Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Friday, May 15, 2015

Why Women Should Race With the Men

By Kat Hunter

Driveway Crit Series, Masters + W123. Photos by Scott Strance Photography

Some men say women have no business racing with the men’s fields. They argue that women have their “own” race to enter, that when they race with the men the women riders get dropped, taking a spot that would otherwise have gone to a man who could have hung on. They claim women are bad bike handlers and cause crashes. I hear comments like these through some indirect channel about once a year, usually in reference to the Driveway Series crit races. Fortunately, the individuals the opinions belong to, loud as they may be, represent a small minority of the men’s peloton, and for every one detractor you’ll find four ardent supporters. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to answer the questions our critics have posed: Why are women racing with the men? And why should they be able to?

River City Market's Kirsten Fee
First, and perhaps most simply, USAC rules say we can. “Women may enter any men’s race for which they are eligible by age, category, and any performance requirements. They may also enter categorized races for men that are up to one category lower than their women’s category. For road, track, and cyclo-cross events, category 1 women may enter men’s races up to two categories lower.”

The rulebook is probably not changing anytime soon, but there are other, subtler dangers in generalizing a population of individuals by gender. For example, is saying that a characteristic applies to every woman any different than saying it applies to every brown or black or gay person? In our society, sexism is accepted in a way that racism is not. Often presented as a joke or a fact of biology, comments that frame women as lesser are woven into an everyday narrative so pervasive that such comments inspire no awareness or surprise.

ATC Racing's Anne Flanagan
When it comes to cycling, is the average man stronger than the average woman? Yes, of course. But the spectrum of physical abilities is like that of height. As a man, are you taller than the average woman? Probably. But you’re probably not taller than the tallest woman. And since we’re talking about local fields of recreational male athletes who might have a very disproportionate training load or experience level to that of, say, a professional or former professional woman rider, the “norms” are even less likely to apply.

There’s no shame in being challenged by a woman, or even beaten; cyclists should understand that better than anyone. Cycling is a sport that rewards different talent sets depending on a race’s particular circumstances. If you’ve been in the sport long enough, you know that once you get to a certain level, you won’t win every race unless every race, by accident or design, aligns with your strengths. Sagan needs a tough finishing climb. Cav needs a flat field sprint. You might be able to podium in a really short TT, but get smoked in a long one; you might excel at short crits and suck at hilly stage races. Sometimes a woman rider will be strong in the area where you’re weakest. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a lesser athlete.

The higher the category, the more comfortable the group seems to be with a handful of women in their midst. Earlier this year, I was nervous about entering my first men’s cat 2 road races. I’d raced with the masters men before in combined fields, and sometimes the reception had been less than warm. Racing with the 2s, I experienced nothing negative—no nasty comments or looks, no aggressive actions. No one made a desperate maneuver to push me off a wheel. Many riders—guys I’d never met before—called me by name and gave me encouragement or just asked how things were going. They seemed comfortable in themselves, not threatened by my presence, and they tolerated my relative inexperience with the large field size as they would any strong male rider who’d moved up the ranks quickly.

But why be there in the first place? At the Driveway and other local events, there are separate women’s races. Why not keep with my own? In Texas, there aren’t enough women racing bikes to put together a 70 to 100 rider field. Because of the drastically smaller sample size, women’s fields are a third of the size of the men’s or less, and fitness gaps between the fastest and the slowest riders are wider. Often women’s races are shorter in duration or distance, as well. The Driveway women’s race, for example, is only 30 minutes and starts at 5 p.m., which is a difficult time for many racers to make. In road races the P123 women might do 40 or 50 miles versus 80 or 100 for the P12 men. Having a separate women’s race is a very good thing, and necessary for the women’s side of the sport to continue to grow, but women riders need access to the larger men’s fields too.

ATC Racing's Christie Tracy in the orange and black
When I sign up for a men’s race, I’m looking for a simulation of a women’s NRC field. One person was said to take offense at this idea, that his race at the Driveway could possibly be compared to a women’s race. NRC events attract the best pro and elite women in the country. I’m not a good crit racer, but I’ll say with the authority of recent experience and suffering that the NRC crits I’ve done make the men’s 3/4 race at the Driveway seem slow and very safe. The Driveway P123 field is typically faster than women’s pro crits, but I find it a much better approximation of what the women’s races are like, and I enter that race because I need as much practice as I can get with the dynamic of a larger pack and the speed.

Some criticism focuses on the fact that the men’s field reaches its registration limit, and a number of the women who enter are shelled before the end of the race. This I feel no reason to apologize for, as plenty of men are shelled along with them, and the Driveway offers and encourages pre-reg (payout is linked to pre-reg numbers). Sign up early and your spot is secure.

As a female rider, I’m not going to say that I don’t enjoy the attention that being competitive with the men brings. I like to think that I’m an example of what women can do, that I’m proving a point. So when I attack the Driveway P123 field early in the race and Stefan Rothe calls out “That’s a YouTube moment, Kat!” or I win a sprint point on the VOP ride or I get what would have been a top TT time in a men’s field, I feel really good about it. But the reverse is also true. I feel a great deal of pressure to ride well; if I get dropped because I’m having a bad day, or I clip a pedal, or I cause a crash, I don’t have the luxury of being just another nameless rider in the pack who’s made another common mistake. For many people—especially when it comes to the negative—I’m representing every woman rider.

Locally, we have some really good examples of women who can ride a men’s crit with incredible ability, and have been doing so at the Driveway for many years: Jen McRae, Mina Pizzini, Kathleen Hattaway, Kate Sherwin… Just to name a few. They’re often perfectly positioned—smooth, knowledgeable wheels to follow whether you’re a man or a woman. Jen McRae has podiumed in the men’s 3/4 multiple times, and won it in 2010.
Mina Pizzini at the Driveway in 2014 on her Cervelo S5.

Regardless of how you feel about the issue of women racing with men, it’s important to see us as individual riders. Know us. Talk to us. Follow women’s racing. If you see a problem, or even a success, know that it’s not all women, but a woman. And know that we’re there for the same reasons as you: the challenge, the workout, the community, and the pure and simple love of riding a bike.

To the men who support us and go out of their way to help us do what we do, whether they’re spouses, friends, sponsors, or just fellow cyclists in the local peloton, we’re eternally grateful; thank you, thank you, thank you!


  1. Thanks for writing this Kat. Well said and RIGHT ON!

  2. Thanks Andrew! I know you've always been a big supporter of women's racing as organizer of the Driveway Series--I should have mentioned that in the article. Thanks for being awesome. :)