GRAEME Herd doesn’t mince his words. “Men’s cycling is sh*t,” he says. “If I had £1m of my own money to invest in cycling, I wouldn’t spend it in men’s cycling because there’s no return. I’d invest it in the women’s side.”
Herd knows about these things. The Barrhead man has a wealth of experience of working with both male and female riders, including stints as both national coach and head coach at Scottish Cycling.
However, it is his new venture which is one of the most exciting of his career. Late last year, it was announced that Herd was to become director sportif (DS) of Team WNT, a women’s cycling team which has, this year, stepped up to professional level after being granted a UCI licence in January.
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The team, which will make its pro debut today at the four-day Semana Ciclista Valenciana race in Spain, was founded in Sheffield in 2014, but this season will have a distinct Scottish backbone. Both Olympic champion Katie Archibald and British champion Eileen Roe joined WNT in the aftermath of Herd’s appointment, signings which were, admits the DS, a major coup for the team.
“It’s huge having a Katie in the team,” Herd said. “It was right place at the right time, but it definitely helped that she was Scottish and I knew her. She thought her team was going to fold so she came and met everyone at WNT, really liked it and got back to me and said she was coming.
"In terms of physical ability, she’s all over it, so this year is just about her learning to race on the road. She’s so versatile and she can already win at UK level, so we’ll see how she gets on with the bigger bunches, narrow roads and all of the things that go with top level road racing.”
Archibald may be one of the best riders in the world on the track but her road experience remains limited. Which is why the signing of Roe was so vital. The 2016 British Circuit Race champion is technically one of the best riders on the road and having competed in last year’s World Road Race Championships, she brings with her a wealth of experience. In addition to the two Scots, WNT has a roster which boast an exciting mix of youth and experience including Hayley Simmonds, the reigning British time trial champion, Anna Badegruber, the Austrian National Hill Climb Champion and England’s Emily Kay, the World Junior Team Pursuit champion.
However, what enthuses Herd most about WNT is that the team isn’t striving for overnight success. One of the major problems with women’s cycling has been that few teams have any financial stability, but while the money involved in WNT is a fraction of the millions pumped into men’s cycling, the team has significant financial backing. This, coupled with a long-term plan, means that the team is in a good place.
“It’s the philosophy behind the team rather than the budget which is key,” says Herd. “It’s a very supportive environment and the team care about the riders – it’s not only about winning. Don’t get me wrong, the team’s very ambitious but they want to be successful by developing and improving rather than everything being about winning in the short-term and I really think doing it like this is better for the sport. Going into our first race, everything’s looking very good.”
Women’s cycling has progressed rapidly in recent years and Herd is confident that the sport has a bright future. “I believe that, gradually, women’s racing will become higher profile because it’s a better product than the men’s,” the 48 year-old says. “A lot of the men’s races are very boring now because it’s so controlled. The level of women’s racing has been brilliant.”
Certainly, WNT has an exciting year ahead. One of it’s most high-profile appearances will come in the Women’s Tour in June, a race which attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators last year. Herd is adamant that the potential for women’s cycling is endless, but the way for it to progress is not for it to mimic the men’s set-up.
“Making women’s cycling the same as men’s cycling is not the answer,” he says. “The assumption is that men’s cycling is perfect, but men’s cycling is wrecked – it’s a house of cards. You look at the Women’s Tour – instead of piggy-backing onto the guys, they made their own and look at it now – it’s fantastic. It shouldn’t matter if it’s men or women – it should stand or fall on its quality, not its gender. I don’t know how close we are to getting to that stage, though. Whatever happens, there’s not a quick fix but it’s getting there.”