Fabian Cancellara (right) and Peter Sagan have made headlines for different reasons following the Tour of Flanders (Image | Getty)

Fabian Cancellara, right, and Peter Sagan have made headlines for different reasons following the Tour of Flanders. (Image | Getty)

Fabian Cancellara won cycling’s one-day Tour of Flanders last weekend. But you’d be forgiven for not having noticed this, as the story wasn’t about Cancellara. In fact, it wasn’t about anything that happened on the cobbled Belgian streets.

As you may have noticed from the picture, Peter Sagan, the Tour’s runner-up, decided to pinch the backside of one of the podium girls (Maja Leye) as Cancellara received his trophy – the fact that the word ‘trophy’ has some ambiguity attached to it in this context speaks volumes.

Some decried Sagan’s behaviour. Others said it was harmless fun. It even caused a Twitter rift between the cyclist, David Millarand his sister, Fran. But to focus on Sagan, who has since apologised, is to miss the point. Why in the name of holy hell does cycling have “podium girls” in the first place?

Now, yes I know that this is nothing new. Why am I only bringing this up now? It’s a fair point, and shows how pervasive sexism is in our society that I haven’t singled this out before. But being late to the party shouldn’t preclude one from joining in the conversation. 

It’s common practice at (road) cycling events for the victor to stand on top of the podium, and receive their trinket from a couple of skimpily dressed women. It’s then de rigeur for one – if not both – of them to kiss the winner on the cheek. Just google “Cycling podium girls” to see evidence of this.

A quick trawl of internet comments, and cycling forums will see some excuse this behaviour as cycling tradition. After all, it’s not as if anyone’s forced them. And they’re being paid, aren’t they? What’s the big deal, get off your lefty high horse and get a sense of humour with the rest of us.

Well, what’s wrong is that Sagan’s actions don’t exist in a bubble. While he should never have grabbed Leye’s behind – and deserves the opprobrium he has received, there should never have been an opportunity for such an occurrence to take place. The only women that we should be talking about from the Tour of Flanders are those who took part in the women’s race. But Marianne Vos’ victory will be a mere Wikipedia footnote, regardless of whether Sagan had acted inappropriately or not.

Having podium girls in cycling is an extension of the viewpoint that the whole purpose of a woman is for the satisfaction of a man. Not just a man, but a straight man (adding hetero-privilege to the list of transgressions). They’re in their place; with their mouths shut, and their chests out.

The achievements of women cyclists, especially Britons such as Lizzie Armitstead, should elevate women in the sport beyond such gestures by male competitors (Image | Cycling Weekly)

The achievements of women cyclists, especially Britons such as Lizzie Armitstead, should elevate women in the sport beyond such gestures by male competitors. (Image | Cycling Weekly)

Because heaven forbid that women are allowed a fair footing to show what they can do on the bike. Former Olympic champion, Nicole Cooke, and Olympic silver medallist, Lizzie Armistead have both spoken about the problems they’ve faced dealing with gender inequities in cycling. And while someone such as Victoria Pendleton has achieved notoriety as a cyclist – and rightly so – you have to ask how big a factor her looks have played in regards to the fame she has.

Either way, Pendleton remains an outlier. Podium girls are the norm; presented as part of the bounty, the spoils of victory for the winner.

And when you begin in a sport that has this type of prejudice at its core, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when someone tries to take advantage. That’s not to absolve Sagan, but to include the administrators of these cycling events in the criticism. Why should Sagan respect women, when cycling clearly doesn’t.

Punishing Sagan won’t fix sexism in cycling. Neither will removing podium girls. The problem is far too ossified for that. 

My suggestions for affecting positive change would be as follows: Increase the amount of female administrators in the sport (from all walks of society), increase money & promotion for female cycling competitions, assign severe penalties to those who indulge in any form of bigotry, and yes, remove podium girls immediately.

However, you may need to ignore every one of those suggestions. As shouldn’t be the one who makes them. In fact, they shouldn’t be made by any man. Doing so would be an abuse of the societal privilege inherent in being male.

We should be handing the responsibility to the women who are already in cycling (or who have been). Ask them what they want to change, and then ensure they have the latitude to do so.

Otherwise, cycling podium girls (along with pit-lane girls in Formula 1, and ring girls in boxing and MMA) will continue as the most rotten of arm candy, with their function going no further than, “Come over ‘ere love, give us a kiss. And smile, the camera’s watching.”

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