What’s the best way to grow women’s pro road racing? We asked the experts
Throughout the race VeloNews posed a familiar question to riders and race officials: What is the best way to boost interest in women’s professional bike racing? Is it in building heroes, funding television, or something else entirely?
We heard a few familiar answers: regular TV coverage, exciting racing, and grassroots connection with riders. Lindsay Goldman, owner and rider for Hagens Berman-Supermint, believes that race organizers should focus on the fans, and try to determine the reason why fans actually attend bike races.
“What makes people come out and watch the races? Is it parents bringing their daughters out to watch us because they find it inspirational to watch us race?” Goldman pondered. “Is it just because they want to see us crash? Maybe getting more spectators watching women’s cycling isn’t a mountain top finish in the middle of nowhere, maybe it’s a short circuit in downtown Denver.”
Indeed, Sean Petty, race director for the Colorado Classic and a recent U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame inductee, believes that shorter races that condense the action is a way to boost spectators at bike races. The shorter stages force riders to attack early rather than waiting until the end of a four-hour race to make their moves.
“The two-hour races require a shorter attention span,” Petty said. “They don’t eat up your whole day.”
Riders, managers, and team owners also pointed to live broadcast as an important tool for bringing fans to the sport. In some of the televised European spring classics where women’s races have been added, the crowds have been amazing, says Petty. And in those women’s races, the television ratings are almost equal to the men’s races.
“We (now) have something objective we can take to sponsors to say, ‘When it’s televised, people are going to watch,'” Petty said.
Of course, sponsors of women’s teams and races must see a return on their investment in order to keep funding the operations. Sometimes, that return needs to be more than results on a page, or photos of victories. Goldman believes that professional cycling must realize it’s in the entertainment business, and riders must understand what each sponsor needs from the relationship.
“As a rider I want to achieve my best and it’s all about my hopes and dreams. But the reality is my sponsors want me here representing their products,” Goldman said. “My sponsors don’t really care if we win.”
Rather than simply promoting victories, women’s cycling should do more to promote the unique stories of the riders, as it’s often these stories that engage sponsors and create interest amongst fans. And since pro female rides often have diverse professional backgrounds, their stories set them apart from pro male riders.
“Professional female cyclists tend to be older and have professional careers,” Goldman said. “They often have families they are more closely integrated with than some of the professional male cyclists who have children.”
Canadian cyclist Sara Poidevin (Rally UHC) agrees. “Once people get to know the riders’ stories, they become invested. Sponsors get more exposure, people watch more. It snowballs,” she said.
So, what makes a rider’s story? Sometimes it’s harder to identify than one might think. When asked to describe her “story,” Poidevin was at a loss. “I don’t know,” she said.
Poidevin won the 2017 edition of the Colorado Classic while pursuing a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Calgary.
In a world that tells women to maintain a level playing field and to value connection over competition, it’s no wonder women struggle to sell themselves. As a team manager, Goldman says part of her job is extracting the stories from her riders and teaching them how to promote those stories all year—not just during training camp and races. She even requires her riders to post on social media.
“I don’t care if you’re a wallflower. I don’t care if you’re the most humble person,” Goldman said. “(I tell them) you are going to promote this sponsor this week, because that’s your job and that’s what’s in the contract.”
Lucy Diaz, the Colorado Classic’s chief operating officer, pointed to the U.S. women’s national soccer team as an example of the challenges that female athletes face when trying to promote their success. The U.S. team was criticized for being cocky after their stunning victories in the World Cup, Diaz says.
This year the Colorado Classic decided to drop the men’s race and focus all of its resources on just hosting the women’s race. “It’s a segment of the sport that’s underserved and seen as a plus-one,” Diaz said. “‘You’re invited to the party, and, oh, you can bring someone.’ Having it be 100% women has been powerful to help them unify their message, vision, and partnerships with sponsors. We want to put on races that aren’t an afterthought.”
Diaz also hopes the race becomes a platform for riders to share their stories.
“It’s not about putting pink handle bar tape on the bikes,” she added. “This is unique in a way that isn’t women vs men.”
RPM Events Group hopes the women’s-centric racing model, one that has roots in the community, is replicated in other sports.
In fact, Ken Gart, chairman of RPM, hopes other promoters see the success of the Colorado Classic and decide to host other women’s specific events. In switching to a women’s-only event, the Colorado Classic was able to attract mainstream sponsors and boost community enthusiasm around the shared goal of promoting women’s sports. The race also boosted its prize purse from $20,000 to $75,000.
“We wanted a model that we could show the rest of the world and that they would pay attention to,” Gart said. “And I feel really excited that we did that.”