I first met former GB track and road professional Emma back in 2010 when she was running a training camp for Hot-Chillee, the organisers of London-Paris, from Stephen Roche’s former hotel on the Cote d’Azur. During that camp she fortuitously met triathlete Claire Scrutton (now Blackie) and the two put in motion Cycle Cote d’Azur which, as it enters its third year of operation, I’m pleased to report is going from strength to strength. Finally, we’ve found time in our equally busy schedules to enjoy a coffee and one of my delicious muffins – recipe to follow later in The Musette – and discuss Emma’s distinguished career (sadly cut short by injury), the state of women’s cycling and her current interests.
Sheree: How did you get into bike racing?
Emma: I started racing aged 12, encouraged by my father, a former athlete and keen cyclist, and his cycling buddies. Although there were plenty of GB role models on the international scene such as Sally Hodge, Sally Dawes and Marie Purvis back then there was no structure to support girls’ racing. I had to race against the boys. As a consequence, my father suggested that I try to set national records on the track in order to get some attention. If I recall correctly, I set over 30 national records, some of which still stand!
Not only was there no structure, there was little funding. When I raced at the junior worlds I had to ride in used kit and hand everything back afterwards. Plus, we had a limited amount of equipment, basically only our own. We had to save up for anything top of the range, such as a Shimano Dura Ace group set.
Fortunately that all changed in 1997, when I was 18, with the advent of Lottery funding. Indeed I remember sitting with Peter Keen at the Mere Hotel in Knutsford, who told me that Great Britain would be the number one cycling nation by 2014. People not unnaturally laughed after getting only two bronzes in the Atlanta Olympics. No one’s laughing now. I went on to represent GB at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics but retired in 2008 after a number of serious injuries, notably a broken back in 2005.
Sheree: To which I should add, you recovered from your injury and won bronze in the pursuit at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. I first ‘encountered’ Emma when she shared the commentary booth at the Tour de France with Eurosport’s Sean Kelly and David Harmon. Personally, I thought your titbits from the peloton added some much-needed colour to their commentary.
Emma: Thanks, you can tell David that when he’s down here riding with me in a week or so.
Sheree: I will. Particularly since I’ve been threatening to interview him since last year’s Tour! So, while it’s fair to say that women’s cycling in Great Britain is well-funded and in rude health, the same cannot be said for the sport elsewhere, can it?
Emma: Sadly, no. A number of women’s races such as Tour de L’Aude have disappeared from the cycling calendar and once they’ve gone they don’t come back. Sponsors of women’s cycling teams come and go with alarming regularity, there’s no minimum wage for the women, little or no television coverage and a climate in the sport which isn’t conducive to changing the situation.
Of course, the minimum wage is a big chicken-and-egg situation. If there was one, many sponsors would disappear as most teams are run on a shoestring. There’s always going to be a gap between men’s and women’s cycling and I don’t know how you can fix it.
Sheree: Can the situation be improved?
Emma: I’ve heard suggestions that maybe the WorldTour teams could use a women’s team to give exposure to their smaller sponsors so that they’d at least be on a jersey rather than the side of the bus. But that would mean them diverting funds away from the men’s team. It’s a good idea but I honestly can’t see it happening. If anything, there’s now even less support for women’s cycling from the WorldTour teams.
Sheree: That’s true. There’s just Orica-AIS, though Rabobank, having pulled out of the men’s team, have decided to maintain their support of the women’s team, wholly because of superstar Marianne Vos.
Emma: Yes, well, women’s racing enjoys plenty of public support in both Belgium and Holland.
I’m not sure anyone has a solution to the current issues in women’s cycling, at least nothing that more money wouldn’t resolve. In its absence, the riders themselves need to seize the opportunity to make potential sponsors aware, via social media or bike styling, that women’s racing is visually just as aggressive and exciting as the men’s, if not more so. The UCI has set up a Women’s Commission which shows it recognises there are issues even if it hasn’t yet come up with a solution. But the steady drip of confessionals from the men’s side isn’t helping the sport overall to move forward and look to the future which it needs to do otherwise it will implode.
Sheree: Al Jazeera televised the women’s Tour of Qatar. That type of exposure has got to help the situation. I’ve even heard talk of a women’s Tour of Great Britain. There’s British Cycling’s recently announced initiative in conjunction with Sky, not forgetting companies such as Rapha who are encouraging more women to cycle, as indeed is Cycle Cote d’Azur. These are all moves in the right direction to broaden the sport’s appeal and participation, aren’t they?
Emma: Absolutely. Al Jazeera could well be an agent of change for women’s cycling by making it more visually accessible. The leisure side of cycling has exploded particularly the volume and choice of sportifs and cycling holidays. People recognise that it’s a very approachable sport. They can ride the same roads as the professional peloton plus stand on the side of the road and watch them suffer for free. Few of us can play football at Old Trafford or watch Rafa Nadal warm up for a match. In addition, it’s a very inclusive sport. You can start riding on a modestly priced bike.
For a lot of people, cycling has become the new golf. At Cycle Cote d’Azur we aim to give our clients peace of mind when riding on unfamiliar territory and a very personal experience. Our rides are carefully graded – there’s something for everyone. We must be getting it right as we have clients who return every year from all over the world and who promote our services through word-of-mouth recommendation.
Sheree: Always the best form of advertising!
Emma: Each year we further refine our offering based on the open and honest feedback from our clients and our posse of local guides. However, our overall aim remains the same: to give our clients, whatever their ability, a stress-free, very personal and enjoyable experience riding on the Cote d’Azur. We’ve recently expanded our team by hiring Annika Johannesen, a very experienced racer from the US, who’ll be coordinating our Tours, looking after our hire fleet of Specialized bikes, running our bike maintenance courses and maintaining our blog.
Sheree: Annika’s very knowledgeable. I’ve picked up some very useful tips from her at this afternoon’s bike maintenance course – offered as part of Cycle Cote d’Azur’s special women’s long weekend package. The centenary Tour de France is coming to the Cote d’Azur this year. Are you doing something special for your clients?
Emma: Yes, we’ve a week-long package with a number of special surprises for our guests, including the chance to ride with one of Sky’s riders.
Sheree: Emma, it was great to catch up. Thanks for your time and I look forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I’ll put my thinking cap on about a route suitable for the Rapha 100km Challenge on 7 July.