Editor’s note: Big thanks to writer and racer Molly Hurford, the author of Mud, Snow and Cyclocross for kindly re-editing her fantastic book into some easy to digest posts designed to help spread the message that bicycle racing is not only wicked fun, but evolving in infinitely more positive ways as more women join the sport. We start with a great piece on the issues of equality in cycling (1/2) and a fascinating look into the money and politics behind cycling as a professional sport and why there aren’t more women’s pro tours (2/2).
Why Women Matter Most in Cyclocross: Excerpts from Mud, Snow and Cyclocross When I started working on my book on US cyclocross, I immediately knew that I wanted to not just have a chapter on the ‘who’s who’ of women’s cyclocross, but also a chapter on how cyclocross, since it’s such a new form of cycling, has offered unprecedented opportunities for equality in women’s cycling, though obviously it still has a long way to go. But we’re making progress more and more, and it’s a super exciting time to be in the sport, both as a racer and a journalist. Check out what I found out about women’s cyclocross, from a racer and promoter standpoint, and if you want to find out more about cyclocross in the US, check out Mud, Snow and Cyclocross and Cyclocross Magazine.
LOOKING FOR EQUALITY—HOW CYCLOCROSS IS CHANGING WOMEN’S CYCLING
“If you look at the performance of US racers at Worlds in the past five years, our women are getting on the podium.”
How has cyclocross changed for women over the years? “Well, first of all, there are women’s fields,” Mark Vareschi laughs. “When I started racing in New York, there were one or two women and no women’s field. Then, when I started racing in New England, there were 15 to 20 women in one field. And now we’re getting 40 or more in each of the two women’s fields. I think some of the fastest growth we’ve seen has been in women’s cyclocross.”
When you talk about women in cycling, gender issues of equal payouts, equal sponsorships, difficulties in women’s equipment, and lack of respect for women as professional cyclists inevitably have to be included in the discussion. Cyclocross has proven to be one of the most equality-driven forms of competitive cycling, with many US races offering equal payouts and races immediately before the elite men’s race, rules that require any UCI C1 race to have a women’s field, and the big name teams like Rapha-Focus, Cannondale, CyclocrossWorld.com and Raleigh all working to add more women to their rosters. Additionally, since cyclocross grew organically and with such small women’s fields until only recent years, the friendships and bonds formed between the elite women, regardless of team loyalties, have led to a more welcoming scene for women at all levels. The approachability of the elite racers has also allowed the sport to grow more for amateur women than it has in other disciplines.
In fact, elite racer Mary McConneloug thinks that this growth is simply attributable to the nature of ‘cross. “I feel like this sport can appeal to those tough individuals who like to work hard and push personal limits,” she says, adding, “It’s also a great feeling to get super fit, improve skills, and meet other cool people … It is not just a man’s sport. There are so many incredibly talented athletic women and the stereotype of hard women racing bikes is changing—we can be soft, beautiful and charge on the bike.” She laughs and adds, “Plus, we’re probably much more fun to watch racing than men.”
Cyclocross might be bigger in Europe than it is in the US, but for the women, there’s no place like home. This is a great time for women in the sport, and a great time for women to get involved in the sport. Duke says, “I’m really impressed with women’s cyclocross in the US, as far as media attention, personalities, respect levels. I think cyclocross is doing a lot for women’s cycling at this point. In Europe, the sport is more popular but I feel like women in the States get more respect and I think it’s just a difference between personalities in the different countries. It’s a really exciting time to be a woman in cyclocross in the US and there’s a lot of movement happening. It’s nice to be a part of it.”
It has come a long way, and even in New England, one of the first places where racing was popular, women’s cycling wasn’t a big priority. Mo Bruno Roy recalls, “In my first race, there was a women’s category—women’s open—and there were 10 to 15 women, so now to see a Cat 3/4 field with over 100 riders is a phenomenal difference in a short amount of time.”
To that end, while there are problems within women’s cycling, the overall growth is positive. Bruno Roy adds, “The participation, especially in women’s racing, is really encouraging more and more people to try it out. Cyclocross is pretty welcoming. There’s a social aspect to it, a duration aspect to it which is manageable, and I think it’s a lot less scary than road or mountain bike racing if you’re just getting into it.”
With women’s cycling seeing such huge growth in the US and in Europe, it’s interesting to watch as the two continents struggle to make sense of women’s racing. While Europe may have deeper fields for the pro women, and arguably better opportunities for women at the very top to land on good teams (Compton herself is on a Euro team now, Rabobank), the US has something that Europe hasn’t gotten to yet: often, races have equal prize money for men and women, and at nearly every race, elite men and elite women race back-to-back. In Europe, women’s races tend to be shunted to wee hours of the morning, leaving spectators underwhelmed.
In fact, Marc Gullickson is quick to note that for women, “It’s tough because there’s no World Championships for junior or U23 women.” He suggests that the problem lies in the European model of cyclocross, which is outdated and tends toward a sexist slant emphasizing men’s cycling. “The UCI cyclocross commission makes a lot of those rules, and it’s tough because it’s sort of an old boy’s club, it’s pretty much dictated by the heart of Belgian ‘cross.”
For Gullickson though, that just leaves more opportunity to work on women’s racing in the US, and he believes that “we have better women racing in the States than they do over there.”
If cyclocross is such a welcoming sport, then why are more women racing in the US than in Europe? The question goes back to the participant versus spectator nature of the sport, but also the level of difficulty on the courses. In Europe, usually only twenty or thirty women take to the start line, nearly half of the total of racers in the men’s field. Antonneau suggests that “maybe it’s because the courses over here are more geared towards B women—it’s still really challenging, but in their own different way. It’s welcoming to people, to lower
categories. It’s not as intense, you can do it for fun.”
And while the US women’s fields may not be quite as deep as the men’s fields just yet, they are coming out in record numbers, and race promoters are starting to question whether two women’s fields (an elite field and an amateur field) are enough.
“When I was a downhiller and first heard about it, it was such a fringe sport and of course, it still is, but it seemed like only a few people were doing it. And just in the time I’ve been doing it, in four years time, racer participation has doubled, and it’s the new exciting sport in cycling. It’s dynamic, spectator-friendly and it’s kind of a circus,” Nicole Duke says. “There’s such a great culture around it and I think people are really catching on. It seems like there’s been a huge amount of growth. I don’t think we’ve even begun to peak, so I’m very thankful to be in the sport at this moment in time. I’m thinking, is this just because I’m in it and around it all the time? But I talk to other people and people in the industry are like, ‘no, this is big.’”
That rapid growth that we’ve seen among the women should be embraced and promoted, and now is the time to do it. Mary McConneloug adds, “Let’s keep it rolling! We need to continue to support women’s racing and aim to reach the females out there that might be interested and get them involved. This sport has taught me so much, I feel many would like it and benefit from it, if they gave it a shot.”
Part 2 /2 will be online next week after results and more from SSWCX2012 in LA.