There’s no disguising it - or avoiding it if you follow anything cycling related on twitter - the Colombian women’s cycling strip is a shocker . Perhaps the swathe of ‘flesh’ toned lycra from waist to thigh is just intended to remind the observer of a nice, milky latte? As a ‘flesh’ tone it’s not terribly effective - just what is ‘flesh tone’ anyway? - matching none of the toned limbs on display.
But while many of us look, file away under ‘cycling fashion crime’, and move on - Footon Servetto how quickly you are forgotten! - the head of the UCI, Brian Cookson, is getting very hot under the collar tweeting that the kit is “unacceptable by any standard of decency.”
Assuming that Mr. Cookson isn’t such a sweet old fashioned thing that he’d like to see women cyclists confined to bustles and burqas, just why is the Colombian kit “unacceptable” in a way that Footon Servetto apparently never was? And just whose ‘standards of decency’ are in play here anyway? After all, the unspoken assumption here is that when we look at the Colombian women cyclists we are automatically projecting onto that area of ‘flesh toned’ lycra (just whose ‘flesh tone’ is it anyway?) a mental image of (whisper it) a woman’s vagina. And heaven knows there can be no greater offence against common decency than an imagined va-jay-jay can there? Especially in a sport where whatever a man can stuff down his shorts is on unhindered and general display.
So perhaps we are back to bustles and burqas and all the other forms of ‘decent’ yet restrictive clothing that women have wrestled against over the years. It’s no accident that the rational dress movement of the 1890s found common cause with women embracing the ‘freedom machine as an escape from the stifling societal restrictions placed on women of the time. But the same arguments around standards of decency were made about the bloomer as Cookson makes about the Colombian kit.
Let’s assume then that Cookson only has women cyclist’s best interests at heart - that protecting their modesty is really the paramount issue facing the women’s sport today. Cookson wasn’t boss at the UCI when the Footon Servetto kit was doing the - thankfully short lived - rounds but the women’s strip featured similar swathes of ‘flesh tone’ lycra embossed with a great, black foot across the chest. Where was the enraged and offended cycling patriarchy when that wrongheaded piece of kit was gracing the roads? No doubt embroiled in silly side issues like doping.
It was ever thus - women cyclists want a minimum wage, instead they get a talking shop to discuss a minimum wage. Whilst Cookson’s ambition to place a woman on each UCI commission is laudable, it does nothing to address the dissonance between having a voice and actually being heard. Cookson’s own listening skills are notoriously selective, dismissing the criticisms of British Cycling by the likes of Cooke, Armitstead and Pendleton whilst embracing the voices of Rowsell and Trott, who happen to be supportive of the BC set up that Cookson was in charge of. Worse, there is still no movement on that minimum wage - though Cookson appears to have changed his mind entirely on the subject, and now supports pay parity between men and women, his famous ‘collegiate style’ of running the UCI means the issue is still under discussion. Worse again, there are still issues around the instability of the women’s racing calendar and the scandal of unpaid wages. All issues far more offensive than a dodgy iPhone snap of a not particularly attractive kit.
But when it comes to matters of ‘decency’ it seems a phantom vag > the full meat and two veg > the very real issues that continue to face women’s sport. Instead, a small team are now vilified for their choice of kit - the BBC even adding a ‘modesty panel’ far more offensive than the original shot - and the IDRD-Bogotá Humana-San Mateo-Solgar team are forever linked with that kit. Time will tell if any publicity is good publicity - predictably there is a theory that says it’s all a PR stunt - or if sponsors will decide to withdraw from a team vilified by the UCI for offences to ‘decency’.
To strike a note of common sense sadly missing from this latest bout of twindignation - come on, people, really? You actually, honestly think that a team is so desperate for publicity that they’d either a) stick a merkin on the front of their kit or b) actually ride in see through kit displaying their foofie? In the real world, does this fly in any way shape or form? And if they were that desperate to go viral and raise a twitter storm, perhaps we should be asking just why the women’s sport would feel it so desperately needs to attract attention - perhaps because the big manifesto promises (I would link to the Cookson manifesto here but it has mysteriously disappeared from the internet) have been a long time coming. The miserable history of the Giro del Toscana - where the ‘offensive’ pictures were snapped - speaks to the fact that there are far wider issues that the sport, and the UCI, need to address.
Which leaves us with the uncomfortable impression that Cookson is more readily motivated by a twitter storm in a teacup over naff kits and dirty minds - the team have ridden, very successfully, in a version of the kit all season - than in making real and lasting change in the women’s sport.
Oh and that offending ‘flesh tone’ that’s sexualising those women riders? It’s gold and the team’s directeur sportif has his daughter on the team. The kit was designed by one of the riders and approved by the others. In full daylight it looks a rather fetching neutral, the kind of colour that wouldn’t raise a flicker of an eyebrow rocked on a KMid hoof. And who knew that gold - so attractive when dangling round a woman rider’s neck - could prove so offensive when swathed around the hips of others.
And enough with ‘flesh tone’ already - because I’m ready to get all hot under the colour about the notion that ‘flesh tone’ always equals this shade of pinky goldy beige. No one talks about AG2R’s brown shorts being ‘flesh toned’ do they? Or gets themselves all exercised about the fact that they might be projecting an outline willy onto the chamois panel of those shorts. Once you start unpicking the issues around the reaction to this kit do we need to start squirming uncomfortably about the very ‘whiteness’ of the sport and our notions of what constitutes default ‘flesh tone’?
So what will Cookson suggest? An embargo on all kit colours that photograph badly? A bike burqa? Or will he perhaps remember that his job is not to react to fake twitter controversies but to do something constructive about the real issues facing the women’s sport?