Cycling History

Women in Cycling Advertising: Part 1- Sex Sells

In February 2015 the organizers of the E3 Harelbeke race in Belgium courted controversy when they released an online advertisement for their upcoming event. In a reference to Peter Sagan pinching the bottom of podium girl Maja Leye in the 2013 edition of the Tour of Flanders, the poster shows a gloved hand reaching for the knicker clad derriére of a woman with the accompanying caption “Who will ‘squeeze’ them in Harelbeke?”

The 2015 E3 Harelbeke race poster. Photo © Handout

The 2015 E3 Harelbeke race poster. Photo © Handout

Peter Sagan pinches Maja Leye's behind on the winner's podium, Tour of Flanders 2013.  Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Peter Sagan pinches Maja Leye’s behind on the winner’s podium, Tour of Flanders 2013. © Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The organizer’s of Harelbeke have previous form, notably with their 2011 advert which featured Playboy model Gaëlle Garcia Diaz lying naked in a field. Reaction was understandably critical with open condemnation from social media, mainstream press, and the UCI, which declared itself “extremely unhappy” and “reminded the organiser of its responsibility and the UCI Regulations”. The Belgian Jury of Advertising Ethics (JEP) described the poster as “disparaging and disrespectful towards women”, adding that it “exploits the woman as an object of desire”. The organizer’s have now pulled the poster from their online communication platforms. While bowing to public pressure they have arguably raised the profile of the race with more people, particularly those not normally interested in cycle sport, now aware of it.

Sex sells after all, and cycling advertising is no different. Early adverts regularly featured scantily dressed women in varying states of déshabillé that were largely impractical for the activity they were supposed to be engaged in.

An advert for Clement cycles, c.1900

An advert for Clement cycles, c.1900

An advert for Liberator cycles

An advert for Liberator cycles, 1899

Advert for cycles Gladiator

Advert for Cycles Gladiator

Such adverts may have referenced classical depictions of the nude female form but were clearly designed to appeal to male rather than female sensibilities.

The first half of the Twentieth century generally saw a move away from nude figures and the overt sexualization of women in bicycle advertising. The more liberal 1960’s heralded a change in which even the usually conservative British manufacturer, Raleigh, used a nude to sell its wares, at least in Greece. The advert is notable in that its subject has no association whatsoever with the product being sold. Unless of course the message was that riding a Raleigh would require women to make needlework repairs to their underwear, which hardly seems a successful selling point.

Greek advert for Raleigh Bicycles

Greek advert for Raleigh Bicycles

Most adverts did of course feature the product they were selling. Typically the woman was little more than an accessory, an object of titillation placed to attract attention from a male audience.

Advert for Clement tyres

Advert for Clement tyres

Advert for Cycles Laurent

Advert for Cycles Laurent

Particularly gratuitous are the advertisements masquerading as photo shoots in Men’s magazines such as the one featured in Sharp with model Alice Rausch, ostensibly a piece on 5 high-end bikes from Cannondale, Felt, and Cervelo.

It's a Cervelo bicycle in case you were wondering

It’s a Cervelo bicycle in case you were wondering. Photo, Trevor Brady

Alice Rausch demonstrating the correct position on a bicycle. Photo, Trevor Brady

This one manages to get Nike and the Brooklyn Cycling Cap in as well. Photo, Trevor Brady

Admittedly this photo shoot was published in an online magazine aimed fairly and squarely at a heterosexual male audience, which may or may not justify focusing on a semi-nude woman to flog merchandise. Curiously advertising companies also seem to think that the same approach appeals to women cyclists. Take for example this 2013 advert from Assos, manufacturer of high performance cycling clothing aimed at the cycle sport rather than the leisure cycling market.

Assos advert for the s5 Lady Ellisse cycling Jersey, 2013

Assos advert for the sS Lady Ellisse cycling Jersey, 2013

The question has to be, who is this advert aimed at? The absence of a bicycle, the skin tight shiny black trousers, the killer heels, and the coquettish, kneeling come-hither pose suggests that it isn’t aimed at women who are interested in achieving a PB in a 25 mile time-trial or are training for an Alpine sportive. By comparison the first image you’re presented with on the Assos website is one for a men’s jersey. Note that the square-on standing pose adopted by the model is one of just two used for every item of men’s apparel on the site.


Assos Men’s Jersey, 2015. © Assos

The first women’s item of clothing you’re presented with on the homepage slideshow are a pair of shorts, the first of many images on the site featuring the same model. Unlike the pictures for men’s clothing the female model is shown striking a variety of poses more reminiscent of glamour photography. Presumably the fact that Assos don’t offer a women’s specific undervest explains why the model is topless.


Assos Women’s Shorts, 2015. © Assos


Assos Women’s Tights, 2015. © Assos

While other leading cycling clothing manufacturers such as Giordana, Castelli, and Santini did use similar images to advertise their wares in recent years there appears to have been a change of approach. Their websites now predominately feature images of the clothing only, and where women are depicted they are shown engaged in cycling, appropriately dressed for the occasion. Assos seems to be the only company that still persists in depicting women in this manner in its advertising. While the men’s advertising focuses on the product, the women’s focuses on the female form presenting the model, rather than the clothing, as an object of desire. Where the men’s advertising emphasises the functionality of the clothing for its intended purpose, the women’s advertising suggests that the wearer will still be sexually alluring even when wearing lycra.

Is it sexist? Clearly so, yet all is not quite as black and white as it seems. Context is everything and when women use similar imagery to market their products can we also describe that as sexist, or is it a feminist re-appropriation of the female form? Christina Guzman’s Urbanist range of women’s padded underwear is a prime example with the images used to promote her clothing having little to differentiate them from the overtly sexualized photographs used elsewhere. The ‘Bettie’ is a case in point. Designed to be worn under shorts, trousers or a skirt they are described by Urbanista as being “for the ladies that want to feel a little sexier while they ride.”

The Urbanist 'Bettie'

The Urbanist ‘Bettie’ underwear. © Urbanist / Christina Guzman

In terms of composition and content the Urbanist image has little in difference to the Laurent Cycles advert or the photograph of Alice Rausch in Sharp. All three present us with a rear view of a young woman in her underwear seated on a bicycle. Yet while objectively the same, subjectively they convey very different messages to their intended audience. The women in the Laurent Cycles advertisement and the Sharp photoshoot have nothing to do with the actual product being presented, the bicycle. They are mere window dressing calculated to engage male interest. The ‘Bettie’ advertising on the other hand portrays the product being sold, in use by a representative of the target market. It is a fine line however. As an undergarment the ‘Bettie’ is presumably not intended to be worn in this manner in public. Urbanist could have opted for an image of a fully clothed woman riding a bicycle together with photos of the product on a mannequin. By choosing an image that undoubtedly has sexual overtones are Urbanist complicit with the more explicit objectification of women that exists elsewhere in advertising?

And what do we make of those successful female cyclists who choose to participate in photo shoots for Men’s magazines and sports calendars? Women such as Victoria Pendleton achieved success in the highest echelons of cycle sport through their drive, commitment, and sheer hard work. Does their participation in what is in effect glamour modelling undermine their achievements by reducing them to objects of desire? Or are they empowered by their success to celebrate their femininity on terms that are their own? Pendleton herself seems to think so when she said, ” I genuinely enjoy a good dress-up and always have done.” The Daily Mail headline accompanying their piece on this photograph is perhaps more telling, “Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton gets her priorities straight as she poses for sexy new photoshoot.” Being sexy presumably seen as more important than winning 25 National Titles, 8 World Titles, and Commonwealth and Olympic Gold Medals.

Victoria Pendleton in a photo-shoot for the Evening Standard

Victoria Pendleton in a photo-shoot for the Evening Standard before the London 2012 Olympics. Photo © Jonathan Glyn-Smith / Evening Standard

On 9 March 2015 the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) presented its report on doping in professional cycling to the UCI. Much press attention has been given to the systematic cheating within the sport and the failures of the UCI to adequately address the issue. This is a timely reminder to the sport that much work needs to be done if it is ever to eradicate doping and the press are right to highlight the issue as they have. Yet in all the furore another more heinous matter raised in the report has been largely overlooked. In the scant few paragraphs the CIRC devoted to women’s road cycling in their 227 page report a single sentence refers to the alleged sexual exploitation of women riders.

Cycling has long been dogged with a reputation of sexism and Sagan’s sexual harassment of Maja Leye and the woefully misjudged advert for this year’s Harelbeke serve only to demonstrate that it’s business as usual in the peloton. The UCI was right to strongly criticize the organizers of the race and their intervention arguably forced their change of mind. Yet if they are to maintain the moral high ground they must thoroughly investigate the alleged sexual exploitation alluded to by CIRC and take swift action to deal with it effectively. The rest of us should think twice when we encounter the overt sexualization of women in cycling advertising and send out the message that it is no longer acceptable.

5 comments on “Women in Cycling Advertising: Part 1- Sex Sells

  1. Jean
    March 22, 2015

    If I may add patronizingly for male cycling participants/audience: some boys will be boys. And only boys pinching woman’s bum on the podium.

    “As an undergarment the ‘Bettie’ is presumably not intended to be worn in this manner in public. Urbanist could have opted for an image of a fully clothed woman riding a bicycle together with photos of the product on a mannequin.”

    I interpret the Bettie undergarment definitely for a female audience, just so they have an idea of the purpose for the slight ruching/gathers at the back of the panty. The woman is wearing a baggy, full top and is facing her back to viewer. No problem.

    As for the Pendleton semi cheesecake shot, at least it was just her legs stretched out without anything that seemed provocative.


    • aaroncripps
      March 22, 2015

      Interesting comment re the Bettie. That the ruching has a functional purpose had never even entered my mind. I presumed it was an aesthetic feature. My guess is that female and male audiences (sweeping generalization follows) would generally view this image differently. The former looking at the garment, the latter looking at the model. Of course Urbanista’s imagery is far removed from that of Assos and others like it.

      The point has been made elsewhere that if you put men in the same poses and equivalent clothing as women are depicted in advertising it would look hilarious, absurd even. I see the Pendleton image above as a classic example of this. While it’s not as overtly sexualized as other examples of pro-women cyclists in photo-shoots that have appeared in men’s magazines or the Cyclepassion annual calendar for example, it’s very much in the vein of depicting women as sexy and feminine rather than professional and capable. Imagine top pro male riders such as Peter Sagan or Fabian Cancellara in the same pose and I’m sure you’d agree they’d look completely daft. To go back to the Bettie, a men’s pair of underwear would in all probability be advertised either on a mannequin or a male model standing upright in a neutral pose.

      The notorious bum pinch also highlighted how women are viewed differently and are objectified. At the time I had a major barney with a friend who while agreeing that pinching a female colleague’s bum in his place of work would be sexual harassment and grounds for dismissal, couldn’t see any problem with Sagan pinching Leye’s behind, arguing that by being paid to kiss the cheek of the race winner she had no right to complain, and going as far as to say that by taking a job as a podium girl she was little more than a prostitute. My argument that they were both in the work place when the incident occurred made it inappropriate, and that no-one of either sex should be subjected to unsolicited physical contact in any circumstances made it doubly so, cut no ice with him.

      Fortunately, the worst examples of sexist advertising seem now to be the exception rather the rule.


  2. Jean
    March 22, 2015

    I agree, the podium girl was working…it was the workplace and Sagan’s action was not acceptable.

    Sagan is an azz –he should only be pinching his girlfriend’s bum. That’s it.


  3. Pingback: Women in Cycling Advertising: Pt 2 – It’s all about the bike / jersey / shorts … | Cycling History

  4. Pingback: Selling bicycles or women? | La Velocipedienne

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This entry was posted on March 12, 2015 by in Advertising, Cycling, History, Women and Cycling and tagged , , , , , .

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