By Peter Easton, ROAD Magazine
The timeline of professional cycling has bridged three centuries, and the history of the sport has been colored by some legendary figures with a remarkable list of accomplishments, and by some dubious characters who have succumbed to illicit behavior. It has been dogged by two World Wars, and has been fighting an ongoing battle against doping and a much maligned leadership.
And yet, it continues to thrive. The sport itself has expanded to the continents of Asia and Africa, not to mention the increase in revenue drawn from the most popular races on European soil. Even as current history may be casting a bit of a cloud over some of the legends and their palmares, the sport no doubt continues to thrill and excite riders, promoters, fans and sponsors. Having participated as a racer, rider and a fan, I firmly believe there is no sport more exciting to see live than professional cycling. And by professional cycling, I speak of men’s and women’s racing. And while the history of the women’s pro peloton as an established entity barely spans half a dozen Olympic Games, it is no less important and no less significant. Lest someone speak of women’s racing as boring, they have never seen the women race the Tour of Flanders live, or caught a stage of Redlands, or the Tour of the Gila. There is plenty to learn when one takes a look in the rear view mirror, yet in the case of women’s cycling in the United States, the view is hazy, brief, and frankly, shameful. This is what former U.S. National Champion Robin Farina noticed, and decided it was finally time to change that view with a new vision for the future of women’s cycling.
As a sport that has such a brief history in the United States, one of the primary elements women’s cycling is lacking is the foundational support at the youth level that other popular athletics have, such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and softball. In the professional ranks, golf and tennis have reached a level that has produced—and continues to produce—star athletes, enormous sponsorship contracts, massive prize monies and international recognition. The Women’s Basketball Association (WNBA) continues to grow, receiving significant support and sponsorship backing from its home cities and businesses, as well as from the NBA and NCAA. Women’s cycling relies primarily on USA Cycling as the organizational, marketing and operational head of the sport, and while growth has occurred in cycling in general—from 2006-2011 participation increased 11.8%—the term professional has come to have a much different definition in the rank of women’s racing when compared with other professional fields, both sporting and non-sporting, including men’s cycling.
USA Cycling finally granted a measure of equality to women by holding the National Championships in combination with the men this year in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Robin Farina, racing for the NOW and Novartis for MS Women’s Pro Cycling team, saw the opportunity to capitalize on this small acknowledgement and work the positive coverage into a larger scale project, the recently formed Women’s Cycling Association (WCA).
Farina, the 2011 U.S. National Road Champion and WCA President said, “It is time for a positive shift in Women’s Professional Cycling. The WCA was created to help grow the sport of cycling and ensure sustainability in women’s cycling for the future.” A professional since 2006, Farina has seen enough inequality that she decided the time was right to implement change. “In my time as a professional, my view was often only about what I needed to do to be successful,” she said. “It wasn’t until recently that I looked back at the sport’s history and realized just how new it really is.”
And while the men have the Amgen Tour of California, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado, the women’s stage racing platform has diminished, and has added fuel to Farina’s campaign, with none of these races offering any women’s races. “The Tour of California had a women’s invitation time trial during this year’s race, and the media exposure was lame,” Farina said. “The event was poorly organized, unsafe, and after hearing all the claims about how it was promoting women’s racing, it was very disheartening when they cut the TV coverage before the event was over. This brought the issue up in my head again, and while running the men and women together at Nationals was great, it also provided a platform to now say, ‘ok, what’s next to improve?’”
It is no secret that there is inequality in prize payout for women, substandard (if any) salary, and very little opportunity for a woman to create a lasting career path as a professional cyclist. Janel Holcomb, who races for the Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies team, is a relative newcomer to the ranks of professional cycling, but no stranger to the professional world. Holcomb received a Bachelor of Science Degree in chemical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a Masters in Education in teaching and curriculum design from the University of San Diego, and worked as a teacher in San Diego before pursuing her cycling career. In tandem with Farina, they initiated a gathering of interested professionals to lay out the framework for the WCA. “A lot of people were really happy with combining our event with the men’s at Nationals,” Holcomb said. “But in my mind, while it was great, it also highlighted the discrepancies, and frankly this is something that should have happened a long time ago. I knew Robin had been working on an idea for an organization to coalesce women professionals, and when I saw her in Tennessee I told her it was the right time to strike; we have everyone’s attention. This is what she needed to hear to know the time was right to get things moving forward.”
As the 2011 NRC Champion and media director for the WCA, Holcomb understands what defines a professional, and she’s eager to utilize her experience. “For women professional cyclists, the time has come to make a push to redefine the parameter of ‘professional’,” she said. ”We make an enormous investment in time, training, motivation, time away from home – we put in our own finances. This all amounts to a career as a standard definition, and cycling needs to redefine their definition of professional for women.” With the impetus for change in the Tennessee air, the Women’s Cycling Association made its first push to present itself, and laid the groundwork for a meeting in Philadelphia the following weekend. And if any additional support was needed, the newly minted National Champion, Holcomb’s teammate Jade Wilcoxson, was one of the first on the list to confirm attendance.
When speaking of the history of cycling in the United States, it’s hard not to mention the city of Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love has embraced professional cycling since the inaugural Core States race in 1985 stormed the Manayunk Wall. And though the race has struggled with sponsorship issues over the past few years, even in its modified version for 2013, the city and the race still hold enormous prestige as part of the National Racing Calendar for both men and women. If National Championships was the impetus to officially establish the organization, then Philadelphia seemed like the ideal place to announce it. In the hours following Jade Wilcoxson’s thrilling victory in Chattanooga, she asked herself, “How can I capitalize on the media attention and take full advantage of representing women’s pro cycling as the National Champion?” Wilcoxson wanted to use her National Champion platform, “To raise awareness of the inequalities we are faced with, and educate people on ways to advance and improve the profession so women can do it equal to men.”
Much like the attention and discipline that goes into training and racing, the parameters that make up the WCA were compiled with the same rigorous attention to detail. These are professionals after all, regardless of the how the sport wants to define them. Behind any solid endeavor, it requires not only good people, but a solid business plan. The WCA is headed by highly skilled professionals who work in other industries. Farina owns and operates Uptown Cycles in Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband, former professional Chris Sheehan. Holcomb has two potential careers waiting for her, and Wilcoxson is putting her Doctorate Degree to use as a Physical Therapist in a nursing and rehabilitation center. The term professional is not new to these women, nor are the skills required to implement their ambitious plan.
The profession of cycling is clearly a business, and while the opportunities are there for women, the compensation, support and infrastructure that are so vital to improvement and advancement are lacking. It is ultimately the goal of the WCA to alter the overall framework to create a professional opportunity for women. “Initially, there were riders who heard of the WCA and thought it was primarily about getting a minimum salary established, and they asked ‘how?’” Holcomb said. “It wasn’t until we explained the bigger picture that it became more engrossing and we were able to get past the misunderstanding and get them on board.” Holcomb feels strongly that a good deal of success will come from working with younger riders and educating them on how to be professional. “I think it’s important that they understand what a résumé is – not a list of race results, but a professional résumé that you are proud of that is submitted just like you’re searching for a job, which is exactly what they are doing. There is a parallel, and that understanding needs to be stressed.”
One of the greatest hurdles will be effecting change within the landscape that the teams function, and taking the initiative to change the perception of what defines the term professional in the sport. “We need to change the mindset of mediocrity, and we need to get directors, team managers, promoters and the federation on board to understand our cause. This is a business, and we need to treat the riders as professionals, just like in any other industry,” Farina said. As the successful business model for Uptown Cycles proves, she is no stranger to the business world and its strategy. “Initially, we want to meet with race promoters to establish a working relationship with them, and get them to understand that equal prize payout can lead to a windfall of change. This will bring bigger and better fields, draw additional media attention, and create an attractive marketing outlet for sponsors.”
Wilcoxson agrees, noting, “It’s not just about getting more money for salaries, it’s about establishing benchmarks for equality. Why aren’t there stage races for women in California, Utah and Colorado? We want to have a dialogue with promoters to change that. We have a long way to go, but this is a key priority to establish right away.” And while the easy solution is always to throw more money at the problem, in this case, it’s the opposite.
Farina said, “The women’s side of the sport is so short on history, and we want to tell the stories and write the history and create the characters that color our sport. We are working at bridging this gap in order to make it more attractive to sponsors and promoters and fans.” One group that is already committed to helping the WCA launch is Fort Follies in Fort Collins, Colorado. The club hosted the Fort Follies Women’s Grand Prix ahead of the Stage 6 finish of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and the WCA seized the opportunity to announce their official launch and unveil their official logo, website, and introduce the world of professional cycling to their cause.
The WCA has a clearly thought out and simply stated mission: to develop, maintain, and support a network of women cyclists and supporters of women’s cycling. They are committed to advancing the interests of women cyclists by developing and advancing policies with governing bodies and reaching out to engage the media and social networking. The vision of the WCA is also very clear: for professional women cyclists to have a career path with recognition, fiscal security, and advancement opportunities; to support women cyclists of all ability levels; and to showcase grassroots programs in order to develop young and new riders.
In addition, the WCA has developed criteria for establishing WCA supported/approved races in the hope of raising the level of competition with affiliated promoters. This criteria is at the heart of what Holcomb says, “Is the right time for all women cyclists and supporters of women’s cycling to join together and work toward equality in our sport.” The WCA believes that women’s races need to be held directly before or after men’s races; equal prize purses offered or equal percentage to each field; equal support, which includes housing, team meals and includes everything that is offered to the men also be offered to the women; and quality race announcing that is equal for both the men’s and women’s races. Farina notes that this is a primary initiative, and she is hopeful of gaining an invitation to the USA Cycling NRC Promoters Summit in November. “Following our launch, the next step is getting a sit down with USA Cycling and Steve Johnson (President and CEO), along with Jim Miller (Team Leader and Vice President of Athletics). We have Alison Tetrick on the Women’s Cycling Committee there. Getting their attention and letting them know we are serious is key to our success.”
The success of any movement promoting change can mostly be garnered in small steps. Tennis star Billie Jean King took the initial steps 40+ years ago for equality in women’s tennis, and the sport is now one of the most successful professions for women athletes. And while it’s necessary to have a grand vision, such as Farina’s, the smaller steps, as so meticulously outlined by Holcomb and Wilcoxson, are key to the sustainability of the Association and their efforts. The vision of what the sport should look like five or ten years from now is clear, and it is right to believe it will succeed. Getting there relies on the many people that have expressed interest in contributing their expertise and resources, following through, and constantly asking the question, “Are we doing enough to succeed, and if not, what more can be done?” In looking ahead, I asked Wilcoxson what she viewed as a success 24-48 hours after the Fort Collins launch. “I would hope that it would be clearly established that we are an official organization and people are eager to jump on board and sign up,” she said. “I’d love to wake up and see great media coverage by the cycling websites and journals.” Holcomb shared her teammate’s enthusiasm, stating, “I hope I have an overflow of emails in my inbox from people who want to know more and are interested in helping spread the message.”
Change has to start somewhere, and from Chattanooga to Philadelphia to Fort Collins, it seems to be happening for women’s cycling. If the time is now, then it is clearly about time.