Cycling is booming in Britain but what elements of the sport can a Yorkshire Tour de France improve? Nick Westby spoke to the county’s Olympic silver medallist, Lizzie Armitstead.
Creating a lasting legacy for cycling in this country is a two-pronged challenge for Lizzie Armitstead, a woman who has done as much as anyone to inspire participation in the sport.
Seeing more people out on bikes, whether young or old, for recreation or for competition, is the desire of anyone with the best interests of the sport at heart.
But for Armitstead there is an extra layer – greater involvement with women.
For that, the 25-year-old from Otley is at the head of the movement.
Having risen to prominence at London 2012 with a wonderfully bold ride to a silver medal in the Olympic women’s road race, Armitstead used that platform to challenge the sport’s authorities to move towards equality for men and women in professional cycling.
Two years on, Armitstead has been taken aback at the progress being made.
Already this year, she took her place in the inagural five-day women’s Tour of Britain, and later this month, on the same day as the men finish their Tour de France on the Champs Elysees, the women’s professional peloton will also contest a race up that famous boulevard.
“The first ever stage on the Champs Elysees this year might only seem a small step, but believe me it’s a big step, and women’s cycling is definitely going in the right direction,” says Armitstead, who currently leads the women’s road race World Cup standings.
“The first British Tour was really well received and I think even the organisers were shocked at how many turned up to watch it, so that was a good start.
“That race was a good example of how it should be done and highlighted that there’s an audience for women’s racing, so why not develop it further?
“There’s been massive progress since the Olympics. Coverage in the United Kingdom certainly has been a lot better and things like the Tour de France having a stage for women and our own Tour of Britain are things I wouldn’t have expected to happen within two years of London 2012, so there’s definitely been improvements.
“Obviously it’s a younger sport than the men’s side and there’s still a long way to go, but it’s getting there.”
Armitstead will be an interested spectator at the two stages of this year’s Tour de France as they weave through Yorkshire.
She is working as an ambassador at the Festival of Cycling at Harewood House, a “fun gig” she is excited about as it gives her the opportunity to witness first-hand the rising levels of interest in cycling.
Ultimately, one day she would love to ride in a three-week women’s Tour de France, a notion that has been mooted before and laughed off by critics, but one Armitstead believes has legs.
“The potential for a women’s Tour de France has been in the headlines recently and just by being there it did the job it needed to do, because it got people talking,” she adds.
“Realistically, though, it’s not just me who would have to ride a three-week stage race, it’s my team-mates (at Dutch team Boels Dolmans), some of whom have still got part-time jobs because women’s cycling doesn’t have that much money in it.
“So the first step would be to get women to be completely professional before you could get the peloton to do a women’s Tour de France.
“It’s definitely possible. I certainly don’t agree with anyone who says it’s not.”
Any development of women’s professional cycling needs a broader launchpad, and, for that, there can be nothing greater than the greatest free-for-all bike race right here on our own doorstep.
“I hope the impact of the Tour de France is big and I hope it inspires even more people to get out on their bikes,” says Armitstead.
“Even when I’m in Otley now I see more and more people out cycling. But, hopefully, watching the Tour will give people who are maybe thinking about giving it a go that extra push.”