Wiggle-Honda target top spot as women's cycling continues to rise

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Revamped Wiggle-Honda target top spot as women’s cycling continues to rise

It's sometimes difficult to believe it's just two years since Wiggle-Honda burst onto the scene - but in that short time the big-budget, UK-sponsored women’s professional cycling team has made a splash.

The brainchild of Australian cycling icon Rochelle Gilmore, the team, which at its inception included Great Britain’s golden girls of the track in Laura Trott, Jo Rowsell and Dani King, has since gone from strength to strength and will start their third season in the women’s peloton with big ambitions and plenty of optimism.

The 2015 Wiggle-Honda squad was unveiled in Ghent, Belgium, in late February after a week’s training camp ahead of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad semi-Classic, where Chloe Hosking was the team’s first finisher in 12th. Hosking is one of a number of new faces at Wiggle-Honda after a winter which has seen the riding personnel overhauled. Gone are Trott, Rowsell and fellow British team pursuit star Elinor Barker, while Hosking, two-time world track champion Annette Edmondson, 2012 world road race championship bronze medallist Elisa Longo Borghini and British criterium champion Eileen Roe are among the rider to join.

The sheer number of world and national champion bands displayed on the riders’ jersey sleeves as they assembled in Ghent emphasises the depth of talent. The rainbow cuff on the sleeve of Giorgia Bronzini, the Italian sprinter, is a nod to her back-to-back world championship wins in 2010 and 2011, while the team also boasts former Swedish, Spanish and American champions and the current champions of Belgium (Jolian D’hoore), Japan (Mayuko Hagiwara) and Australia (Peta Mullens).

Add to that the track success of King, a team pursuit gold medallist with Trott and Rowsell at London 2012, and Edmondson, alongside Roe’s criterium prowess and the experience of the likes of Hosking and Longo Borghini, and it’s easy to see why Gilmore is brimming with confidence and aiming to have Wiggle-Honda at the top of the world team standings at the end of the season.

But it’s not just on the road where the team is leading the way, with Gilmore at the coal face in driving change in women’s cycling, with more races, more publicity and more television coverage topping the agenda – and speaking in Ghent, Gilmore reiterated her belief that the quality and professionalism of women’s racing and its riders should reap greater rewards.

“From my career racing in Europe, I realised the girls I was dealing with, training with and racing with were so focussed in what they did and were just as professional as the men are,” said Gilmore. “That’s where the desire started to run my own professional women’s cycling team. The main thing I wanted was to create a team that’s as professional as these athletes.

“The aim was always to create a professional women’s cycling team that set the standards for others and, from the outlook, to make it sustainable. We all have the same goal of progressing the sport and making sure it goes in the right direction in the next couple of years and every athlete on this team is very united in working towards that goal.”

The team is not alone in aiming to put women’s cycling on a level playing field, and is joined by the Rabobank-Liv squad of superstar Marianne Vos and world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, and Lizzie Armitstead’s Boels-Dolmans team.

The 2015 Wiggle-Honda launch in itself was symbolic of what the team is trying to achieve – big budget, high-quality and great access and insight into the inner workings of the sport. Throughout the week, the team’s social media channels and those of headline sponsor Wiggle regaled us with action from the training camp, from blind kitbag challenges off the bike to tackling Belgium’s iconic cobbled climbs on it. Even while we were with the team, a spontaneous one-armed press-up challenge broke out at dinner.

Big budget the Wiggle-Honda team may be, but there are no airs or graces, with each rider happy to meet and talk to the press at length at the team launch. Dinner saw RCUK share a table with Hosking and Edmondson – the former having kicked off her Wiggle-Honda career with Bay Criterium Series victory back in her home country of Australia and the latter fresh from her world record-breaking track success in Paris.

Cycling already offers impressive access to its riders for journalists and fans alike – a fact not lost on me and the national newspaper journalist I was sat alongside, having previously met in a football press box where we were once forced to wait three hours for the manager’s obligatory post-match press conference. Wiggle-Honda’s riders, on the other hand, are more than happy to fulfil media duties, particularly as Hosking waxed lyrical about the state of women’s cycling and put the world to rights over a steak dinner.

Change for women’s cycling has been rapid in recent years, with Hosking revealing her pride that the sport alone can make her a living – a privilege afforded to many more female cyclists now than in previous years, though there are still plenty of female ‘professional’ cyclists who have to earn an additional income. The race calendar has grown in size and profile, too, notably with the introduction of the Women’s Tour and La Course in 2014, both of which are set to return in the summer.

And Gilmore couldn’t hide her delight at how the sport has come on in such “leaps and bounds” in Wiggle-Honda’s first two seasons.

“I’m extremely proud of where women’s cycling is today,” she said. “It’s all happened very rapidly in the last couple of years. What we have achieved in the last 12 months alone in women’s cycling is phenomenal.

“The Tour de France had La Course, which was a massive success for our sport, and we had the Women’s Tour which was a big goal for us and very successful. We’re all very proud that women’s cycling has come on leaps and bounds. It’s a sport now that people want to be involved in.”

Gilmore’s attitude is reflected by her riders, with King admitting she couldn’t have foreseen the rapid rise of women’s cycling. The 24-year-old track star, who is back in training after a horror crash which saw her suffer broken ribs and a punctured lung in November, will rack up more road miles in 2015 in a bid to hone her condition for the recently-adopted four-rider, 4km women’s team pursuit format ahead of Rio 2016.

With Trott, Barker and Rowsell having moved on from Wiggle-Honda (Trott and Barker have joined Britain’s newest UCI Women’s team, Stefan Wyman’s Matrix Fitness Pro Cycling, and Rowsell now rides for the Pearl Izumi Sports Tours International squad) it leaves King and Wales’ Amy Roberts as the only British riders to have been with the team since its inception.

And the Southampton-born rider told RCUK how she has been blown away by the rise in women’s cycling since her London 2012 success.

“In terms of women’s cycling, it’s just grown and grown,” said King. “We’ve seen since the Olympics it’s just been massive,” she said. “After the Games I went back to my old cycling club and schools and the amount of girls riding bikes just blew me away.

“When I started riding I’d be the only girl among maybe 50 people at the cycling club. It’s just so amazing to see and so nice to see that girls are aspiring to be the next world and Olympic champions on the bike.

“It’s been absolutely incredible at Wiggle-Honda to be fair and hats off to Rochelle and all of the sponsors that we’ve had because it’s been absolutely amazing and I’m really pleased and proud that I’ve been part of the team from the start. It’s been amazing for me because I’ve seen it from before women’s cycling got really big as well, so it’s nice to have been a part of that journey and just see how it has progressed.”

King is also under no doubt as to where the credit should lie, at least in part, for the rise of the sport – reserving special praise for her team manager.

“I definitely think there’s been a big effort from people like Rochelle who is clearly super-passionate about building the profile of women’s cycling,” said King.

“It needed people like that to push for it as I think we’ve proved that our racing can be just as exciting as the men’s so the more coverage we can get on TV, the more sponsors we get and it’s almost like a snowball effect from there.”

The raised profile of women’s cycling has also been accompanied by the almost unstoppable rise of the sport in the UK and King is relishing the prospect of a busy 2015 race calendar on UK shores.

“It’s strange to have become well-known I guess,” she admitted, “because I never got into the sport to do that. It’s just a result of my success, which is nice to know. I’d love to help the sport grow in the future because I am, obviously, really passionate about it. It’s really nice to have played a part in that and going forward I’d love to continue to do so.

“There’s a lot of good races on the British calendar as well, including the Women’s Tour which I’ll be targeting. It’s already grown massively, we’ve got the Tour Series and other great races on the calendar and I think it will be a great year for British women on the road.”

King and Gilmore will both hope it can be a great year for Wiggle-Honda riders, too, and Hosking’s early-season success has set the tone, while the Australian has been at it since the team launch, too, burying herself at the Omloop van het Hageland on Sunday March 8 to lead Belgian champion D’hoore to victory in her home country. Gilmore remains fiercely ambitious and is driven by a goal to lead the team to the top of the world rankings.

“People find it hard to comprehend sometimes that we have only just completed two years in the pro peloton because we have made such progress in that time,” she said. “We’re now at a point, in our third year, where we have riders who can win all kinds of races: sprints, Classics, stage races. Two years ago we were outside the top ten, we moved into the top ten last year and start this one ranked third in the world.

“We had a strong ambition, all of us, from day one to finish our third year as the number one ranked team in the world. We want to be competitive throughout the year.”

And after a winter which saw a heavy investment in new riders, Gilmore has no doubts about whether the team can usurp Rabobank-Liv and Boels-Dolmans to fulfil that ambition.

“I have a lot of confidence in these athletes,” she said. “The athletes have a proven track record of winning races and we have had endless meetings about how we can bring these riders together to achieve number one.

“It’s the ability of the athletes, as they have already shown, that gives me the confidence we can do that – and that’s not just physically, but mentally and in terms of personality, too.”

Leaders off the road and now with the ambition of being the undoubted leaders on it, there is more to come from Wiggle-Honda in 2015 – and with women’s cycling on the rise, there has never been a better time to be at the forefront of the sport.

The Wiggle-Honda 2015 launch was hosted by Wiggle, the UK’s number one online cycling and tri-sports retailer. For more information head to www.wiggle.co.uk

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