• Nathan

How can we grow women’s cycling? (Part 1)

The 2014 season was an important one for women’s cycling. Partially because of the great action in the races, but also because of what was happening off the race course. Team Colavita, one of the strongest supporters of women’s cycling over the last 20 years, had just signed Stradalli Cycle as their bike sponsor. The move was surprising to many bike fans. Up until that point, much of Stradalli’s marketing mix focused on advertisements with bikini-clad models standing next to road and mountain bikes; a strategy that got the new bike brand plenty of attention but was also a divisive strategy that caused many female and male riders to turn to other brands. The move to sponsor Team Colavita was a significant shift in strategy that Stradalli has continued over the last five years, sponsoring an inclusive mix of riders and teams and focusing their marketing on the affordability and high performance of their bike frames.

As important as Stradalli’s investment in a women’s cycling team was, the most noteworthy aspect of this relationship occurred outside of the races. Every month, in a partnership with Colavita, Stradalli ran a full-page advertisement in Bicycling Magazine writing about the accomplishments of the team’s star riders. From Laura Brown winning the fiercely competitive Tour of the Gila time trial to Erica Carney (née Allar) dominating nearly every race on the National Criterium Calendar, Stradalli had a lot to brag about in their monthly promotional articles. Thanks to these advertisements, Bicycling Magazine’s 325,000 monthly readers were learning about pro women’s cycling, likely for the first time.

I was one of those readers glued to the pages of Bicycling Magazine excited to see what race Team Colavita would win next. At the time, I was an avid cyclist and a big fan of the Tour de France, but I didn’t know anything about women’s cycling. Up until that point, my only experience with women’s cycling had been a well-intentioned, but poorly promoted, criterium called the Red, White, and Zoom in Marion, Indiana. It’s possible that that race featured legendary crit racers like Tina Pic, Erica Carney, or Coryn Rivera, but I didn’t have the background to understand what I was watching. Reading Stradalli’s one-page advertisements taught me about the riders, the teams, and the strategy. It slowly converted me into a life-long fan eager to travel to pro races in surrounding states to see the pro women racing up-close and personal. Erica Carney and Laura Brown joined my list of cycling heroes alongside Peter Sagan and Tony Martin, I ended up buying a Stradalli time trial bike, and 75% of the olive oil I’ve purchased in the last five years was made by Colavita. So, I’d say that Stradalli’s marketing dollars were worth it. Meeting race fans these last few years while reporting for A Cyclist in a Strange Land, it’s clear to me that I’m not the only one that was strongly influenced by those monthly advertisements.

Of course, one successful advertising campaign, doesn’t change the popularity of women’s cycling overnight, but it does exemplify the big impact small efforts can make. The sport is still filled with people wondering why pro women’s cycling isn’t more popular. There is talk about shifting demographics amongst sports fans and race promoters not doing enough to give women equal billing with the men. From my perspective, the problem is that not enough people in the bike industry are telling the right stories. Too often the large cycling outlets release “token” articles about how women’s racing needs more coverage instead of reporting on the racing that happened the previous weekend. This realization was the motivation for starting A Cyclist in a Strange Land. After spending years wishing that Bicycling Magazine would be willing to commit even a single page every month to telling the stories of pro women, I decided that I would stop sitting on the sideline and follow the example of Voxwomen and The Peloton Brief and start telling the stories myself.

While I’m doing my best to interview the best and brightest stars of the women’s peloton, I know that I’m only a small part of the solution for growing the sport. What exactly do the women who are racing in the peloton think needs done to grow the sport? To find out, I’ve spent the last season talking to some of the sport’s key opinion leaders to hear their perspective.

How can we grow women’s cycling? In Part 1 of this article, I talk to pro cyclists Amber Neben (Cogeas Mettler) and Lindsay Goldman (Hagens Berman Supermint). Then, on Thursday, Part 2 of the article will be released with insights from Katie Hall (Boels-Dolmans) and Kathryn Bertine (Trek Bikes, Homestretch Foundation).

Amber Neben

In the world of women’s cycling, Amber Neben is one of only a handful of riders who deserve the title of GOAT – Greatest Of All Time. She is a highly talented World Tour stage racer and time trialist with countless World Championships, US National Championships, and Pan American championships to her name. Over her storied career, Amber has seen the highs and lows of the sport and has a keen sense of its strengths and weaknesses.

Amber shares my perspective that a key to growing women’s cycling is quality coverage. “I think that exposing people to the racing is really important,” Amber said. “Just thinking back, whenever women’s racing gets the same TV coverage, the same production value, and the same number of cameras in the race, fans almost always see a race which is more exciting and interesting than the men’s race. That has been the consistent reaction after the world championships and after the last two Olympics; those are the times when the women’s racing has had the same amount of energy as the men’s racing in regard to coverage and production.”

Continuing, Amber said, “There is a fight for equality in the peloton and that’s a really good thing, but that can’t be the only story. Some people tend to get caught up in this men versus women thing, but you know what? It’s bike racing. You still need to show and report on bike racing. We’re talented, strong athletes, we have our own stories that we can’t let get lost.”

In the end, Amber seems optimistic that the grassroots campaigns like A Cyclist in a Strange Land will pay off. Amber told me, “As exposure happens, more respect and awareness of how good and strong these women are will increase. But the exposure has to happen.”

Lindsay Goldman

Lindsay Goldman brings a unique perspective to this forum of ideas as she is both an accomplished racer and the team owner of Hagens Berman Supermint, one of the top women’s teams in North America. Lindsay is a die-hard cycling fan who speaks with frankness and honesty about the state of the struggling sport. As many readers know, with Hagens Berman Supermint set to close at the end of the year, a victim of the sport’s struggling business model, Lindsay has an important perspective on how the sport can grow.

Lindsay did agree with Amber Neben that if women’s cycling is going to grow, better coverage is key. The stories are important for drawing current fans further into the sport. For example, Lindsay points to Leigh Ann Ganzar who won the 2018 US Criterium National Championship while working on a PhD in public health. Lindsay herself has an incredible story about her husband and her going through a pregnancy and having a baby in the middle of her pro cycling career. But, no matter how interesting these stories might be, Lindsay says, “Ultimately other sports aren’t succeeding because they’re capitalizing on individual narratives. Other sports have created a product that is interesting to consume, we in the cycling world need to focus more on that. People don’t watch the Super Bowl because they care about the personal life of the quarterback. To them, the sport is exciting to watch, they’re on the edge of their seat watching the drama unfold as their team take on other teams and try to win. That’s what the fans care about.”

“I come at this from a business perspective,” Lindsay says. “Outside of cycling, I do business development for companies selling to the federal government. So, even though I’m a rider, my perspective as a team owner isn’t the same as a cyclist that moved over to team management. I’ve always viewed team management as the same as running a business. I have a balance sheet with income and expenses, I have a marketing plan. The struggle that I’ve faced running a team is that the sport doesn’t make itself easy to market. Bike racing can be very boring for an uninitiated fan. There are so many rules and strategies for how a team unfolds a race that, from the outside, it is very difficult for consumers to understand. Then we further complicate it by making the team structure difficult to follow. For example, in the NFL there are teams that don’t really change. The players and public personalities might change but the teams still have many constants. But in cycling, team names and sponsors are constantly shifting along with the revolving door of riders. It makes it hard for fans to be excited about anything other than an individual rider which makes for a business model that is very hard to sell. After all, what do you do if your star rider leaves the team?”

Continuing, Lindsay says, “The racing calendar is also in dire need of restructuring. Big, prestigious races are often scheduled on top of each other on the calendar. And since the cycling media only covers events to varying degrees, or not at all, it makes it difficult to determine which race will be valuable for our sponsors. And even when races aren’t scheduled over the same weekend, other problems can occur like this year with the Tour of California and the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic were scheduled over two consecutive weekends. I’m not great at geography, but I know that they’re on opposite sides of America, which for a team transporting equipment in a van and trailer makes for a pretty terrible week.”

From Lindsay’s perspective, it seems like the root cause preventing women’s cycling – and pro cycling in general – from growing is races and series working independently without a cohesive voice to act as the leader. Someone or some entity needs to come in and restructure the sport. Without firm, consistent leadership, the current business model will continue to cause the sport to shrink, particularly amongst the top teams.

Thankfully, Lindsay does see small signs of hope for cycling. “The one thing that seems remotely marketable is the USA CRITS Series with their focus on creating a standalone series where there are specific teams competing all season long and every race will be livestreamed. That’s the closest thing that I’ve ever seen in cycling to a model that mirrors other major league sports and has the potential to be interesting. But problematically, to make their livestreams succeed, they have to charge fans to watch. And how do you convince someone to spend $50 on a pass to watch a sport that they don’t know anything about? They really need someone who is able to make the viewing free and push it out to a wide enough audience that people will be able to stumble upon it and think, ‘Wow, that’s fascinating.’ Until that happens, USA Cycling is doing a little to promote cycling, USA CRITS is doing a little to promote their series, and individual events are doing a little to promote themselves, but everyone is working in different directions with no unified voice.”

Coming up next…

Come back to on Thursday, August 8, 2019, when we talk to Katie Hall and Kathryn Bertine and look towards the future of women’s cycling in North America.


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