How can we grow women’s cycling? (Part 2)
On Monday’s post, A Cyclist in a Strange Land began exploring the question of how to grow women’s cycling. I shared my thoughts on the importance of improving and increasing the coverage of pro women’s racing and pro cyclists Amber Neben and Lindsay Goldman shared their perspectives on how to grow the sport. Today, we continue the conversation with World Tour pro Katie Hall (Boels-Dolmans) and former pro and current activist Kathryn Bertine (Trek Bikes, Homestretch Foundation).
Katie Hall made a big splash in women’s cycling over the last few years as she matured into a true contender and fiercely strong climber; most notably winning every major stage race in North America in 2018 before being recruited by World Tour team Boels-Dolmans. Having quickly progressed through the American peloton and having spent a season of riding fulltime for the Dutch super team, Katie brings an interesting perspective between the two region’s approach to women’s cycling.
According to Katie, “In the Netherlands, everyone knows about women’s cycling. The Dutch riders are household names in the Netherlands, it feels a little bit like the NBA. Everyone has their favorite team and rider and has an opinion about how their rider’s fitness is going. Last year, my teammates went into a coffee shop in Maastricht and the WiFi password was ‘Anna van der Breggen!’ Can you imagine going into a coffee shop and your name is the password? And everybody knew how to spell it too!”
From Katie’s perspective, the interest in pro women’s cycling for Dutch fans is directly related to the high rate of noncompetitive cycling participation in the Netherlands. “They start cycling at such a young age that it’s just part of life over there. Pretty much everybody rides their bikes to school,” Katie says. “Once I was training in the Netherlands and was trying to do intervals but couldn’t because there was something like 1,000 kids filling the bike lane on their way to school. Comparing that to the United States, I know a lot of parents won’t let their kids bike to school because the road infrastructure isn’t always as safe. It makes it harder to find your way to a bike and even harder to find your way to a bike race.”
This lack of infrastructure in the United States can overwhelmingly affect female cyclist’s participation too. Katie says, “It’s very common to hear that the risk of getting on a bike makes cycling not worth it to some women. I’m very comfortable on my bike but part of that is my speed and the fact that I can, in some situations, hold close to the same speed as traffic. Plus, I’ve built my comfort riding on the road by spending 20 hours a week on a bike. But I know when I encourage my mom to get on a bike, she finds being on the road terrifying. If a woman doesn’t live near a bike lane or path, it can make it very difficult for them to even consider adopting a cycling lifestyle.”
Ultimately then, Katie Hall looks at the big picture. Incremental growth in fans and participation might grow if coverage improves, but until cycling becomes more broadly accepted for commuting and as a form of recreation, it will be difficult to see long-lasting changes in the number of fans and participants. In a final thought, Katie told me, “I think that bikes just improve life. There are so many ways that cycling can be beneficial to women, the environment, and relationships. I hope that women’s cycling in America continues to grow, and as a result, will grow the number of women who are racing their bikes. If you look at the Netherlands, cycling being just a part of life allows the racing scene to more naturally grow because everyone has already been initiated into the sport.”
As one of the strongest advocates of women’s cycling over the last decade, no discussion about growing the sport can occur without considering Kathryn Bertine’s perspective. She’s been an advocate for women’s cycling ever since she joined the sport and her palmarès as an activist are lengthier than most pro’s result sheets. Kathryn has been one of the driving forces behind getting the ASO (the organizers of the Tour de France) to organize the women’s La Course race and has pushed the ASO to expand La Course into a proper stage race alongside the Tour de France. More recently she’s lobbied the California legislature to modify the requirements for sporting event permits to ensure that the women’s Tour of California has the same number of racing days as the men.
Kathryn has been more visible as ever this season as she joined Trek Bicycles as Trek’s Ambassador for Equality in Cycling where she has been traveling to some of the biggest races in the world to promote her cause. Kathryn has also been growing her highly-praised nonprofit, the Homestretch Foundation which provides free housing to female athletes struggling in the gender pay gap (more information about this great organization can be found here).
Kathryn’s rallying cry is common sense: equal access and equal race days. “We need to get past the antiquated notion that women have to prove themselves to earn access,” Kathryn says. “We have had piles of data for a long time making it clear that female cyclists are more than capable and deserving of equal race days and more and more fans are demanding equal visibility through TV, livestreams, and press coverage. Change needs to come from the top down; otherwise, it’s a struggle the whole way. If the UCI would say, ‘Any race that we accredit as a UCI race needs to have a women’s race,’ so many of these problems would go away. Some people will ask the question, ‘Does the women’s race have to occur at the same time as the men’s race?’ In theory, they could be run on separate days, but it would make more financial sense for race organizers to include men and women at the same event since the only extra cost is having to shut down the course for extra time to accommodate a women’s race.”
“USA Cycling needs to make sure that there are equal opportunities for men and women too,” Kathryn continues. “They need to be committed to investing in the development side of women’s cycling at the same level as men. America loves winners, we always have, we love to celebrate the people at the top. The way to grow the number of winners is to help the people who are on the homestretch to the top. That’s where the name for the Homestretch Foundation comes from. I want to see the UCI enforce a two or three tier system for women’s cycling with World Tour, Pro Continental, etc. Once tiers like that are established, USA Cycling could shift their monetary support into those categories and support each realm equally because if you’re only supporting people at the top, what are you doing to help people get to the top?”
“I’ve seen the results of that here at the Homestretch Foundation when we invest in the pros who aren’t being paid properly, especially the rising elite riders who are on the cusp of their first contract. That’s where USA Cycling needs to be pouring their support, the development level right at the cusp of turning pro and first year as a pro. We would love for the Homestretch Foundation to be the USA Cycling Women’s development center, but they don’t do that for women right now. The majority of funds that go to USA Cycling go towards their men’s U23 development team. We have to ask where USA Cycling’s funding is going and break it down by programs. I know first hand that sponsors and patrons want to invest in equality, that’s how we got Homestretch off the ground, that’s how we get supporters. People are drawn to women being treated equally. And USA Cycling is missing the mark on this.”
It is quite a predicament. Over the last five years, the vast majority of success from American cyclists on the world stage – World Tour, Olympics, track racing, World Championships, Pan American Games – has come from the female cyclists. One might expect a deficit of support for men’s cycling in the US, not women’s. To call it a curiosity would be an understatement, we all need to help champion women’s cycling and push for it to grow.
Signs of hope
The number of issues and areas needing improvement can be daunting, but hope is far from lost. There is a lot of positive momentum in women’s cycling at the moment. As previously mentioned, grassroots efforts from the Homestretch Foundation, Voxwomen, and A Cyclist in a Strange Land are working hard to fill the gaps and push the sport of women’s cycling forward. And as Lindsay Goldman pointed out in Part 1 of this article, the USA CRITS Series is laying a foundation which, if properly matured, has a high likelihood of creating the marketable platform that the sport hasn’t previously had.
The efforts and investment by Leah Sturgis and her Cyclestream.tv has revolutionized how media presents pro cycling. Their This Week in American Cycling show that they produce in conjunction with USA Cycling’s YouTube channel has presented American cycling in a way that it never has before. That show seems to have the least coverage disparity between women and men than any other major cycling media outlet. Leah and her organization seem to have taken one of the first attempts at sharing the racing excitement that fills every week of the summer; finally, fans have a way to consistently follow the excitement.
Regarding USA Cycling’s cycling strengths, Kathryn Bertine voiced how happy she has been to see USA Cycling’s involvement with the collegiate commission and increased interest on having women on board their organization. Former New Balance president and CEO Rob DeMartini joining USA Cycling as their new CEO has also intrigued her. According to Kathryn, “We need more non-cycling people to bring new ideas. I’m happy that they’re bringing in someone with a fresh perspective who doesn’t think that things have to be done the same way they’ve always been done. The world of running has done a much better job at equality. They’re not perfect, but they understand if you include men and women equally that everybody’s return on investment increases. I’m very, very hopeful that something good will happen. We need people to step up and break the traditions we’ve been accustomed to for so long.”
This last month, A Cyclist in a Strange Land highlighted how Felt Bicycles and CWA Racing p/b Trek have done an excellent job leveraging women’s cycling to gain fans and grow businesses. For continued growth and success, we need more teams, riders, promoters, and governing bodies to adopt these creative and entrepreneurial approaches to women’s cycling. Women’s cycling is at an important threshold; hopefully the deep thoughts shared by Amber, Lindsay, Katie, and Kathryn can serve as a road map for the future of their sport.