To podium girl or not to podium girl: a personal story

Today, Flanders Classics announced they will no longer use flower girls, or podium girls as we call them. It spiked some controversy. People automatically assume I am against podium girls and grid girls. And however political correct that may be, I am actually not. If they like their job, let them have the job. But let it be for the right reasons.

There is an underlying stream of everyday sexism that bothers many with regards to podium girls and grid girls. There is a sense that there is no place for women in cycling – or sports – apart from being pretty, smiling and silent. A picture to look at, not a competent colleague to work with.

I have a personal story to tell about women in sports.

I am by no means silent: it comes with the nature of my job as a cycling commentator. I am actually the first female cycling commentator in the Netherlands and one of four female lead sports commentators in total.

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The Netherlands is a country many deem progressive. Let me tell you, we are not. Not in politics (never has there been a female PM), not in work (highest percentage of part-time working women in the world) and not in sports and media, where 95% of sports commentary and journalism is done by men.

My colleagues, the three female lead sports commentators, are all in tennis: a sport where equality is further progressed than my sport. They are also three former top tennis players. I never cycled professionally. I swam and achieved no better than a measly bronze medal at the provincial championships. My point being, I don’t hold this job because I was a wonderful cyclist.

Why do I have this job? At first it was pure luck from being in the right place at the right time. But then? At the beginning of my career I was not a good commentator, and I am the first one to admit that. I knew a lot of facts, results, names of riders, history and geography. I talked but it was not great. I was thrown in at the deep end. There is no school for cycling commentary. It is all about learning on the job. And I did. But having a woman behind the mic stirred something ugly with the many male viewers of the sport.

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I have never been a girly girl. There were two moments in my life where me being a woman was suddenly an issue: breast cancer with everything pink that comes with it, and sports commentary.

Some examples, in random order of my experiences as a commentator.

When I started as a general sports news commentator I was told, “I know you love cycling but a woman covering cycling is not something anybody is going to believe.” Whether it was said as a joke or not, it was not okay.
As said, I was never an elite athlete. People wondered, ‘How on earth could she possibly be in sports commentary?’ The solution to many was obvious. There were plenty of comments I read (only written, never in your face) suggesting that I must have slept with someone to land this job.

The same comments started again when I started as a PR officer for a men’s procycling team. Someone went as far as saying: “You are probably working in cycling because you can sleep with many men.”

Whether said in jest or dead serious: telling a woman she is probably only in a work position because of favours to men, is insulting.

“You know a lot about cycling…….for a woman” is not a compliment. I don’t want to be in this job because I am a woman: I want to do this because I am good at it.

The argument in the Netherlands that female radio dj’s or sports commentators are horrible to listen to you because of the pitch of their voice, once backed by ‘pseudoscience’, has long been debunked. “I have nothing against you personally but I just can’t listen to a woman doing cycling commentary,” has been heard many times.

That is everyday sexism. The culture that supports these attitudes is something you keep feeding by positioning women in the sport where they are only judged by the way they look.

I get many emails and messages on social media by young women who are in journalism school or sports communication who feel inspired by my story. First and foremost, I never planned to be a pioneer or to be inspirational but I turned out to be one.

I have encountered many #metoo situations in cycling, from jokes about sex to an uninvited team mechanic in my hotel room in the middle of the night, but I won’t be deterred. Not then and not now.

If I can show young women that sports commentary or journalism is a career path open to them, all the scrutiny, frequent insults and hatemail are more than worthwhile.

To conclude: whether your dream job is cycling commentator, podium girl or being the boss of the Netherlands, you can do it. No limits. Everything should be possible for all girls in the world.

For the love of the game

I have been a big fan of cycling, ever since I was about 15-16 years old. Before that, the virus was pretty dormant. My dad was an amateur cyclist and a team manager so weekends were spent at local races. My sister and I were always promised an icecream after the race was over but my parents met so many people on the way back to the car, that we kind of lost patience.

My love for the sport was truly triggered when Lance Armstrong dedicated his victory to Fabio Casartelli, who died a few days before. The drama of the story appealed to my teenage brain, I guess.

The epitome of my love for the sport, started when I really started avidly following cycling on the couch after my chemotherapy. On Twitter I met people who shared my love for this weird and wonderful sport and we bonded over 140 character messages.

When I was fortunate enough to call cycling work, I never lost that fan feeling. I must admit that despite the awesomeness of my work, it does become a job in the end. But sometimes there are those intense fan moments to really enjoy. In 2017 it was the unexpected world title of Chantal Blaak that did it for me. And there was not a dry eye in the house when Alberto Contador won atop the Angliru, in his penultimate race ever.

This weekend my friend Ben Tulett became junior cyclocross world champion. I have known the Tulett family since seven years and saw Ben, his brother Daniel and sister Amy grow up. A few cold Sundays this winter I woke up very early to catch up with the junior categories at the cyclocross world cups and cheer the Tulett brothers on.

One race to go. Worlds

From 11am on that Saturday 3 February I sat in front of my screen following that little guy in the British Cycling kit. He never has a fast start but he is technically skilled. He is small but strong and that was a huge bonus on the tough Valkenburg course.

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After a small tumble in lap one, Ben started to lead the field from lap two. He remained very focused, did not make any more mistakes and rode with Charlie on his mind.

Charlie Craig was his friend and rival. In the UK they battled it out for the national titles and cyclocross national trophy wins. In January 2017 Charlie passed away. He went to bed. He never woke up. He was 15 years young.

Ben has always been adamant about riding for Charlie. It’s not just a hashtag, not something he just says: it’s his driving force. On that Saturday in Valkenburg Charlie rode along with Ben, every lap, every hill, every step of the way. It was a world title for two boys: one on earth and one up above.

For me it was a wonderful day because it brought back all those feelings that drew me to cycling in the first place: the excitement, the drama, the pain, the disappointment and the joy.

Ben Tulett’s joy made my day, my weekend. Next season I’ll be back to cheer him on again. In rainbows this time. With Charlie always riding along

Ciao 2016

At the end of another year it is always good to look back. Professionally it was a good year with fantastic races to cover for Eurosport with my friend Bobbie, following and enjoying the women’s cycling for the UCI and visiting the cyclocross world cups for the UCI. I volunteered as a press officer for Veranda’s Willems for six months to help them professionalize and take a step up towards the pro continental level. It has been a learning experience I enjoyed.

On a personal level it has been a tough year with very few ups but some very deep downs. The death of Antoine Demoitié and my job as a press officer for his team has been the toughest week of the year. Nevertheless I am proud of what I did that week for Antoine and his family. I learned that I am strong and focused when the going gets tough, when it matters.

We also said goodbye to Daan and too many young and promising riders like Ellen, Gijs, Etienne and Romain. I do hope we get to see Stig’s smile again because it was radiant and will never leave me. I would like to wish the families of these young people all the strenght they need. Their names will not be forgotten.

In 2017 I will focus on Eurosport, keeping you all up-to-date with cycling news on my twitterfeed and hopefully some new and exciting assignments to enjoy the world 0f cycling. Despite it being a difficult environment to work in, it is still the sport I love most and I call myself blessed to be calling it work.

IMG_2223I will try to ride 5,000 kilometers, try out disc brakes to learn more, get a new bike and enjoy what I get to do.

Sometimes it takes others to make you realize the kind of blessings you have in your life. In 2017 I want to see and enjoy those blessings the moment they happen because life is fragile. It sucks big time sometimes but most of all life is good when you are healthy, have a fantastic and supportive husband, a great job and the freedom to ride your bike.

Have a happy 2017, everyone!

18 August

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Het is vandaag 18 augustus. Nou en, zul je denken maar voor mij is deze dag bijzonder. Op 18 augustus 2012 zat ik voor het eerst achter de microfoon bij Eurosport om een wielerwedstrijd te becommentariëren: de ploegentijdrit van de Vuelta. Movistar won.

We zijn nu drie jaar verder en als ik even een moment stil ga staan, mijn hoofd omdraai en op de weg die achter me ligt, kijk, word ik er een beetje stil van. Wat een enorme kans heeft Eurosport mij gegeven om dit werk nu te mogen doen. Wielercommentator zijn. Het was zo onmogelijk en ver van mijn bed om het zelfs maar een droom te kunnen noemen.

Nu ben ik bezig met mijn derde seizoen en het eerste volledige seizoen als hoofdcommentator bij Eurosport (samen met collega Jeroen). Het was niet altijd eenvoudig, er was (terechte) kritiek maar er waren ook heel, veel lieve woorden en complimenten. Ik heb veel moeten leren en gelukkig leer ik nog elke dag bij.

Ik heb vooral veel over koers geleerd van mijn lieve co-commentatoren Bobbie, Karsten, Dirk, Michel en Nick die me elk op hun manier weer hebben geholpen maar ook van alle ploegleiders, mechaniekers, de vrienden van Shimano, soigneurs en (oud)-renners die ik in de loop der jaren sprak en mocht leren kennen.

Er bestaat geen opleiding tot wielercommentator. Ik heb niet gekoerst en heb er ook geen talent voor. Wielrennen is echter wel mijn passie en als ik ergens gepassioneerd over ben, wil ik leren. Heel veel leren.

Ik ben deze weg pas net ingeslagen en soms neem je al deze gebeurtenissen al voor lief. Dan wordt het ongewone gewoon. Dit is nu mijn werk. Ik mag vertellen over de schoonheid van de koers en over de renners die ik bewonder. Ik mag vertellen over de mooiste landen, de lekkerste lokale gerechten en de interessante verhalen uit de geschiedenis. Dat dit mij gelukt is, is wonderlijk en een zegen. Ik ben er intens dankbaar voor.

Als je steeds opnieuw durf te dromen, reikt je droom tot voorbij de nacht. Kun je meer dan je altijd dacht. 

Hooked

The cycling year slowly comes to an end now September has started. It’s a weird feeling from longing for the wheels to start turning in January, anxiously checking results from countries like Argentina and Gabon and searching the internet for all the new team kits to longing for a day off when September comes. It’s the work of the seasonal, cycling laborer. And you know what, I love it.

Reflecting back upon the year, a lot has happened but most notably my involvement in Women’s Cycling stands out. When production company VSquared called me out of the blue in January if I would be interested in a job as a reporter for the UCI Road Women World Cup series, I said yes but with a but.

I had never done any voice-overs in English. In the end, the ‘stupid English accent’ as my husband always says with a smile when I speak the language, turned out fine. Including Dutch pronunciations of all the Dutch and Belgian riders and place names.

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