Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Friday, August 24, 2012

The World of Women's Pro Cycling

by Kat Hunter

Lining up with the pro women's field before a crit is like entering an arena with 100 angry lions. Without any pretense at politeness, they crowd to the front of the staging area. Here, once you've claimed your few inches of space, vigilance is key. To relax your stance or to drop your elbows is to invite a wheel or handlebar into that prized real estate, losing your second row spot to the third row, and so on. And this you can't allow; when the gun goes off, it'll be an all-out, lung-burning sprint to the first turn. The pack is so large and the speed of the race so high that if you're not either an experienced and fearless crit racer or manage to insert yourself somewhere in the top quarter of the pack from the beginning, your race will be nothing but a struggle to survive.

The National Racing Calendar is a collection of the top stage races, omniums, and one-day road races in the U.S., the stomping ground for any domestic pro or elite team. On the NRC circuit, the pace is furious, teams are motivated and well organized, riders are relentlessly aggressive, and Olympic medalists and national champions are scattered like prized jewels in a peloton of fast nobodies racing their way to being somebodies. Few women's teams are officially registered as pro UCI teams, and most riders are designated as cat 1s or cat 2s, but if you call a spade a spade, NRC racing is essentially pro cycling in the U.S.

Before the summer, I'd had a very vague, idealized version of women's pro cycling, and I meant to write about it. But my research took me much farther than I had planned, and it shook that imagined reality to its core. Heading straight into the lion's den, I rode as a guest rider for Landis/Trek at Tour of the Gila in May, and for FCS|ROUSE p/b Mr. Restore Cycling Team at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in June. Each stage race was about 5 days long, but the different formats tested me in very different ways.

I'm a good time trialist. I like to think of myself as physically and mentally tough. But by the fourth day at Nature Valley, I'd never wanted to quit anything so badly in my life. I'd crashed in the first two crit stages. I'd lost my appetite. I was tired of having to face one day of racing after the next, getting elbowed and shoved around, showering with road rash, never knowing what to do or when to do it. Though Gila had already shown me, quite vividly, that the top women pros are as fast or faster than the elite men back home, nevertheless I was stunned by the speed and violence of the races. I rode like a coward in the fifth stage's 80-mile road race, fighting to stay last wheel as if it had been first, and I knew it. At the team meeting later that day, I burst into tears. I wanted to go home like Dorothy to Kansas – I couldn't hack for one week what these women do all year long.

At a bare minimum, to be a pro woman cyclist you have to train like it's a job. But you also have to cultivate a mental toughness, to accept fatigue and injury, the constant and very high risk of crashing, racing and riding in any weather conditions, surviving on a razor-thin budget, and leaving friends and family behind for months at a time. The schedule is grueling, and teams travel across the country and the world from one race to the next from roughly February until November, with some riders riding a double season of indoor track or cyclocross in between. And even if an athlete is only racing NRC part-time or sitting out the winter months, the competition is so intense that she can't afford to take much time away from training.

I went to Gila and Nature Valley to "experience" the next level of racing. What I learned is that in order to have even the smallest amount of success you have to be fully committed, as to a mental institution, to the sport. As rare as fame and fortune may be in women's pro cycling, there's no room for tourists, no time for fear or hesitation or thought of anything else. Nothing can be more important than winning. That's because the women you're competing against, the ones unapologetically edging you out of that precious spot in staging, have sacrificed everything just to be there.

The Women's Peloton

Men's pro road cycling is an industry, and though only the select few make it, there's an established path to the top. Many begin climbing this ladder somewhere between the ages of 13 to 18. National teams and elite junior squads usually court talent around 15 or 16, pro teams at 17 or 18. Successful young riders often sign with under-23 teams, typically subsets of large pro teams, and compete in U23 races or U23 competitions within races (for example, the young rider's jersey in the Tour de France). Some riders may skip the first part of this trajectory, getting what's considered a late start in their mid-twenties. Regardless of age, a neo-pro – newly defined as any rider in his first two years of competition on a ProTeam or Pro Continental team – will make at least the UCI-mandated minimum salary of $29,000 to $33,500.

For women, there is no typical ascension or immediate paycheck. They're more likely to enter pro cycling by accident rather than by design or "development." Most start by competing in small local races, progressing quickly from a strong cat 4 to a cat 2 or cat 1. With as little as one year of racing experience, those interested in the next level might move straight to the NRC scene, which is like jumping from the frying pan into the sun. To get "noticed" or to develop a viable race résumé, riders often guest ride for teams, or sometimes enter a race as an individual.

Women's high school and collegiate cycling is growing, but currently, many of the top U.S. women road cyclists started out in other disciplines and found their way into the sport in their mid or late 20s. Carmen Small played volleyball at Colorado State University. Amber Neben ran track and cross-country for the University of Nebraska, then competed as a pro mountain biker. Evelyn Stevens played tennis at Dartmouth, giving up a successful career in investment banking for cycling at the age of 25. Alison Powers spent 7 years on the U.S. National Ski Team. Kristen Armstrong, gold medalist in the women's time trial at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics, was a distance runner in college and later a triathlete, starting her bike focus at 27.

The women's peloton could also put together a very interesting Jeopardy match. A large percentage has master's degrees in varying subjects, and there's a smattering of PhDs. Most have at least a bachelor's degree. Even women cyclists who start early and have the talent to move straight to the pro ranks often pursue a college degree, since the sport lacks the financial incentive to consider it either a short-term moneymaker or a long-term career choice. Coaching is a common side job, and the majority of riders work at least part-time. As a woman, racing bikes is simply not something that's going to pay the bills unless you're the best of the best...and in that case, then it pays some of the bills.

Experience varies. Some riders have only been cycling for a year or two, while others have been racing for 20 or more. Laura Van Gilder, first overall in the pro women's race at this summer's 11-day Tour of America's Dairyland, will turn 49 at the end of the year. Kristin Armstrong is 39. But the reality is, compared to men's pro cycling, there are far fewer women riders, teams, races, and opportunities for making a living. An amazing amount of talent is present and coming up, but without the money or the structure to keep them there, it seems a little like planting high-quality seeds in the stone floor of a basement.

The pro women's peloton is intelligent, well spoken, interesting, and unbelievably fit. Unfortunately, they're also almost completely invisible.

Pay & Prestige

Most of the world catches a glimpse of women pro cyclists once every four years for the Olympic games, as if they've emerged from some clandestine boot camp in the mountains, a well-guarded national secret. There's no women's Tour de France, no USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Most major cycling tours don't have a women's competition, but when they do, as with the Giro d'Italia Femminile, there's barely a whisper of the results. You'll rarely see the pro women on TV or in the headlines, even in cycling media.

Quoting from Velonews, for men the UCI mandates a minimum salary of $29,000 to $34,500 for Pro Continental riders and $33,000 to $41,500 for ProTeam riders, with an average ProTeam salary of $331,500. In 2013, those minimums will increase by 10 percent for team employees and 24 percent for independent contractors. There's no such UCI minimum for women's racing. Another Velonews article estimated that the top salary for a woman pro is around $80,000, with many earning $6,000, and, as an unconfirmed but very believable estimate, up to a quarter of the peloton making nothing at all.

Last year, when questioned whether the organization planned to introduce minimum salaries for women, UCI president Pat McQuaid said, "We have an agreement in men's sport, but women's cycling has not developed enough that we are at that level yet."

This inspired an uproar, albeit a quiet one. Some riders interpreted McQuaid's statement as a disqualification of their performance and said they deserved equal pay for equal effort. Others called, if not for equal pay, then equal opportunity – the creation of new rules that would require a women's division on all ProTeams, or a women's race at all ProTeam tours.

McQuaid said his comment was taken out of context, and he dismissed the idea of forcing women's cycling onto men's teams or race organizers, saying in a later interview with the Daily Peleton, "The passion for women's cycling must come from a more grass roots level, not from creating new rules and obligations."

His answer to the next interview question ("Is there anything fans can do to support the growth and success of women's pro racing?") envisioned a suddenly fortuitous – or some would say, conveniently hopeless – solution. Fans could line the road to watch women's cycling events, he said, and their support would show sponsors that women were a worthy investment.

The metaphors crowd in: The chicken before the egg. Men in lycra robbing from the rich to give to the poor. The washing of hands. A charity fund. Communism, by golly! But in some respects, the naysayers are right. Unless the structure changes substantially – the redistribution of wealth from multi-million dollar riders at the very top of the sport as perhaps the only alternative, such as the UCI regulations that require pro teams to take on and fairly compensate young riders – a required minimum salary on par with the men would simply shut down most, if not all, women's teams. Men's and women's pro cycling depend almost exclusively on sponsorship money, with the emblems on a team's jersey showing not just a source of support, but of life itself.

Further complicating the argument, there are many levels of "pro" racing. For men, there's ProTour, Pro Continental, and Continental – formerly Tier I, Tier II, and Tier III – but registering as a UCI team involves a prohibitively large fee and additional regulations regarding team composition. Along with many smaller U.S. men's teams, most women's teams that compete on the NRC circuit are classified as "Domestic Elite" teams, and are not governed by the UCI at all. Exergy Twenty 12 and Team TIBCO/To the Top are the only UCI-registered women's teams in the U.S.

To be fair, women cyclists aren't the only ones who are struggling to make ends meet. Many domestic male pros on Continental and Domestic Elite teams race without a paycheck, as well. On this level, sponsorship determines how much and how many riders on the team can be paid.

When I spoke with Michael Engleman, director of the former US Women's Cycling Development Program, he painted a much less rosy picture than I had imagined. Though the USWCDP program no longer officially exists, Engleman and a network of others still continue its work, helping to "fill the gaps" for women cyclists by assisting individual athletes in getting connected with pro teams, finding coaches and health insurance, and reviewing contracts. Most women make no salary their first 2 to 3 years of pro racing, Engleman explained, and it's very difficult to get started in the sport without a sizeable amount of personal savings.

"We try to be honest with that," Engleman says. "We try to tell them what the odds are that they can pull something off. Most of the riders that we've worked with that had the potential to move up have moved up, so they go from zero dollars except for prize money for two years to maybe making $6,000 or $10,000 a year, plus prize money. I think for anyone who really wants to go race, it's not about the dollars. It's wanting to make ends meet. There are usually ways to figure that out."

Like many others in the cycling world, Engleman says the key to improvement lies with corporate sponsorship. He pointed to Specialized as an example. Specialized currently sponsors three women's teams, including Now and Novartis for MS, TIBCO, and Specialized-lululemon. Team Specialized-lululemon, formed early this year just in the nick of time, resurrected the ashes of the illustrious women's Team HTC-Highroad; many of its riders, of various nationalities, represented their countries in the 2012 Olympic Games. (As a frivolous aside, Lulu's kit design is one of the coolest I've seen – it's like a zebra-striped stereogram.)

"If you look at all the women out in the world, why aren't bike companies and corporations jumping in to sponsor women's cycling?" Engleman says. "I think that part of the answer is that most marketing people don't understand that the difference between a Mom with two kids and an elite woman pro is not that big of a jump." With their diverse backgrounds – motherhood, marriage, college sports, PhD programs, office work, riding centuries, racing with the local guys – they offer a message that would resonate, a history perhaps more relevant to the public than pro men's cycling because it's less removed from the norm.

They're also a lot cheaper. "If you want to be the No. 1 men's team in the world, you're putting millions in – $10, $12, $15 or more million," Engleman says. "If you want to be one of the top women's teams in the world, you're maybe starting around $350,000, but if you really want to support the athletes and you really want to make serious changes in the sport with PR and marketing, then $500,000 is a good starting point. Those are still big numbers, but if you start to look at the fan base that can be built and how the women can connect with development programs and their communities, the value's there."

It's an old story – the talent and desire may be in ready supply, but the money is not. At the moment, that puts women's racing in the unfortunate and uncomfortable position of a charity. Why should a sponsor sink money into women's racing if there's no media exposure? Why should the media give women athletes more exposure if no one wants to see them? Why should the profits of pro men's racing be shared with the women's side?

But many proponents would say that the public is interested and ready to see more. Segments of The Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge, the pro women's crit held on August 22, 2012, in Aspen during the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, were shown alongside the third stage of the men's race on RadioShack TourTracker. Though cameras only had footage of one turn of the crit course, viewers were writing in to the announcers to request more coverage of the women's race. Footage would alternate from the men's breakaway grabbing a feed to the heat of the action in the women's crit – a potentially ideal mix of race formats and personalities.

Sixty years ago, women were idealized as a softer, weaker sex designed exclusively for domesticity, and now they're depicted as sword-bearing warrior princesses in popular movies (though it's true they may be baring far more skin than wise for battle). Women's boxing recently became an Olympic sport. And of course, more and more women are riding and racing bikes, which makes them interested parties and consumers. So without too much of a stretch, women's cycling can be seen as a "startup" rather than a charity, an investment with the promise of larger returns.

Engleman says there have been a lot of positive changes in recent years. Former women pros are staying involved as team directors. Talented junior riders have more of a network of support and development. Riders are visiting schools and talking to kids about what it's like to race bikes, encouraging them to start cycling early. More women, on both the amateur and pro level, are sharing what Engleman calls "positive messaging" on blogs, social media, and other outlets. "Any little thing goes a long way," he says.

Living the Dream

Rachel Byus, a 25-year-old studio art major at Lindenwood University and rider for FCS|ROUSE p/b Mr. Restore Cycling Team, doubles as the team manager. When I ask her what the biggest challenge of bike racing is, she answers without hesitation. "Being able to race your bike and balance it with everything else you do in life," she says.

This year FCS|ROUSE raced in Texas, California, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Georgia, Wisconsin, Illinois, Oregon, Missouri, and Colorado. Like many teams, FCS|ROUSE lacks the budget to fly their athletes to races, so they hop in a van and drive cross-country from one race to the next, sometimes competing in back-to-back, week-long stage races with one or two days on the road between. Food and gas are paid for, but that's usually as far as the budget stretches. The team relies on host housing organized by race promoters and friends, and they mostly cook their own meals.

The women's FCS and ROUSE teams were combined this year. For most of the women, this is the first season of racing together, as well as the first full year of following the NRC circuit more or less start to finish. They're relatively young for a women's team, ranging in age from 25 to 31. The riders who race the NRC circuit coach, work only part of the year, work remotely, or are in graduate programs. Lauren Stephens, one of the team's Dallas-area riders, is a full-time teacher and races NRC in the summer.

Rouse Bicycles, the team's primary sponsor, produces custom-painted carbon fiber frames and bikes. They entered the market about three years ago and were soon looking for a way to put advertising dollars to work, says Chris Cornetto, co-owner of the company. "We could either spend a bunch of money promoting our bikes in magazines and things like that, or we could get people out on the bike and ride the bikes and use that as a way to promote our company."

"We decided to sponsor a women's team for several reasons," he says. "One is just because I think the women get overlooked a lot. There are a lot of people who sponsor men's teams and if you look at the NRC teams, there are maybe 7 women's teams and probably 20 men's teams this year." Also, when Rouse Bicycles Elite Women's Team was formed, several women's teams had recently folded. Good riders were available and looking for new teams.

Cornetto plays an active part in the team, sometimes serving as team director. He also organized the 2-day Come and Take It Omnium in Gonzales, TX, which offered an equal payout for the Pro 123 women. Women's prize purses are usually half or less that of the pro men's field in Texas races, so this was not just unusual, but practically unheard of. When I questioned Cornetto about equal payouts for women, I expected to hear a larger diatribe on inequality in the sport. But his answer was short and to the point. He says prize money matters little, if at all; it doesn't necessarily bring a race more participation or more publicity. "I think it's the right thing to do and that's why we do it," he says.

Byus says sponsors of women's teams tend to be "extremists," in a way. They're sold on the cause and very active in supporting it. "I think it'd be great for more companies to think about how or why using us, or any women's team, as an advertising outlet could possibly benefit their company. It's a mystery why, if you ask a random company if they want to sponsor a women's team or a men's team, it's the ones that truly support women's cycling that support women's cycling. There's no in between."

Some individuals support the sport and the riders in other ways. Little things help a lot, Byus says. Volunteer host housing is essential at most races. And even meals make a difference. "If you don't have to take 8 girls out to dinner one night, that saves the team around $200," she says. "$200 here and there, that adds up."

I witnessed this generosity firsthand at Nature Valley. Several people had surrendered their homes completely to allow the team to use all available space, staying with friends for the week. After the third stage was cancelled for heavy storms, a good Samaritan saw our team trailer in the parking lot and came sprinting out into the downpour to invite us to the Cannon River Winery for a free meal and tasting. On the last day, the owners of The Fix Studio held an outdoor barbecue for those of us still waiting on our planes. Most of our benefactors were avid cyclists themselves.

If more women's teams are funded, more women will race, Byus says, admitting that she's seen plenty of good riders come and go. "It's kind of a flooded market. There are a lot of good bike racers and not enough sponsors to go around. Some people have to give up on their cycling dreams and pursue something else because they've got to move on with life."

For now, the FCS|ROUSE riders seem to take everything in stride, staying in a borrowed mansion in Tulsa one week, sleeping on a floor in St. Louis the next. Like most women's teams, at the beginning of the year they'll see what sponsor money they'll get for next season, and go from there. One day maybe they'll have the budget to move to the next level, make it big. Or maybe individual riders will work their way onto top pro teams. Maybe in some important race, years from now, their accomplishments will be announced and they'll get a call-up to the start line, having paid their dues and set themselves apart from the rabble behind.

Byus, however, sums it up a little more simply. "It's not the easiest thing," she says, "but we like it and it's what we do."

Other articles on women's cycling around the web: