Weekend Interview: No regrets for Annie Simpson as she prepares to line up with cycling's elite in Tour de Yorkshire
Anna van der Breggen is the Olympic road race champion, the hottest name in women's cycling right now and a firm favourite to win next week's Asda Tour de Yorshire Women's Race.
Annie Simpson is a semi-professional rider from Bingley with a degree, a masters, and a part-time job as a sports nutritionist in Leeds.
That the two will line up alongside each other and many more on the startline of the two-day women’s race in Beverley on Thursday morning, illustrates both the romance of the Tour de Yorkshire and just how far the sport still has to go to achieve equality.
Because when the men line up a few hours later for the start of their four-day race, the field of 20, six-man teams will have significantly more professionals than it will amateurs.
When the women wheel out, their 20 teams will be represented by a significantly higher percentage of riders who, like Simpson, need a job to make ends meet.
“My job is effectively full-time. I work for OTE Sports, a nutrition company based in Leeds,” says Simpson.
“Fortunately for me they’re very supportive of my racing. Last weekend I was away in Holland and Belgium; yesterday I was in Luxembourg.
“I’m one of a few riders who still have a job.”
Not that she is complaining. Simpson appreciates the value of having a career away from the bike.
She is also grateful to the sport of cycling for the amount of ‘doors it has opened up for me’.
And she acknowledges that the gap is closing; that where once nearly all riders in the women’s peloton needed a job to supplement their hobby, now there are more Van der Breggen’s of this world, fully funded and supported professional cyclists.
“It was very common a few years ago but it’s becoming less so now,” she says.
“More of the World Tour riders are full-time now.
“A lot of girls still study around their cycling careers, but as the tour grows it’s becoming a lot more viable to make a full-time career out of it.”
At 27, is there any sense of regret for Simpson the acceleration in the closing of the gap didn’t come sooner?
Has the fact that she has never been able to fully commit to professional cycling held her back in what she has been able to achieve?
“Probably,” admits a woman whose career highlights include an Under-23s national mountain bike title and a podium finish in the national road race championships.
“If I was a few years earlier maybe I wouldn’t need a job but I’m at a place in my life where I have a few things I need to pay for. No way are the wages anywhere near where the mens are – but it’s getting there.
“Having the Tour de Yorkshire go to two stages with the same prize money as the men’s race all helps to maintain the snowball effect.”
Yorkshire’s own race – which this year sees the women race from Beverley to Doncaster on Thursday and Barnsley to Ilkley on Friday – has been instrumental in the hastening of the narrowing of the gender gap in cycling.
After an inauspicious start in 2015, a major sponsor was found 12 months later that offered a prize fund of £50,000 for a single day’s racing into Doncaster, which at the time was the biggest cash incentive in women’s cycling. Last year the women’s race was won by local heroine Lizzie Deignan, the former world champion’s presence on top of the podium adding further weight to the event’s growing reputation.
Expanding to two days this year further underlines that, and though there is no Deignan this year as she is pregnant, the presence of Van der Breggen and reigning world champion Chantal Blaak shows how the Tour de Yorkshire remains at the vanguard of the women’s movement. And for Simpson, being presented with the chance to line-up against the world’s best on the roads she knows so well, represents a career high.
“I did the women’s race last year and it was one of the highlights of my year,” she says. “The support you get on the roadside, knowing that family and friends and people I had ridden with were there to support is really special.
“There was no catching Lizzie last year, though. She was up the road and I was in the bunch behind so I had to settle for top 30 in the end.”
Eighteen months Deignan’s junior, Simpson’s start in cycling is curiously familiar to that of the London 2012 Olympic silver medallist’s.
Deignan, then Armitstead, was talent spotted by British Cycling when they went into local schools giving boys and girls the chance to see how good they were at riding a bike.
But they didn’t just visit Prince Henry’s Grammar in Otley, where Armitstead was a pupil. They also visited Bingley Grammar School, where Simpson was entering her teenage years.
“I didn’t cycle at the time, I just did this to get out of lessons,” she laughs now as she looks back.
“They started with little races around the school field, I got through the various stages and I’ve not stopped cycling since.”
Though not as successful as Armitstead would go on to become, she appreciates the impact her fellow Yorkshirewoman has had on the sport.
“Lizzie is almost a household name now, and to have a womens cyclist like that is huge for the sport,” says Simpson, who grew up in Wilsden, near Bingley.
“You need those role models for your sport, people who the younger generation look up to and think ‘it’s viable for me to follow that path’.
“When I was younger it wasn’t like that, we didn’t have many female cycling role models, but we do now.
“People like Lizzie standing up for the sport, using her status as a platform to lobby for equality in cycling, is exactly what we need.”
The sport also needs people like Simpson, though not just for her ability on two wheels.
For her other job as a nutritionist is becoming increasingly pertinent in a sport forever locked in a battle with the ongoing fight against doping.
Simpson acts as the de facto nutritionist of her team Trek Drops.
“The nutrition side of sport was always a bit old school; you’d shove a Mars bar in your pocket and take a bottle of water out with you,” she says.
“But as the demands of the sport are changing, nutrition plays a bigger role. For me it’s important to educate people about that.
“You need brands that are tested. Cycling is at the forefront of the discussion about doping because it’s trying to be cleaner. The fact it’s in the news so often makes doping look more prominent in cycling, which is not necessarily the case.”
Through sensible refuelling, Simpson hopes to play a role in Trek Drops’ bid to animate the two days of racing next week.
“A lot of people think the first day is going to be really flat but I don’t see that at all,” says Simpson, after reconnoitring the routes this week. “I think it’s going to be a lot more rolling than people think.
“Same with stage two. There’s also a few other categorised climbs in between that will really split the peloton up.”