Burning Question: Why Don't More World Cup Downhill Teams Sponsor a Woman?


With just 21 women across the 37 UCI registered teams in the downhill World Cup, there's a big gender divide between who's getting sponsored and who isn't. Unlike our skinny tired siblings on the road, women in downhill race on the same day and on the same course as the men but there is still a huge disparity between the coverage and opportunities afforded to the men and the women. Even if the events may run in parallel, men are given longer training sessions at more favourable times and in the race itself, only a quarter of the number of women can qualify for a World Cup as men, and just 10 women's race runs are broadcast as opposed to 40 in the men's. In short, things are not equal.In a recent interview while talking about women's racing, Rachel Atherton said, "I think the sponsorship definitely needs to improve, I think it's ridiculous that big companies don't have a female rider and I think that's really shameful on their part." We spoke to team managers, racers and other industry personalities to see how sponsorship of women can be improved and what may be holding back more teams from sponsoring female athletes. The best responses are below.
Will Longden - Team Manager, Madison Saracen
Madison as a company has and still does support a number of female athletes across different cycling disciplines and previously, Manon Carpenter, Shanaze Reade, Tahnee Seagrave to name a few World Champions, also Rachel Atherton when Madison funded their Commençal Team. Madison Saracen Factory Team is always looking for talented riders who can fight for a podium and represent our portfolio of brands in the correct manner. As manager I don’t start that search based on a particular gender. The facts are, there are 15 UCI Elite downhill teams. There are only 10 women shown on the World Cup TV show, that’s not enough to go around. I know the top three female riders do a great job of marketing themselves and create a great following but beyond that the commercial reality is females not making the podium, don’t drive sales by the public and right now it’s hard to justify investing in a female rider who isn’t one of the top three and none of them are available.There is an exception in Madison Saracen Teams’ case and it’s one that has been at the heart of our team from the beginning, the development of young talent from grass roots through to WC podium. The first success story of that was obviously Manon Carpenter, followed by Matt Walker and I am on the look-out for the next opportunity. Sadly, in the last group of Development riders we only had one female interested and before that we had no requests from female riders when we put the word out that we were looking for riders. National races in the UK are no longer supported by the top UK female riders and by that I mean, turning up and racing every round. The talent pool has shrunk considerably in the UK and that is partly down to the demise of the National series and the removal of funding by British Cycling, which now also includes removing support for GB downhill athletes of any level.

With regard to Rachel saying “I think the sponsorship definitely needs to improve, I think it's ridiculous that big companies don't have a female rider and I think that's really shameful on their part.” Perhaps that comment comes from the frustration of working so hard and being such a great role model and despite all of that, there is clearly still an imbalance that it would be nice to see levelled. It has to make commercial sense though, as I’m sure the Atherton’s will soon find out with their own recently launched bike company.

Katy Curd - Racer, Privateer
I would love to see more teams back women riders, I think its a shame that there are still a massive percentage of teams out there without a woman on their team yet so many women riders looking and deserving the backing and support. From my perspective it is really hard to make the step from doing everything on your own at races to having that backing and support. I believe the support and sponsorship really needs to be earned but it is hard to close that gap at races when you are having to compete against riders that have the full factory support, from having mechanics, endless spares, people on track filming and line spotting, even having food and meals prepared. All these differences take a little more pressure and stress off the riders and give them more time to focus. Compare that to a privateer who is having to do everything from travel, funding, spares, being your own mechanic, knowing the lines etc. I think its a hard gap to close to compete against those who have the backing of a team, which then becomes hard to prove yourself as a rider to get noticed by teams.

The coverage for women has improved a lot over the last couple of years but it would always be nice to see more, the guys always get a lot more coverage every race when you look at online articles after each races but there are more of them so I guess its easier and needed to include the top men in the sport. I always get the feedback from people who follow the races, that Redbull TV should show more of the women on the live feed at World Cups and I believe this would help massively to help women get that extra sponsorship as well, to show to sponsors the coverage they can give back at each race.

Kathy Sessler - Team Manager, Santa Cruz Syndicate
Why don't more teams sponsor a woman? As you mentioned this as a topic for debate, therefore it makes the concept polarizing and divisive in my view. It will divide opinion among readers to take a side and I don't think this helps anyone, much less women.First, this implies that teams don't sponsor many woman, and you would need to examine the facts to see what percentage of woman are sponsored compared to percentage of men in the field and perhaps there might be an example of many woman having opportunity, or not. I'm not going to do this, just posing the perspective.Let's ask the question, why do teams sponsor anybody? I can speak for Syndicate when I say that we look for athletes that are podium contenders with personalities that align with our marketing goals and family style atmosphere. I believe teams sponsor "athletes" for marketing purposes to sell product. So teams will seek out "athletes" who fit their marketing perspective. This might be a male or female. Since 2006 the Syndicate has had six riders, so that is over 13 years... this team doesn't have many opportunities for anyone. I've seen us described as a "boys club", isn't that funny when this team has had a female team manager for 15 years! And it should be very clear that Santa Cruz Bicycles supports women evidenced by their Juliana line of bikes. So if a woman wants to be on the Syndicate there would need to be an opportunity in the line up... since our turnover is so very low, the opportunity won't present for many years. She would have to be very fast, capable of winning World Cups, and have a marketable personality that would fit with the team. We keep an eye on all athletes out there and if the right fit comes along you never know.

But I am dismayed that this topic is presented in a polarizing way and that will just perpetuate a perception that woman don't have opportunity. It's been a personal perspective of mine for 30 years that women actually have more opportunity in this sport than men and my personal career has proven this to myself.

Fabien Cousine - Team Manager, Polygon UR
I think first of all there are fewer women that compete and it’s often the same women that are on the podium so for a team it is obviously it is a bit harder to hire women when the chances of podiums are a bit lower because of all the super-fast women that are always on the podium. That, I guess, is what the other teams are thinking but for us we are really lucky to have had Tracey Hannah on board for 8 years now.For us it's a huge advantage to have a woman, I think it opens up the perspective of the team in terms of feelings and communication. Throwing a bunch of men together, it sometimes gets a bit crazy so having a woman balances it out and gives everyone a different perspective. So far it has been great to have Tracey in the team especially as a person also she is a great friend and also professional, a great ambassador. Tracey can make a living out of racing but I remember when she started racing she was only part time and she was working also on the side and we had to push for extra from our sponsors mid-season to put things together to keep her.If we are talking about women on the downhill circuit, clearly the UCI could help more but unfortunately they went the opposite way. For the team rankings, the points given to women and men used to be equal but recently they have reduced the points given to women. I guess this was based on the fact that there were more men racing and that the field of men racers was more dense. Also since the beginning of the year this discrimination has continued as the points given to women to select UCI Elite teams have also been reduced so it means that teams supporting women have more chance to pay more fees, be less visible and have less voice than teams supporting men.

I thought that the UCI made a lame decision, because they clearly have not taken in consideration of how difficult it is for a woman to get a career as a racer in downhill. Yes there are fewer women racing, men are faster but come on we are in 2019, these women ride the same tracks and they have also pushed their limits, pushed the quality of their riding and given us a great show the last few years, so giving them the same points and same change is, I think, a minimum that the UCI should do to bring back equality and encourage women racing.

Lars Sternberg - Marketing, Transition Bikes
Oh wow... I'm going to skirt around your question because I don't care to speculate why other teams don't sponsor women. I'll provide a little insight from our perspective though. Note* I want to clarify that I'm not talking about social media 'influencers' in my following comments. We don't sponsor anyone, male or female, based on how many followers they have. It's not even really a consideration for us. Ever. We choose to work with riders because of who they are and the personal connections they make. If they happen to have a solid social media following then that's just a bonus.*We are proud to have Tahnée leading our WC downhill team and being the most premiere athlete we sponsor. Tony (FMD/Transition WC team manager and Tahnée’s dad) and I have discussed this a number of times, and our firm stance remains that there is zero pressure from Transition to bring an elite male onto the team. I'd venture to say he's happy and proud to have his daughter leading the team as well. The team has an elite male rider in Tahnée’s younger brother Kaos - who is slowly climbing the ranks in age, style and pace - however, something is causing Tony to feel that he needs to periodically check with us to see if we require that top 10 male. The fact that he's had the notion a number of times that we'd want him to add another high level male athlete to the roster tells me there is a widespread disparity in that level of racing and sponsorship culture across the board. This is not a dig at Tony by any means, it's directed at the culture that he lives within that I view is the problem.I've heard arguments in the past for why women have been paid less at event's due to rider numbers being lower and so forth. But it's 2019, what the hell? The only thing that's going to change this is if more women get deals/rides/sponsorship's. What does it tell aspiring young girl mountain bikers when there are only a handful or women that can support themselves from a racing career? If there were more opportunities to justify pursuing a career as a professional mountain biker more young girls would do it, eventually increasing female participant numbers. Yeah, the old chicken before egg argument I know, but I feel it's up to the industry to create the change. We work with a number of other female riders and racers in various capacities and they all inspire us here at Transition, as much, if not more than our male riders and racers. Today, there was a video that came out on the world wide web featuring Veronique Sandler, she was absolutely ripping. It was sick, it made me want to go out and ride. So rad. I'm noticing this more and more, times are-a-changing.

There is always room to improve though, we definitely don't have a 50/50 female to male ratio of riders we sponsor, but we're closer than we were a few years ago. And we're going to continue building our female roster. I encourage other brands to do the same.

Myriam Nicole - Racer, Commencal Vallnord
You have to look at the figures and it’s a fact that the sport is male-dominated. So, I kind of accept the way things are. If we get more women riding there will be more competition and that will increase participation levels and therefore coverage would increase and so on.I don’t think there is too much discrimination in our sport in relation to the figures. We now get the same prize money from the UCI for example, which is rewarding when I (and other female athletes) put the same time and effort into training and racing. But women don’t receive the same amount of media coverage as men and sometimes the quality of that content or coverage can be questionable. Overall I think in mountain biking, compared to other sports, women are much less ‘side-lined’ and compared to how many there are of us racing DH for example, it’s not surprising that men are talked about more because there are loads more of them racing! Does a girl make more bike sales for bike brand than a man for example? Personally, I don’t think so. But she is still definitely still indispensable to a brand.

In Dh specifically for example, the top 5 women have the same support / team structure as the top 15-20 (ish) men. This is a huge difference in numbers and one that affects sponsorship and the means to which women outside of the top 5 can continue to support their training, travel, fees, etc. Those women must find a job to be able to try to be a professional sportswoman and this takes time away from training and so on. It’s a bit like a vicious circle at first.