Fans turn out for Tour of Britain not because of the riders' photogenic qualities but to witness outstanding athletes
The five-year-old girl in the brand-new replica world champion's jersey had been too shy to get her picture taken with Marianne Vos at the stage start in Cheshunt earlier in the day. She was called Lena, and now she was finishing a lunchtime pizza with her dad in Welwyn Garden City, the two of them killing time and hunger while waiting to go out and watch the finish. Later that afternoon, as the sun finally emerged, she would change her mind and pose with the real-life world champion, the two of them in their matching rainbow stripes. And then for more photographs with Laura Trott, the local hero, and Lizzie Armitstead, Britain's top woman road racer.
Five may be a little young to start hero-worshipping sports stars but you can't help thinking that Lena won't forget her day at the Friends Life Tour of Britain, and that perhaps some aspect of it will have left a permanent impression. Not necessarily generating the ambition to become a world-beating cyclist, but perhaps helping to establish the belief that a woman's horizons need have no artificially imposed limits.
Sophie Brotherton, aged 11, was also in the centre of Welwyn on Saturday. She had come along with her dad, the BBC commentator Simon Brotherton, who was off duty but had brought his daughter to see the race. They were in the enclosure near the finish line, drumming their palms on the advertising hoardings in the traditional fashion as the riders whirred by, bringing a blaze of colour and noise and excitement to an overcast afternoon.
The next morning I thought of Lena and Sophie, two young girls getting a glimpse of what women can do in sport and in the world, while reading about Richard Scudamore's emails. These now-notorious documents were published by the Sunday Mirror in a scoop exposing the chief executive of the Premier League as a man whose view of women belongs, you might say, to the neolithic age of gender relations – if, that is, you didn't have a more optimistic view of the attitudes of cavemen towards their partners.
It took a while for the bonfire of righteous anger to be ignited over Scudamore's indiscretions, just as it did over the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist fanatics. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson observed this week that if those African girls had been Californian cheerleaders, world war three would have broken out last Tuesday. To which it might be added that if Scudamore had been the director-general of the BBC, the outrage – real and manufactured – would have cost him his job within 48 hours.
Instead the Football Association, which has overall responsibility for the conduct of the game in England, at first tried to wash its hands of the affair. Rather than declaring Scudamore unfit to hold his office, they identified a precedent which prevented action being taken over what was deemed to be a private matter. Public anger soon prodded them into firming up their response, although the use by Greg Dyke of the term "totally inappropriate", as employed by government ministers to describe bankers' bonuses, is all too often a signal that nothing is actually going to be done, beyond a bit of hand-wringing.
To men such as the Manchester United director David Gill and the Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck, the Premier League's chief executive is the one who doubled and redoubled the income of their clubs from a series of domestic and international television deals, enabling them to promote their "brands" to a worldwide market. Gill and Buck are members of the league's audit and remuneration committee, which will consider the matter early next week.
The bottom line says it was Scudamore who ensured that Manchester City earned a few bob short of £100m for winning the league title this season, with three other clubs joining them in the £90m-plus range. There are a lot of club owners and directors who would not welcome the idea of showing the door to a man capable of achieving those results on their behalf. They would like nothing more than a press release that read as a solemn expression of regret coupled with a urbane assurance that Scudamore has promised to revise his attitudes.
But the real picture is a very much bigger one, and those two girls mentioned the start of this piece – Lena and Sophie – loom just as large within it as Scudamore. At a time when so many of our national sporting heroes are women, the organisation of sport is still struggling to catch up, and even the organisers of the Women's Tour have something to learn.
The race was a big step in the right direction for a sport whose appeal to women has been a big feature of recent years. The people behind it took the intelligent decision to hold the five-day race in one region of the country, thus simplifying the logistics, concentrating the focus of publicity and benefitting from local interest created by the presence of the two Trott sisters (with Emma on her last ride as a pro), who began their careers at the Welwyn velodrome.
But the competitors must have groaned when they heard what Hugh Roberts, the chief executive of Sweetspot, the organisers, had to say about them before the race. "They're not only great riders," he proclaimed, "but, without sounding chauvinistic, they're very marketable, very photogenic, far more so than their male counterparts." No doubt he thought that, while trying to drum up interest in the race, he was paying them a compliment. Instead he evoked the spirit of the R&A and the pre‑enlightenment MCC.
The thousands thronging the roadsides over the five days of the race had not turned up because of the riders' photogenic qualities. They were there to witness outstanding athletes and to be part of a terrific occasion. As he watched the event unfold, Roberts might have come to the same conclusion.
Women's bike racing is a sport on the move. Plans are already being laid for next year's Tour, and perhaps ITV4, which put out a nightly highlights programme, can be persuaded to provide the live coverage that would enable the use of big screens to keep spectators abreast of the race's progress.
Live coverage has just been announced by the BBC for this August's one-hour criterium around central London, part of the Prudential RideLondon weekend, featuring many of the Tour's teams and riders. Perhaps Lena and Sophie will be watching that, too. And someone should invite Richard Scudamore along. It would do him good.