should be proud to be a part of. In fact, the Observer’s headline on the Women’s Tour read “Oundle at the start of something big”. Cycling fans from all corners of the world will now know what and where Oundle is, and will remember it as the place where a gravitational and hopeful change was made towards equality.

Oundle was chosen as the starting place for the tour after Heather Smith, deputy leader of the County Council, was approached by SweetSpot. Heather worked hard to secure Oundle as the place for the Grand Depart. Cllr Smith described the event as “very emotional”, saying “This has put women’s cycling on the map.”

Events were held throughout Oundle on the Monday and Tuesday before the race. The Monday was branded “have a go” day, and events were held in various locations in the town. There were dancing classes in the market place, and singing classes in Victoria Hall. Participants were very excited for the Bike Race, commenting “It gives us a chance to think about other things” with another adding, “it puts us on the map”. A few of the participants were particularly looking forward to the concert to be held in the town later that evening, featuring the Oundle Choral Society.

Before the race, Northamptonshire cyclist Hannah Burnes came to speak to pupils at Oundle School. She told them about her career with UnitedHealthcare women’s team based in North Carolina. She also told them that, given the world-class quality of the riders, “it’s pretty much the Olympics.” At the end of the first stage Hannah came third, and won the Best British Rider’s jersey and the Best Young Rider’s jersey, two huge honours.

Guy Elliott, part of SweetSpot and one of the race organisers said: “We were told it wouldn’t happen. That made us more determined to do it.” The BBC also said that a women’s only race would not get coverage; they were clearly mistaken! In fact, race organisers were thrilled with the media response. There were more than 200 reporters at the Press Call on Thursday night. Many have speculated that the women’s tour received more media than the men’s race.

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, who dropped the Union flag to start the race, commented: “Cycling fans know that women’s cycling is brilliant. Those that have never experienced it will know it now.” She feels that an event like this proves to people that women’s sport is as good as men’s sport. She explained: “Less than 5% of media coverage is given to women’s sport, and only 0.5% of sponsorship. The cyclists have never experienced a race like this. The response has been amazing.” 

Cllr Smith agreed: “The doubters said that we wouldn’t get sponsorship. The doubters said that people would not turn out to watch it. We’ve proved them wrong.”

Although it is right to speculate on what this race has done for Oundle’s reputation and economy, it is more important to understand what Oundle has done for this race, and indeed women’s sport as a whole. The country had never seen an event anywhere near the size of the Women’s Tour; now that is something for Oundle to be proud of! The people of Oundle can hold their heads high and think “I was a part of that” or “I was there”. It is not just the organisers and riders and officials that helped to make the race such a success; it was the people of Oundle and their willingness to welcome equality.

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