As British Cycling launches its strategy to get one million more women cycling by 2020, world record breaking track cyclist Jess Varnish tells us about what inspired her and how the new strategy will get more women to take to two wheels.
When I first started cycling at the age of five I didn’t really have a female cyclist role model that I could look up to.
But a five year old wouldn’t be short of inspiration today. Thanks to the achievements of our fantastic female riders and my current and former colleagues in the GB Cycling Team – Victoria Pendleton, Becky James (below, right), Rebecca Romero, Nicole Cooke, Laura Trott, Sarah Storey, Shanaze Reade – the next generation of young female cyclists have their pick of talented riders to look up to.
My Dad was my hero and he was the one who inspired me to pursue my talent in the sport. He was a world champion in cycle speedway and I remember how exciting it was to watch him race.
I started off mountain biking before joining Halesowen Cycling Club, which had its own outdoor track. When I was about seven I began track cycling and I was soon racing every week. I never used to train, my parents were just happy to let me do what I was doing.
And look where that early inspiration to get into cycling has got me. I am now a full time sprint rider for British Cycling. I competed in the London 2012 games, alongside Victoria Pendleton, and have medalled at World and European level.
Riding in a home Olympics at London 2012 was an experience that I will never forget. However, the enjoyment that I get from riding with my Dad on a bright Sunday morning is a match for anything I will achieve as a pro rider.
It is with this type of everyday riding for enjoyment that British Cycling has produced its new women’s strategy. The aim is to get one million more women cycling by 2020. It is an ambitious target, but I think it’s an achievable one. And it’s also a goal that I am personally committed to.
Along with Lizzie Armitstead, I’m an ambassador for British Cycling’s Breeze programme which is based around offering rides for women led by women. It’s just one of the many initiatives run by British Cycling aiming to get more women out on their bikes.
Women’s participation in sport is not just an issue that affects cycling but the vast majority of sports across the country. In cycling we’ve got a 50-year history of a sport dominated by male road racing, and that perception is not going to change overnight. Before the Beijing 2008 Olympics, British Cyclists had won only one medal in a women’s event (Yvonne Macgregor’s Bronze in Sydney 2000). In the following two Olympics we won 10 medals and saw Sarah Storey continue her dominance of Paralympic cycling winning four Golds in London. So we’ve now got the role models; we just need to use them to freshen up cycling’s image and appeal.
Take up of cycling among women is heading in the right direction. In terms of participation the last 12 months have seen 63,000 women cycling more regularly. One of those women could potentially win a gold medal in 2020.
I’m now looking ahead to Rio 2016 and I hope that by then we’ll be well on our way to hitting our one million more women cycling target. It’s humbling to think that five year old girls out there somewhere will look at me and think ‘I want to be the next Jess Varnish.’
The difference now is that women and girls who do want to get into cycling will have opportunities at every level, however they want to ride.