13 November 2014

The growing force of womens cycling

What do I think of women's bike racing?

It seems I ask this question of myself every other week; the answer, I find, is often different.

One thing is for certain - womens cycling is again growing and I better adjust to changing times. With brutal honesty I admit I was fearful of the change and uncertain of how I would cover the newly added women's stage races to the Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge. Was it social pressure to suddenly know everything there was to know about womens cycling or was it recognition of my own ignorance about the sport of womens cycling.

I followed the generation who created the womens movement, I was schooled through Title 9, I have witnessed the unequal status of women's sport for decades. And yet I have never been on the forefront of making the change happen. I honestly have never been into all women's sports, only a select few. I enjoy watching women tennis, swimming, skiing, track and field; all exciting sports in their own right. But womens hockey, baseball, or soccer? No.

I reasoned that just because I like men's football, basketball, golf and cycling, that was no reason why I must also follow women's football, basketball, golf or cycling. In my mind they were separate sports and one did not piggy back upon the other. I had no obligation to a professional sport simply because women did it, or simply because I was a woman.

Now that researchers have been trying to lay to rest the myth that sex sells sport, most fans admit they mostly look for ability on the field from top athletes (except for those nude women's kits that got far too much press in 2014). This revelation means we can focus on the excitement of pure athleticism and good competition. Perhaps the reason I have never really been into women's cycling is simply because I have not been exposed to the highest level.

My point is - maybe it is time that I give some attention to learn about professional women's cycling. Maybe I will enjoy the sport. I don't get that excited watching a local amateur race, but expose me to the best men in the world racing a WorldTour race and I get plenty thrilled. I know all the teams and the riders, I have my favorites and I know the history. I unabashedly celebrate the outcomes of individual effort in sport as if the athletes were my best friends.

It took me years to learn about professional men's cycling.

Maybe if I start learning now about women's cycling, I can catch up to the point where I can truly appreciate the athletes and their performance. This is exactly the opportunity we are being given by way of the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge having added multiple day women's races to their 2015 calendars.

Even if we are not fans of womens cycling today - we might be tomorrow, or better yet - next year. Our daughters, nieces and neighbors might be the next great stars of the sport. We grow our interest, we grow our support, and the athletes benefit now. It takes a willingness to say yes, I am going to watch and encourage more women's bike races.

For now if these races have to piggy-back onto the men's races, so be it. Soon they will stand on their own and maybe one day we will hear that a mens race has been added to a womens stage race. The best form of equality is when the athlete becomes known as a professional bike racer of outstanding ability, without gender attached.

I better step up and be part of this change, I know I have a lot to learn. Womens bike racing is in no way new and the sport has waxed and waned over the years. Growth has not been a constant upward curve, races have been eliminated, diminished, reborn again. But I hope the movement now gathering steam sticks and womens cycling continues to earn respect, admiration and sponsorship.

The Amgen Tour of California included a womens criterium as early as 2008, adding a time trial in 2011. Finally 2015 will see a three-day stage race, followed by a separate ITT for the women five days later. The men's and women's races will overlap, spreading viewership, I worry. More info: amgentourofcalifornia.com/competition/womens-races.

The USA Pro Challenge had previously featured a womens circuit race run in conjunction with the pro race on the streets of Aspen, but in 2015 race organizers will present an official USA Pro Challenge womens stage race. Full details have yet to be released for the 2015 mens or womens parcours in Colorado.

The Giro-Rosa in Italy is the most prestigious women's stage race. We have only four opportunities in America to see the best of the best in womens racing. If you live in Utah, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Arkansas - you are the lucky ones. I won't make it to any of these races in 2015, but I will make a point of watching online, if possible (How to follow women's road cycle races live).

It is clear that change is in the air worldwide for womens bike racing. “We’re going to have a much stronger world cup calendar and international calendar,” UCI president Brian Cookson recently told CyclingNews. Listen to Cookson address women's minimum wage and calendar and developments on this CyclingNews video: UCI President Brian Cookson on the progress of women’s international cycling. Cookson states "women's events don't always need to be secondary or subsidiary to men's events, they can stand on their own and be really successful." 

Having women's cycling stand on it's own is my hope and vision for the future. When we achieve a mixture of men and women leadership and sponsorship throughout both men's and women's bike racing, the result benefits everyone and signals an appreciation of the truly able athlete. That is when we know we have equality.

I believe building a solid following might have more to do with the quality of the business and operation then in the quantity on the calendar.  

Womens top level pro races in the USA for 2015 - Full Calendar Women 2015
Total UCI Womens Races over the year (signs of adjustment):
  • 2006 - 57
  • 2011 - 70
  • 2013 - 65
  • 2014 - 76
  • 2015 - 78
Learn more:
Update 11/14/14: Exclusive Q&A: Nicole Cooke By CyclingNews An honest interview about the current state of women's cycling.