The Women's Tour is the closest we've come to parity, but cycling still has a very long way to go

Dame Sarah Storey
The start of the OVO Energy Tour Series race in Birkenhead - Action Plus

The sixth edition of the OVO Energy Women’s Tour begins in Suffolk today and while my team Storey Racing won’t actually be there this year I still can’t wait to watch the race unfold.

The Women’s Tour is an incredible race, superbly organised - arguably the best in the world in terms of professionalism - and we should all be very proud of it.

With equal prize money to the men’s Tour of Britain, World Tour status, a star-studded lineup including all five previous winners, incredible crowds every day, and without question the toughest parcours yet, this year’s race should be a cracker.

And yet.

While the Women’s Tour is probably as close as any women’s race has come to achieving parity with the men, the fact that we make such a big deal of this every year tells its own story.

This sort of professionalism should be the norm not the exception.

Great Britain's Sarah Storey on the podium after winning gold in the Women's C5 3000m Individual Pursuit Final at the 2016 Olympics Credit: PA

The fact is, until there is live television coverage of the race - unfortunately this year there will once again only be an hour’s highlights package every evening - it cannot claim to be truly equal.

This isn’t to criticise, however, it’s just a statement of fact. With the increase of race time from five to six stages for 2019, the organisation is always pushing for more and if you wanted to put money on a race being the very first to create absolute parity, you would put it on this one.

It’s a brutal marketplace out there, for race organisers and teams alike. This year’s Women’s Tour has only one British team, UCI women’s team Drops Cycling, and they had to crowd fund over the winter to survive after their previous backer dropped them.

At least with races like the Women’s Tour and the Women’s Tour de Yorkshire - which this year did have live television coverage - we are setting the benchmark in Britain.

Television coverage of women’s racing elsewhere in the world remains patchy, prize money often pitiful and as for salaries for professional riders… we’re still a long way off achieving true parity. I read recently that the winner of the men’s Giro d’Italia - Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz - was renegotiating his 150,000 euro salary. There were reports that he was being offered 1.5million a year to go to Ineos. How many women even earn 150,000 euros? A handful at most.

Amy King of Jadan Weldtite Vive Le Velo leads a group of riders during the women's race Credit: Getty Images

With minimum salaries not yet established, and prize money so low, the pathway for young riders coming through remains precarious. Particularly in Britain where the sport is not as well established as elsewhere in Europe. It’s getting harder and harder and the benefits of the new UCI World Tour regulations being introduced from 2020 are yet to be felt.

It is one of the reasons I have teamed up with Skoda to try to help the next generation of women coming through. While the Women’s Tour is getting under way in Beccles today, I’ll be at the Olympic velodrome in Stratford putting a handful of hopefuls through their paces for a new academy we are starting.

The concept is simple. Skoda wanted to help provide another pathway to elite cycling, for riders who have talent but haven’t been able to find a suitable pathway. After a long consultation with various stakeholders including clubs, sponsors, teams and fans we decided the biggest gap was probably in the under-23s category, which doesn’t exist for women.

We’re offering five applicants the chance to be part of the Academy for 2019 and we’ve designed a series of experiences both on and off the bike to further their development. To ride the national championships course later this month, a stage of the Tour de France, the Etape du Tour and finally Ride London 100. All with support from Skoda and Storey Racing.

Riders come round a bend in Salisbury Credit: Getty Images

The idea is to give them an insight into race tactics, support their preparations for different types of event and fill in the gaps in their technical understanding, which is often missed when riders don’t come through a traditional club structure.

We’re not just looking at the test results on Monday. We’re looking for aptitude and hunger. I’m very open minded about the type of athlete that will be suitable and it would be incredible if we could find new talent with the potential to become a professional one day.

As with all new strategies, there’s a sense of developing the opportunity as we go. But I’m hopeful the Academy will grow and be commissioned for another year after this one.

In the meantime, we need races like the Women’s Tour to continue to raise the bar for everyone. Just looking at the weather forecast for the first few days, the number of stages this week which are over 140km, the hilltop finish in Burton Dassett on Thursday, the climbs in mid-Wales on Friday, and the final day in Carmathenshire on Saturday, it’s once again going to be awesome.

Dame Sarah Storey is working with ŠKODA to close the gender gap in cycling. To find out more, search ŠKODA DSI Cycling Academy.