Thursday, March 20, 2014

Let me begin by saying that I am a huge supporter of equality in sports, with an obvious interest in the attention being paid right now to cycling. There has been tremendous growth in the professional arena with teams like Sky and UHC supporting elite women, and the advent of organizations like the Women’s Cycling Association (WCA) which grew out of a dialogue between professional women (many of whom are my close friends) after the Fort Follies Elite Women’s Race at last year’s Pro Challenge. Promoters are slowly beginning to pony-up equal purses for men and women. Professional men are coming forward to back their female counterparts, and advocate for change on their behalf.

But that’s one small piece of the pie.

In fact, 60% of bicycle owners are women. Increasingly, “women who ride” are becoming “women who race,” and more ladies than ever are lining up at the start of crits and road races, and at every level of the sport.

So, what does successful support of women look like?

There are certainly some fundamental issues of fairness, I think, when it comes to professional women and the governing bodies in cycling. Most women, however, are not lining up for elite races. And those pros needed nurturing early on in their careers, too.

Bringing women into the sport and creating a pipeline for growth is the obvious first step. Providing quality racing opportunities at a regional level is an essential part of the rider development process and a key building block for riders who may have aspirations to advance. Teams have the responsibility to actively recruit female riders, and then support them as they acquire the skills needed to improve.

My early exposure to racing was with Title Nine Women’s Racing, based out of Boulder. The team was comprised of women at every level, and they had a mentoring process by which newer members could partner with more successful racers and grow their skills.  Truly, I never imagined that I could find an environment more supportive of women racing bikes…

And then I found my way to Team Novo Nordisk. TNN actively recruits female riders, and offers junior women the opportunity to attend summer training camps, where individual instruction is provided along with quality race experiences. These same riders attend the winter training camp, where they sit alongside professional riders. The idea is to create a foundation for future success, and women are an integral part of the team landscape.

From a more personal perspective, however, I have found the management within the organization to be highly supportive of my goals. When I sat across the table from Phil Southerland last July, and told him I wanted to race the women's pro event at the Pro Challenge, knowing full well I would not get a result and be lucky to even finish, he was nothing but encouraging. He reached out to other women on the team so that I would be supported with teammates in the race. There was no discussion of what I could accomplish, only affirmation about the value of having me there in the first place, both for my own development and the visibility of the team more generally.

Last year, when four of us on the women’s team got together and pitched the idea of an endurance race across the Utah desert, I expected to hear “no.” I knew the team budget had been set, and I wasn’t sure that the added expenses would be viewed as legit. I was wrong. Again, Phil greeted our proposal with enthusiasm, and told us to “draw up a plan as soon as possible.” We did, and it was quickly accepted.

Not only did the team support our ambitions, they encouraged us to make provisions so that the member of our team still nursing an infant would not have to be away from her baby and unable to breastfeed. We created a plan that enabled mom and baby to have the accommodations they required throughout the race. I’m a working mother of two. I’ve never – ever – had that kind of support in an office.

The team has taken great pains to make female riders visible. The Elite Team is racing several big events this year, all with the full support of the organization and its sponsors. Women are prominently featured on the team site, at outreach events, on social media. (Just two weeks ago, I was “Athlete of the Week.”) Female riders – at every level – are given the tools and resources needed to be successful. No other team would provide the same level of support for women just entering competitive cycling.

It’s no secret that, at the professional level, there is work to do. At the same time, it’s not just about getting more money for salaries, or equal payouts for wins. It’s about establishing benchmarks for equality. And while the easy solution is always to throw more money at the problem, in this case, the better approach might be to look at the mission of the teams sponsoring women.

I’ve been the beneficiary of an organization committed to the development and maintenance of women in cycling. They have worked to create a pipeline for women to establish a foundation in racing, get acknowledged in the public sphere and advance in the sport, all the while showcasing a grassroots effort to foster junior riders in their development. Every time I toss on my jersey, I am grateful for the opportunities they provide me and the young women behind me.

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