The first Tour de France Femmes this summer means the time is right for a new campaign celebrating women’s cycling. Zoe Watkiss, CEO of performance eyewear brand SunGod, explains why
By Graham Willgoss
This piece first appeared in the August edition of our newly revamped BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
SunGod painted a 21-metre mural on Box Hill’s Zig Zag Road in Surrey reading ‘MOMENTUM’. Can you tell us more about it?
‘Momentum’ for us signifies the changes that are happening in women’s cycling, but also the fact there is a lot more to do. Let’s celebrate that positive change – better equity not just in cycling, but in women’s sport in general.
That’s what we’re passionate about. We’ve recently forayed into cycling, but we cover lots of sports and that’s at the heart of what we’re doing.
We’ve been wanting to do this for a long time: celebrate the change and drive awareness. Even if it drives greater awareness among markets or people for whom it’s not really on their radar or they’re just getting into the sport, or they’re young.
Right through from grassroots to elite athletes, like [pro rider] Sabrina [Stultiens] and Liv Racing-Xstra, we’re trying to play our part in bringing a bit more equity to this sport but also create a bit of noise and drive change.
You are based in Verbier, Switzerland with SunGod. Why choose Box Hill?
We wanted somewhere iconic that people would resonate with, know the name, and had a bit of kudos. And we also had to find a road that could be closed!
We’re a small player in this industry, but we like to punch above our weight and we had to work quite hard with the National Trust. The last time they closed it was for the 2012 Olympics. They haven’t done it for another brand!
But my team worked really hard to explain our mission and get them behind the cause. Yes, it’s a mural, but we’re also bringing out a limited edition product and doing a lot of things promoting the greater cause [including a film with Liv Racing-Xstra].
So I guess they got on board because they were excited about what we were doing and were willing to work with perhaps a smaller British brand.
We’re also going for B Corp [sustainability standard], which is the holy grail of sustainability, and we’ve nearly got our certification approved. Putting profit on the same level as people. And they shared that goal.
How important is the Tour de France Femmes finally happening this summer for a brand investing in women’s cycling?
It’s really exciting for us because a lot of the women we support in cycling are at varying levels. We’ve only just taken on a WorldTour women’s team [with Liv Racing-Xstra], so that’s really exciting they’ll get to compete.
And it actually enables us to elevate and send waves out to many more people. As soon as that race is on the calendar, it is only going to help that message transcend. I think across the board viewership of women’s sport is rising, particularly in cycling.
So for us it opens up a whole new sporting arena, a whole new level of athletes we can sponsor and work with, and also inspire the younger generation. It’s a women’s WorldTour team we’ve sponsored before a men’s [team], but that’s in the pipeline for us, I hope, soon.
The Tour de France Femmes covers a very small part of France. Do you wish the route had more cycling landmarks?
The eight stages are a great start, and we’re really keen to celebrate that positive change. But of course we would love ideally – and I don’t know what the governing body is thinking on this, there must be a plan – for it to go eight, 10, 12.
I’d love to see that increase [as the race gets older]. Certainly from a sponsor’s perspective, but also for the progression and the momentum. It seems like the obvious thing to happen.
And it will encourage people in the sport to keep going, keep wanting to campaign and talk about it and know that this isn’t a one-off thing – and feature those iconic places that get people watching, travelling and talking.
A women’s tour of France has existed on and off, and in various forms, since 1984. Is it important to you as a brand to say you were there for this new beginning?
Absolutely. The InternationElles [an amateur team who rode the same route as the 2019 men’s Tour de France to campaign for a women’s equivalent] were the first women’s team we took on board. And it’s just grown from there.
It feels good to say this isn’t something we’re doing just to jump on the bandwagon. This is who we are. And I’m hoping that will spread out to other brands and other people in the industry. We have some pretty big brands in our crosshairs.
But we want to do things a bit more dynamically, a bit more personably. Our background wasn’t cycling. It was watersports, surfing, kite surfing, skiing – action sports.
If we can bring the same brand kudos into the cycling industry, try and change things but also become a part of that core group of cyclists who are so passionate about what they do – and that’s only ballooning – then that’s a pretty cool thing for us.
And it’s something we’re excited to take on as a new market.
Men’s cycling effectively has a 100-year head start. Do you feel like the weight of history is against you?
It’s the same as with sustainability. If everyone expects it to go from zero to ‘we’re perfect’ and no plastic, that’s not realistic. And it’s the same in sport, sadly. It is a historic thing, of course.
But chipping away at it and still celebrating that positive change – it’s not equity yet, and it will take time to get there. ‘Momentum’ is quite an interesting, positive word for us because we like to inspire, so it perfectly captures the change that’s happening.
We’re going. Let’s keep this going, let’s keep talking about it, let’s keep celebrating what’s happening and let’s keep moving forwards.