Bike races and podium girls: Time to kiss goodbye?

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1. The story of the pinch

After the Tour of Flanders at the end of March, Cannondale rider Peter Sagan caused controversy in the cycling world and beyond  by pinching the bottom/behind/butt (choose your country’s preferred slang as our readers are from all over the world) of one of the podium girls who was occupied planting a kiss on the cheeks of the winner. For those unfamiliar with the ways of professional cycling, that’s what podium girls do.

Jane Aubrey, in Cycling News, writes:

“The move by the 23-year-old was crass to say the least, but it was just another example of disrespect being shown against women in cycling. Ask yourself, on a day where the great Marianne Vos ticked off one of the few major races she had yet to add to her extensive palmares, why instead of celebrating another achievement by one of the most prolific athletes in the sport regardless of gender, we were again left to consider ways in which cycling sets women back and an industry that – at times – perpetuates a misogynistic attitude.”

Aubrey does a terrific job listing and tearing apart the excuses offered up in Sagan’s defense. He’s 23. So? A talented rider? Non sequitur. It was a joke? Of course. And the most pernicious, she was asking for it. Because podium girls, hired for their good looks for the job of kissing winning male cyclists, agreed to have their bottoms pinched? I don’t think so. It’s sexual harassment. Aubrey notes that we can clearly see the woman in question trying to move the rider in question’s hand. Receiving pinches isn’t in her job description.

You can read the rest of Aubrey’s piece here, The bottom line on Sagan’s Flanders podium pinch.

You can also get a flavour of the comments chucked about here where critics of Sagan’s pinch are called, “Humourless Puritans – ignorant knee-jerks since the 15th Century.” It’s not pretty. Some of the commentators claim that she was his girlfriend. She isn’t.

Here’s her side, from a story that focuses on her reaction, Podium girl Maja Leye says she fought to keep calm as Peter Sagan pinched her behind: 25-year-old says she was “frozen to the spot” and only the thought of millions watching helped her keep her composure.

Maja Leye, aged 25, who was planting the traditional kiss on the cheek of winner Fabian Cancellara when Sagan touched her, told Het Nieuwsblad: “Suddenly, I felt this hand. I hadn’t seen it coming because I had my back to him. I understood quickly what had happened. I was frozen to the spot.”Leye admitted that she fleetingly considered slapping the Cannondale rider, but believes that had she reacted, the situation would have gone from bad to worse.”

The defenders of Sagan would do well to study up on fallacies of reasoning. Information is Beautiful has a lovely info-graphic guide to fallacies here.

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2. An excellent question: Why are there podium girls anyway?

In a column in the Guardian Matt Seaton writes,

“But perhaps the controversy lifts the lid on an issue cycling needs to look at anew: is the use of models as some kind of uncomfortable hybrid of hostess and shamelessly exploitative “eye candy” now outmoded and inappropriate to the modern sport?

In amateur races, it’s not unusual for a woman to award the trophies to winners in men’s races, but she will often be a local dignitary of the host town. The clue is in the word “dignitary”. So does professional cycling really need to award winners kisses from “trophy” females?

The whole spectacle is unbecoming – not just tacky and embarrassing, but retrograde and demeaning. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the institutionalized sexism of the “podium girls” convention is of a piece with entrenched attitudes that relegate women’s racing to “poor relation” status. Cycling is a sport that loves to celebrate its traditions, but this is one it ought to leave by the roadside.”

Yes, it’s time to to say goodbye to the tradition of podium girls. Even as eye candy, it assumes that all the male professional cyclists are straight. They aren’t.

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3. My one time experience with something like podium girls

I was at an academic conference once with the equivalent of podium girls. It was a very odd experience. It was a meeting of The International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (IVR)  in Granada, Spain. That conference was also notable for the most impressive piece of coloured parchment I’ve ever received. I needed to show my passport to pick it up. It was  signed by the mayor of the city and it seriously looks more official than either of my university degrees. So I got a sense that it was an old-fashioned, bureaucratic event right from the day of my arrival when I was presented with my scroll. (I’d tell you what it says but it’s in Spanish.)

Granada struck me as an old-fashioned place. My hotel concierge told me the internet shut down in Spain for two hours after lunch for a siesta. I felt like a workaholic North American trying to argue about the difference between the internet being closed and turning off one’s hotel wireless.

It was also the only academic conference I’ve ever attended with an excess of conference staff. The women were young, thin, and beautiful and wore tight fashionable tailored suits with heels and mini skirts. They sort of looked like I imagine flight attendants looked back when they were called “stewardesses” or maybe even “air hostesses.” These women–I mentally thought of them as the doo wop girls, or our back up singers–accompanied us on sight seeing trips organized by the conference and for key note addresses they stood on stage flanking the speaker lest a pen be dropped or, shudder, a glass of water run dry. It looked like an easy job, except for the heels.

Philosophers are a naive lot. One American man said to me what a shock it was that all the women looked alike. They were all so thin, so beautiful. What a coincidence. Did all the women in Granada look this? (He also obviously hadn’t left the conference hotel.) Clearly it hadn’t occurred to him that it might be a job criteria, a ground on which they were hired.

Ditto the podium girls in cycling. They are another fine European tradition. There are no bad looking podium girls since being good looking is basically the whole job. That and smiling. And cheek kissing.

But not being pinched.

The IVR conference staff made me feel uncomfortable in the same way that I imagine women riders feel about the podium girls. They emphasize old fashioned and outmoded ways of being in the world, where men do (give academic talks and race bicycles) and women respond (kiss, applaud, refill glasses of water.)

That world is over, thank God, and it’s time to say goodbye to podium girls.

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4. Where women belong in cycling, on bikes and in races

Oh, and here’s the best image from the Tour of Flanders, Marianne Vos winning. You can read more about her victory here.

5. Past posts on women’s cycling

Do Cupcake Rides and Heels on Wheels help or hurt the cause of women’s cycling?

Bike seats, speed, and sexual depravity

Bicycles: Making good women go bad since the 1800s

Thanks AB for sending me the links.

About Sam B

Philosopher, feminist, parent, and cyclist!

12 thoughts on “Bike races and podium girls: Time to kiss goodbye?

  1. Craig Burgess says:

    The two stereotypes which exist for “looking for love in all the wrong places”: (1) men who “win” love by their accomplishments and/or conquests; (2) women who make themselves worthy of love by doing, i.e. self-sacrificing themselves for others. Podium girls are not supposed to be people; they are supposed to laugh off a simple pinch of their perfectly curvy behinds in a graceful manner, while symbolizing the availability of the perfect female form to the male winner of the race. As for women winning races, that’s great – but don’t spend too much time on it; after all, it won’t sell, i.e. increase your ratings, because it doesn’t fit at all into the abovementioned stereotypes, so instead be graceful and allow the woman who won that race, whatever it was, to say a few words but then cut immediately to men’s downhikll skiing, or to a commercial starring Penelope Cruz (or simply in which sex sells). This is how this world really works unfortunately and it really is ridiculous, not to mention wrong.

  2. Caitlin says:

    I don’t get people who defend something like the cyclist grabbing that girl’s butt. Would they be so blase if someone had pinched their junk? Doubtful. Why do we ladies not get the benefit of being considered people first and foremost?

    I saw people making the point that the podium girls are like the spoils after winning a war. I am not sure if anyone rebutted the argument because my eyes turned so red with rage that I closed the tab down and walked away from my computer.

    • Sam B says:

      It’s outrageous, I know. Usually I avoid comments but these are so striking and so tied to discussion we’ve all been having about rape culture, that I had to read and share them.

  3. Tracy I says:

    This is an entirely new phenomenon to me. All how outdated. And I can’t even bear to look at the comments. Shudder.

  4. Craig Burgess says:

    I think to some degree people live somewhat vicariously through their televisions and other mass media. As Caitlin confirmed (as I did not read the comments), men look for love by conquest, i.e. the podium girls being “the spoils of war”. Women look for love through endless self-sacrfice, and Vos looks victorious in a way hardly like Penelope Cruz or Julia Roberts in the movies, who have always in some manner self-sacrificed themselves, albeit without smearing their makeup although their hair might be slightly tussled in a very sexy manner (much like the photo of the 17 year old figure skater you posted in an earlier blog, by the way, who just happens to be smiling and beautiful, and with a wide open crotch for all men to see). So – John and Jane Q. Public can’t live vicariously through Vos’ victory, as they can through that of the figure skater (the victory while still looking like a princess, for the women; the crotch shot of a beautiful smiling girl, for the men) but the men at least can sure laugh and take outrageous delight in the ass-pinching of the spoils of war (and please don’t shoot the bearer of bad news, Sam, but be absolutely sure of it, they will attack you and label you a crazed pontificating useless academic throwing smelly feathers thinking their lightning bolts, all from her ivory tower, for even linking this crude and admittedly unforgiveable but relatively harmless boyish behaviour to “rape culture”). It’s insidious.

  5. Jean says:

    So tiring, the podium girls. Sure congratulate the winners without the women. Would the cycling world miss that??

  6. […] horribly sexist and that attitude and culture can permeate all the way down to the club level. Read Bike races and podium girls: Time to kiss goodbye? to get a taste of this. I will say though that I’ve encountered very few men with bad […]

  7. […] need to tell many of the readers of this blog how much sexism prevails in the sport (check out Sam’s recent post on podium girls, for example). So I wasn’t shocked to be surrounded by (more or less middle […]

  8. […] one hand, it is an image  of women on bikes rather than men on bikes and women on podiums. (See Is it time to kiss the podium girls goodbye?) But on the other, it’s not a particularly diverse image of female fitness. The women are not […]

  9. […] For past posts on sexism and cycling, see Sexiest pro cyclists and Kissing podium girls goodbye. […]

  10. […] That has started to change in recent years, too slowly, perhaps, as women have rightfully demanded a place on the podium. And not just as a prize to be won. […]

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