The Bust of Ella Cycling Tips: An Interview with Former Editor Anne-Marije Rook

Leading up to the Tour de Bloom I was quite nervous to race alongside the kind of caliber of women who raced in this level of the cycling world. Erin reminded me that I needed to ease up on the pressure I was putting upon myself, and instead to understand that I was going to have a great time regardless of my results. She also informed me that I was going to meet a lot of influential women in the scene, and then went on to named one woman in particular: Anne-Marije Rook. Erin explained to me that Anne-Marije races for KR Racing and is an editor/writer for Ella Cycling Tips. I was immediately ecstatic to meet her. Erin also went on to tell me a few memorable moments from last year’s Tour de Bloom, which involved Anne-Marije that highlighted her sharp wit, and quick to call out fellow competitors about social justice issues and covert implicit discrimination. If nothing else was going to happen that weekend, I knew I had to meet her and at the very least, tell her how much I admired her work and her contributions to our beloved sport by bringing attention to the barriers and issues women face when being athletes in cycling.

Fast-forward to Stage 1 of the Tour de Bloom and I’m involved in a crash that took myself and a fellow competitor to the hospital, and consequentially out of the race. Not too long after the first crash, Anne-Marije, along with six other competitors, were involved in a much larger crash that took down a large portion of the peloton, and due to injuries, had been taken out of the race as well. The next day were consecutive Stage 2 and 3 of the Tour de Bloom; the time trial and then the criterium in the later afternoon, well into the evening. I thought it would be good for my mental state to stand alongside the corners of the criterium and cheer along my teammates while capturing the excitement of the race through my camera. Following the women’s race, it was decided that the beer gardens was the best place to be post race. Erin informed me that Anne-Marije was floating around, and she’d be happy to introduce me to her. I will admit, I was starstruck; she’s writing about our sport, and at the helm of a major women’s cycling website, AND she’s racing. Upon being introduced to her, I immediately informed her that I loved her work at Ella, to which she responded, “Thanks! I lost my job last month though; Ella lost all of its funding, so I’m out of a job. So if you know of anyone who is looking for a writer, let me know!” Needless to say, I was devastated. That news hit me in the gut, and I never wanted answer so badly in all of my life.

As the Tour de Bloom Crit started, I had to get my concussed head out of there. I wasn’t quite sure if it was the concussion though, or if it was the heartbreaking news that my favourite women’s cycling publication had gone belly up. Over the course of getting back from Bloom, I just couldn’t shake the news of Ella. I wanted answers, and I wanted to know what happened from Anne-Marije’s perspective. What is going on right now in women’s cycling when we’re at a point where we’re getting some major attention in the sport, and many facets are growing from the ground-up every year, how could this happen to Ella?

I was able to set some time aside with Anne-Marije last week, and decided to talk all things women’s cycling and Ella Cycling Tips. This is the interview that followed.

 

What was the state of Ella CyclingTips when you started with them back in January 2015?

I joined the CyclingTips when the women’s site —now known as Ella CyclingTips — was still in its conception stage. Ella CyclingTips was the first of its kind in cycling media and promised a tremendous potential for growth. The industry was pumped about this growing market segment (women) and the sport deserved more coverage. We launched Ella CyclingTips (“ella” is Spanish for her) in January 2015 with Jessi Braverman at the helm as editor and me joining only part-time at first, but it soon became clear that telling the story of women’s cycling was more than a one person task, so I joined full time in May 2015 as co-editor alongside Jessi. I had a really good job as a Communication Director for a big non-profit at the time, and quitting a steady job for an upstart like this was risky, but also a dream come true: I got to use my journalism chops and my passion for bikes to elevate women’s voices and bring more media coverage to women’s sports. I was beyond excited. 

It was an exciting time for all of us in women’s cycling. The sport was growing, the industry was finally paying attention to women’s needs and their purchasing power, and for us at CyclingTips, we got to create something from scratch and hopefully show the industry —the world, even— that there is a demand for women’s sports coverage. 

What were those early months at Ella like?

CyclingTips wanted to do it right: they wanted to properly invest in women’s cycling coverage and get the best people and voices on board. Between the professional sport, the industry and the recreational side, there was a lot to cover. So hiring the right team was key. Jessi had already been involved in the media side of cycling for a bit and lived part of the year in the European cycling Mecca that is Girona, Spain. I had been on the North American racing scene for a while, covered women’s cycling as a freelancer, and worked full-time in bicycle advocacy and recreation. Then we added Simone Guiliani to the mix as a part-timer in Australia. Combining all of these efforts gave us eyes and ears on the ground in Australia, North America and Europe, and across the different segments within cycling.  

We set out to find and tell the stories that weren’t being told by existing media, to get to know the women’s pro peloton, and provide expert tips and advice for women who ride. All the while, we wanted to cultivate an online women’s cycling community – and not just for women who race. 

Again, at the time there was no other website like us out there, so the stories were, well, abundant; however, there was no collective readership yet. And to make a publication successful (or even commercially sustainable), you need reads and clicks. So the first years was about figuring out what makes a well-read story, but what we were quick to realize, some stories needed to be told, even if the numbers weren’t there…yet. 

What evolved over your time at Ella?

While a demand for women’s race coverage has been growing for years, there’s limited live TV coverage still. So in lieu of that, we took it upon ourselves to cover the top women’s road scene with race reports, interviews and galleries. Yet despite the very vocal demand for more women’s race coverage, the numbers for written race coverage weren’t always there, and throughout my 3.5 years at Ella, we never stopped experimenting with how to best cover women’s pro racing. We constantly tried out what formats appealed most to our readers: rider diaries, interview, live tweeting, social media take-overs, stats, galleries, etc. Mind you, we had to do all of it on a shoe-string budget. 

Because one year into Ella, it became clear that while readership was growing, it hadn’t made the commercial splash that our publisher had hoped for. The industry was giving Ella a lot of lip service but wasn’t putting money where their mouths were at. Our budget had been modest to begin with, but we soon were down to just me working full-time, and Simone putting in 10 hours a week. 

We also had to re-assess our heavily women’s focused content. Ella had its own branding, voice and —what we had hoped for— community. It was meant to be a safe space for women, where we could have a dialogue with and among other women without men interrupting the conversation or rudely mansplaining or criticizing authors and readers in the comments. 

We focused our content on a woman’s approach to the sport, in that: how do women eat, how do women train, how women deal with training alongside having a period. However, evidence showed that a women’s focused approach in the long run didn’t work. It turned off male audience members and alienated a large part of our readership who wanted to just read about women’s racing or hear from women  athletes. So one of the evolutions was that we tried to steer clear of the “training while on your period” type articles and focus more on sharing women’s voices, highlighting top athletes, and covering only the biggest women’s events. 

What was the state of Ella upon your leaving? Do you think three and a half years was a sustainable amount of time to get a business like this to be successful?

Let me be clear on one thing, readership was growing and had been steadily growing for some time, and I was so sad to leave such a large group of people who depended on us for content like this; however, the financial investments in women’s sports are lacking. And while CyclingTips intends to keep the Ella brand alive, its operations as they stand were deemed financially unsustainable.

It was purely a money issue and while I was, am, thoroughly disappointed that Ella had such a short run, I can understand why the cut was made. Do I think 3.5 years was long enough? No.  And I don’t agree with some choices that were made or some editorial directions that were pushed on us either, but I do commend our publisher, Wade Wallace in taking the initiative to launch a women’s publication in the first place.

I’ll be honest and say that the last 3.5 years weren’t all fun and games. In fact it wasn’t easy at all. The cycling world can be an incredibly challenging, obstacle-strewn and discouraging space for women. Be it as a rider, worker or journalist, throughout my time in cycling there has rarely been a day that has gone by without some obstacle.

But I still like to reflect upon Ella as having been a much-needed spark. A spark for more visibility, publicity and discourse about women’s cycling across sports media and the cycling industry.

We have a long way to go still, but I do feel that the past years have been monumental, and while Ella has been put on a simmer —with only Simone left to report part-time — I do hope for a financially sustainable revival of the publication or something like it. 

What’s the current state of women’s cycling coverage?

Leading up to Ella Cycling Tips losing its funding, we experienced some terrible losses in women’s cycling journalism. Back to back, we lost Sarah Connolly, who finally threw in the towel late 2017 after 10 years of her involvement in women’s cycling media, and Leah Flickinger, who left her position as Editor-in-Chief of Bicycling Magazine. All of this coincided within a small timeframe and it was devastating. But that’s not to say there’s no more women in cycling media or women’s cycling coverage; I think it’s just spread across several publications now. Cyclingnews, Cycling Weekly, VeloNews are all doing some women’s coverage, which is great to see. Plus, VoxWomen continues to be a women’s cycling only publication. 

What do you think of the current momentum that is happening in women’s cycling, where there’s a demand for equitable opportunities and equal footing for women’s cycling, and our voices are being heard in some avenues, and yet for someone in your position, the excuse of “no funding available/no interest” is an actual reason for shutting down these opportunities?

Women’s cycling is experiencing some growing pains, but that is to say we are in fact growing, and I don’t think that what we’re experiencing right now is going to be a set-back. I’d like to give credit where credit is due, and what happened with Ella did not happen without a fight from everyone involved. I think this is just another boom and bust in cycling as per usual, and it could lead to more coverage across other media platforms. 

Hopefully this will get people to start thinking about how we can grow our sport’s representation in a sustainable way too. What happened with Ella is a huge bummer, and I’m afraid it may have sent a poor message out there with the bust, but maybe a niche publication is not the answer. Maybe what this demonstrates is that we (sports fans) want women’s professional cycling coverage as part of mainstream coverage.

We’ll figure out our way forward as a sport, I know we will, and the issues that need attention will still be talked about; people will find the avenues to get that content out there. I am especially encouraged by the formation of The Cyclists’ Alliance and the dialogue regarding the lack of women’s wages, riders’ rights, and how the sport is governed.  

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the way cycling has evolved for men is not the same trajectory we want to take on the women’s side. And so with the way the sport and recreation is being marketing, governed and covered, we are trying to find our own, and more sustainable, path. 

Do you think we’re given a good enough chance to prove that equitable opportunities will yield profit for the companies who are investing in our sport?

As much as I was just optimistically talking about the growth of women’s cycling, I do think that we have a long ways to go still. Cycling is an old and traditionally male-dominated sport, and it’s tough to get rid of old practices and ideas. 

There are so many things to fix. There’s the complete lack of wage standards and professionalism in the women’s peloton, not to mention the double standard of women needing a certain look or social media following to get ahead in the sport (financially).  Luckily, unions are forming and there are several misconduct investigations ongoing to examining the sport and hold it accountable.

To me, equitable opportunities in cycling means proper employment contracts and health insurance for the female riders, better representation of women in cycling as a whole, and more non-athlete job opportunities for women. I’d love to see more WTF reporters, mechanics, industry and governing-body leaders. 

As the sport and opportunities are growing, we have this ongoing chance and perhaps obligation to do things differently instead of the old traditional way its been done for decades. I think that is started to happen and I’m encouraged by it. 

Take for example the demand to remove podium girls from international cycling events; all it took was for one race organiser to say ‘nope, we’re not doing that anymore’ and others followed suit. For me, it’s the most symbolic way you can look at the dismantling of old traditions. It’s promising, to say the least. What I’d consider another huge turning point is that we are starting to see more women managing teams, even on the men’s side.

What are some of the other institutional barriers you’ve come up against in the world of cycling that you find aren’t as apparent to others in the community?

The repercussions of a lack of visibility is debilitating, and it must become our top priority when it comes to issues surrounding women’s cycling. More visibility, more exposure, more coverage is absolutely crucial in attracting new and more sponsorships and business. 

Women are still often an afterthought in sports. It’s evident in gear and apparel, marketing and media coverage, and staffing. Some of the biggest bike races in the world only added a women’s version in recent years, and most are still not shown on TV.

As Title IX and other initiatives have shown: it (unfortunately) takes collective effort and policies to change male-dominated, white-washed cultures. And we are only now seeing that in cycling. In a way, I find it absurd that governing bodies have to mandate coverage or equal prize purses for women’s cycling to get recognized but if that is what it takes, bring on the policies! And affirmative action while we are at it. We desperately need more diversity in the industry.

As I mentioned before, cycling is an old sport but women’s cycling is still fairly new — it wasn’t an Olympic sport until 1984. Yet until there’s, say, a proper women’s Tour de France, people are still going to be like “wait, women ride bikes? You can do that for a living?” 

A meager one, but yes.

But you wouldn’t know it because we aren’t represented. You don’t see enough women in cycling ads, in cycling magazine, on TV, etc. That needs to change. 

Who do you think is at the forefront of the shift in women’s cycling when it comes to producing equal and equitable opportunities for women?

I think social media has really opened up the dialogue regarding women’s sports, and shown a real demand for more coverage and equal opportunities.  

There are many other sports that are surpassing cycling when it comes to putting women on equal footing. Women’s tennis has been fighting for the space they have today for decades, and the fight has paid off in terms of men’s and women’s matches at all big events and series, a wide fanbase, sponsorship opportunities, salaries and prize purses.  

Women’s soccer is fighting for their space in a traditional sport too and gaining traction, while triathlons, snowboarding and the X-Games are good examples of younger sports who didn’t fall into any backwards tradition and offered equal opportunities from the get-go. 

And in cycling, too, it’s the newer or younger brands and events that are doing it right form the start. The Women’s Tour of Britain, for example, is fairly new to the Women’s WorldTour calendar yet it’s the best run and promoted event on the calendar. The women are the show here, not a sideshow, and they’re treated with the same amount of professionalism as the men’s event. As a result, the multi-day event gets loads of media attention, brings out the best athletes in the sport and gets a big spectatorship. 

And I want to recognise Red Bull too. When it comes to equal live coverage, Red Bull does a tremendous job with its streaming of the mountain bike races and sponsorship of male and female athletes. 

You can find Anne-Marije on Twitter at @amrook, and on Instagram at amrook as well. She’s been a journalist for over 11 years, and is a team member of Keller Rohrback Cycling Team.

2 thoughts on “The Bust of Ella Cycling Tips: An Interview with Former Editor Anne-Marije Rook”

  1. Still very much enjoying these articles. Thanks for putting them together.
    It’s a real shame that Ella scaled back to where they are now. I wonder what it’s going to take for something to take its place.
    Anne-Marjie seemed like an amazing advocate for women’s cycling (and apparently other sports too) when we met briefly at Bloom in 2017. Gotta get her and the rest of the KR team to come up for Tour de Bowness!

    1. Anne-Marjie is an awesome person through and through. She calls it like she sees it which is something we certainly appreciate.
      I planned the bug in her and some of the KR girls ear about Tour de Bowness last year. I’d love to have the crew come out to AB.

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