Women’s Team Sky proposal was rejected ‘at board level’, says former CEO

Team Sky made moves towards starting a women’s team in the wake of the 2012 Olympics but were thwarted at board level, resulting in a vital chance being missed for a generation of female riders, according to an interview in the magazine Rouleur to be published this week.

Since then, increasing numbers of World Tour teams have taken to running both men and women’s squads, with varying degrees of integration between them, and the issue of whether Sir Dave Brailsford should follow suit at what is now Team Ineos has remained a live one.

Speaking to the broadcaster Orla Chennaoui as part of a special issue of the magazine Rouleur devoted to women’s cycling, Fran Millar, a founder of Team Sky who rose to be the team’s CEO, recalled a meeting she had with the Olympic silver medallist Lizzie Deignan in London in 2012 to discuss such a team.

After that, Millar said: “We were pushing and raising it at every board meeting. There was a window of opportunity at the early outset of the post-Beijing era, where we could have done something to really shift the dial.”

She added: “It was a decision that was made at Sky board level. I don’t think this was a Dave Brailsford decision to be fair to him. But not seizing that opportunity was, with hindsight, an oversight … There was a generation of young women that did miss out. Lizzie’s had to blaze her own trail, as have many others.”

According to Millar, the decision was taken largely for marketing reasons. “[Sky] were sponsoring the GB team at the time, so there was a female connection through that, access to Lizzie and [2008 Olympic road race champion] Nicole [Cooke]. I think they felt there wasn’t enough commercial viability – the Tour de France so massively outweighs the commercial value in return on investment.

“A lot of the research said that women were saying that it wasn’t women being successful at sport that made them want to participate, it was the country. Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour made women get out and ride just as much as men.”

In her autobiography, Steadfast, published in 2017, Deignan recalled, where a women’s Team Sky was concerned, “the cost would have been relatively minimal – perhaps half a million pounds compared to their budget of over £30m – and it would have set an example to others, providing a focus for British women and sitting well alongside other activities”.

Since then, seven men’s WorldTour teams have set up associated women’s squads – including Deignan’s Trek-Segafredo – with two more in the pipeline for 2022. Brailsford, however, continues to remain lukewarm about such a move for his Ineos team, telling the Guardian this past week: “We haven’t got a plan but that’s not to say we won’t have,” adding that changing sponsors from Sky to Ineos in 2019 had been “a big undertaking”.

Elsewhere in the Rouleur interview, Deignan recalls the reaction within the cycling community when she announced her pregnancy in early 2018, and her clothing sponsor, Santini, were the first to congratulate her. Of others’ reactions, she says: “You don’t want to know. It wasn’t good. I got to a position where I felt I almost had to apologise.”

Deignan has since returned to compete at the highest level after the birth of her daughter, Orla, in September 2018, winning La Course by Le Tour de France, the GP Plouay and the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic in 2020.

However, she recalled that much of the reaction from people she worked with had not been supportive. “Some of the conversations with women on the team, they see it as a betrayal of your contract because you knowingly got pregnant whilst under contract … I don’t think that a man in my sport would think he’s betraying his team by starting a family.”

The Yorkshirewoman has been a campaigner for equality in her sport since first speaking out immediately after taking a silver medal in the road race at the London Games: “I’ve almost had to become an advocate for my sex, rather than just be a cyclist,” she told Rouleur.

Deignan began calling for a minimum wage for women’s professional cyclists as long ago as 2016; its inception in the last two years has, she believes, completely changed the equation for her and her peers.

However, the sexism that has dogged the sport since the 19th century remains, whether conscious or not, as she recalled winning La Course in 2020. “I won a watch, which was lovely, but it’s a man’s watch. I didn’t even realise. I’d just won a bike race so I was too tired to notice at the time.”