I’m embarrassed to admit that, several months ago, I couldn’t name a single professional female bike racer. (In my defense, I could only name one male racer: Lance Armstrong.) I’m a car-free, all-seasons bicycle commuter who loves a good recreational century ride on the weekend, but, even working at the heart of American bicycle advocacy here at the League, the racing world felt like a parallel but distant universe.
At the National Women’s Bicycling Summit last month we started a conversation to begin closing that gap.
“Our goal for the Women in Bicycle Sports session was to start a dialogue; and recognize the importance of advocates and athletes working together,” explained Liz Carlson, a former pro racer and current ambassador for Liv/Giant. “All too often, the two worlds don’t know enough about each other. There’s so much we can learn from one another and so much we can gain from collaboration.”
Here’s Carlson’s recap of the key themes and ideas from the Women in Bicycle Sports session:
With the Summit’s goal of increasing the number of women on bikes and encouraging more female leadership in the cycling community, the Women in Bicycle Sports session was the perfect opportunity to showcase accomplished female athletes, many of whom are leaders in their disciplines.
Our job was to focus on the athlete, so we first introduced our amazing panelists to the audience. We had a diverse group of women, with a wide range of talents. From Olympic medalists Dotsie Bausch to Hardcourt Bike Polo maven Krista Carlson, each woman has a unique path to the sport of cycling. What became evident was how many ways you can enter the sport and the variety of ways to compete as a cyclist. You can be a time trial specialist or race alley cat events. There are so many ways to compete, and so many levels. We wanted to explore how many avenues to get involved; each being a path towards growth.
Key themes quickly emerged: Every one of these women started as a beginner. Jenn Tetrick, a professional triathlete, was afraid to go out alone on the road. Dotsie Bausch still can’t believe she rides centimeters from the girl in front of her on a 45-degree banked panel at 40+ miles an hour. Fear of the road and intimidating equipment can be barriers. The point is they sought out people to help them overcome their fears — found ways to keep learning and moving forward.
We asked our panelists to talk about challenges they face as female athletes. It’s been discussed frequently in the media — the disparity between male and female riders. Female cyclists rarely earn a salary or living wage to compete. If they’re talented and not afraid to promote themselves, equipment, travel or race sponsorship can reduce the cost of competition. Except for a few admirable, progressive promoters, equal prize money is nearly always an issue.
Female athletes who reach the national or world-class level often have supportive families that provide the stability needed to climb the ranks in the United States. Internationally, however, the US program is years behind successful national teams fielded by the Brits, Kiwis or Aussies when you compare financial and staffing resources. This is why the silver medal that Bausch and her team earned in London was such an enormous achievement.
With these women, their collective talent and a new commitment to equity over the past few years, USA Cycling has put staff and training resources behind women competitors so they can better focus on reaching the podium. It’s been a team effort. It’s important to note, however, the commitment and development began with Dotsie and her US teammates. The ladies did the work, gained international results, and national team support rose to meet their potential.
Regardless of their discipline, that theme was constant for all of the panelist: None of the women got started with a wealth of resources. But they were resourceful, which was a key factor to keep growing and improving.
Another theme that came out of our discussion: To lead or succeed, you have to take risks. Carolyn Mani, 25, set a goal to be World Champion in cyclocross – and she’s already placed in the top 10 three times. Carolyn probably could have stayed in France and won regional events regularly, but came to the US for the best competition. She found bike industry internships and a US-based team. But prior to getting that support, she traveled all over the US as a privateer, staying in people’s homes and pooling resources to travel and gain the experience necessary to compete at the world-class level.
It was fantastic to have Jill Gass and Rae Lynn Milley from Before Title 9 provide their perspective on how much the sport of cycling has changed since they began racing. Not only is Jill a Race Across America winner and world-record holder but also a coach and founder of the B4T9 Women’s program. When she started racing 20 years ago, there was only one race she could enter. As a beginner, she had to race against pros or world-class females.
Now, women are introduced to competitive cycling with other beginners until they gain the strength and skills needed to advance. The numbers have grown enough to field a full card of women’s races. This year at the Masters National Championships, Jill said, the women raced — REALLY raced! Jill got to compete in a full field and those women are racing longer, well into their 60s and 70s. Even the women’s 65+ category had enough competitors to fill all the spots on the podium.
In fact, there have been such gains in gender parity that Team Exergy Developmental riders Jenn Valente and Tara McCormick weren’t even familiar with Title IX. Both girls have grown up at a time with relatively equal opportunities as their male counterparts. Cycling is unique, though, in that it’s generally not a high school sport. So these young ladies are still breaking the mold, pursuing a sport outside the normal teenage experience. Jenn explained that most people in her school don’t even realize she’s a Junior World Champion. When she tells them she races bikes, they say, “Yeah, I ride bikes, too!”
So what are the remaining barriers to entry? Awareness. For many women, the sport of cycling wasn’t an option when they were growing up. It doesn’t appear often in the media, so they’re unfamiliar with bike racing. For many women, their lives are filled with family or work commitments. Both are potential barriers that have changed in the past decade, though there’s still room to improve.
We saw clear evidence of progress at the London Olympic games. The London 2012 games were touted “The Title IX Olympics.” After four generations of due diligence, London 2012 was the first Olympic Games at which more medals were won by US women than US men. In the sport of cycling alone, the London games were the first time the same number of medals were available to both male and female competitors. And American cyclists delivered. Kristen Armstrong won gold on the road, Silver Hammer won two silver medals on the track, Georgia Gould won bronze in mountain bike and Dotsie Bausch and her Team Pursuit teammates brought home the silver. Talk about bringing it!
By virtue of their status in the sport of cycling, elite athletes are advocates. They are role models, inspiring to both men and women, leaders in their discipline and innovators. They’re very mastery of the skills needed to reach the top of the sport places them squarely in the spotlight.
On the grassroots scene, the advocate and athlete often are one in the same. Urban cyclist Krista Nicole Carlson writes an amazing blog about her work in bike advocacy, lives a car-free life and is an avid Hardcourt Bike Polo player. Megan Dean, a former bike messenger and owner of Moth Attack bicycles, works at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and races the track in her free time. Both women channel their ground-up street smarts into growing their brands and passion for the sport of cycling. A woman in a predominantly male business, Dean promotes the unique qualities she brings to the process of building custom frames. Carlson has played an integral part in growing the Hardcoart Bike Polo community, connecting underground networks of players across the globe.
So what makes the female athlete tick? We talked about the qualities and characteristics women have that both advance their careers and grow the sport. Dotsie, Jill and Rae Lynn from the B4T9 team hold women-only cycling clinics that grow in numbers each time they host an event. A key to their success is in their ability to forge mutually beneficial relationships instead of seeing other cyclists or coaches only as competition.
All of our panelists were strong-minded, strong-willed, creative, resilient, capable of multi-tasking and enjoy serving as coaches or mentors. They love what they do and want to share their knowledge. It’s in a woman’s DNA to create community. Women often get the job done by creating networks and utilizing every resource available to them.
The rewards are vast: relationships with great people, a healthy body, worlds of experience, and the confidence that comes from overcoming adversity and reaching your goals. Each of our panelists said, while they didn’t know what they were doing at first, they kept at it because they were good at it, it was fun and the personal rewards kept coming.
Any good coach will tell you if you focus on the process, and the outcome will take care of itself. To succeed as an athlete, you have to focus your energy on one thing, be sensitive to training demands, adjust your course based on feedback, and communicate effectively what you need—which are characteristics many women share.
There’s a lot to be learned from women athletes. Not only are they committed to excellence, each of these women innately reach out to others to share their experience, making them key players in the vision of growing the sport.
– Recap by Liz Carlson
Carolyn SzczepanskiCarolyn joined the League in March 2012, after two years at the Alliance for Biking & Walking. In addition to managing the League's blog, magazine and other communications, Carolyn organized the first National Women's Bicycling Summit and launched the League's newest program: Women Bike. Before she crossed over to advocacy, she was a professional journalist for nearly 10 years.