Culture

Female pressroom pioneer: Darcy Kiefel

Women are a minority in the pro cycling pressroom. Darcy Kiefel and others have worked to change that.

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The video clip from 1993 shows retired rider Allan Peiper interviewing famed cycling photographer Darcy Kiefel in a news segment for SBS, the Australian public television network. It’s a wonderful relic, with dated fashion and hairstyles from the 1990s on display. The interview’s subject matter is similarly out of touch, with none of the nostalgic charm.

Peiper introduces Kiefel as one of the only female photographers on the pro cycling circuit, whose reputation places her among the best in the business.

“I remember a few years ago, some of the other photographers felt like you were using your female powers to get to positions they’d worked years for,” Peiper says. “What do you say to that?”

The question catches Kiefel by surprise, and she becomes noticeably flustered. She tries to explain that she’s a friendly person, but ultimately ends on a beleaguered note. “I don’t know, it’s hard to explain,” she says.

What did Peiper mean by “female powers?” It’s unclear, and his comment highlights the challenging landscape that women have navigated in pro cycling’s media corps over the decades. It’s no secret that women make up a minority in the sport’s ranks of reporters and photographers, and their presence is often noted. While they cover the sport with the same passion and devotion of male media, the playing field is often unlevel, as it is in the regular workforce.

Unequal expectations, rumors about relationships with pro riders, comments about dress and sexualization, are part of the working conditions for women at the Tour de France. So is the spirit of hard work, camaraderie, and fraternity between the few women who do work in the pressrooms and on the back of media motorbikes. What makes the women who cover the sport of cycling different from male media members is how they are able to manage it all.

Darcy Kiefel with her former husband, Ron Kiefel.
Darcy Kiefel with her former husband, Ron Kiefel. Photo: Courtesy Darcy Kiefel

Nobody exemplifies this better than Kiefel. As the first woman to sit on the back of the photo motorcycle and capture pro racing’s most dramatic moments, she broke ground for future female reporters and photographers to come in her wake, yet she did so with grace and grit. Her story — and the stories of others — shows how much work it took to bring a female perspective to pro cycling.

“At the beginning, I cannot tell you how much I had to prove myself,” Kiefel tells VeloNews. “Ultimately, I wasn’t hired for any reason other than my talent. But it took a lot of tears. It took a lot of strength.”

Minorities in the pressroom

Iri Greco stared out at the pressroom during the 2010 UCI Road World Cycling Championships in Australia and took an informal poll. She saw only a few women in the sea of journalists and photographers.

“I counted something like 178 men to 21 women,” Greco tells VeloNews. “I tweeted about it, and people questioned it. It wasn’t that I was complaining, I was just observing. It’s a very interesting thing to be in that space.”

Being one of just a few women wasn’t a new experience for Greco, who worked as a chef prior to becoming a racing photographer. Women who enter any role in the cycling industry, from media to racing to retail, know they’re walking into a professional landscape that is predominantly male.

Iri Greco prepares to capture the riders at the 2016 Tour de France.
Iri Greco prepares to capture the riders at the Tour de France. Photo: Leon Van Bon / BrakeThrough Media

Of its close to 400 members, the International Association of Cycling Journalists counts just 50 or so women. Bonnie Ford, a sportswriter at ESPN who has over three decades of sports writing experience, says that this number reflects women in journalism, period. With minority status, or perhaps because of it, come certain hurdles.

“If you’re a woman, person of color, or any minority, you’re going to face challenges in whatever area of journalism you go into,” Ford says. “Not just sports but politics, business, criminal justice. The only difference in sport is the working conditions, the so-called ‘locker room.’”

Given that locker rooms are segregated by sex and professional bike racing is dominated by men, how does a woman break in? There’s no one pathway for women to enter pro cycling’s media, and the women who spoke to VeloNews for this story had similarly diverse stories of entry into the sport.

One of Kiefel’s first trips to Europe to shoot a race was for the 1987 Tour de France, and she did so alongside another woman, reporter Cheryl Lindstrom from Boulder, Colorado’s The Daily Camera newspaper. That year the race started in West Berlin, and during the car ride to the start, both women thought they might be getting in over their heads. They were stopped at numerous police checkpoints along the way.

Kiefel and Lindstrom had both secured credentials to cover the race. Kiefel had been to the Tour before; at the time she was married to American pro rider Ron Kiefel on the 7-Eleven team. She had been working to establish her photography career throughout the 1980s. Lindstrom had been reporting on cycling for 10 years and capitalized on the popularity of the Boulder-based team as an opportunity to travel to Europe. Although both women were well-versed in the sport, neither of them quite anticipated the circus of trying to follow the race.

“I really, really just wanted to be treated like a photographer,” Kiefel says. “Sure, maybe people were watching us to see if there would be a red flag, but I really just wanted to be treated like an equal.”

Historically, one pathway to covering professional cycling is to have been a member of the culture at large, either as an athlete, a fan, or a team staffer. While Kiefel and Lindstrom had a strong understanding of cycling before they traveled to Europe, other women in cycling media entered the arena more blindly.

Georgina “Goga” Ruiz-Sandoval, who is known as Latin America’s first female cycling commentator, remembers her lack of knowledge about cycling when she first traveled to races like Ruta Mexico in the early 90s. She didn’t see it as a hindrance.

“I was asking questions all over the place,” Goga says. “I asked to be in a mechanics car. I asked to be with directors. I was trying to jump all over the peloton to try and absorb. They were amused that I was there, but I felt respected. I felt like a serious part of the press group.”

Greco also recalls feeling empowered by her willingness to travel to marquee cycling events despite not having a background in the sport.

“In some ways, being such a blank slate helped me,” she says. “I didn’t know enough to be intimidated.”

While the ranks of male commentators and writers are filled with retired pro riders, their female counterparts often start from scratch; bike racing, after all, doesn’t have equivalent female participation. Learning on the job came naturally to Greco and Ford; it could also be said that they were more willing to put themselves out there because they were women.

Kiefel captured Andy Hampsten on the Gavia Pass during the 1988 Giro d'Italia.
Kiefel captured Andy Hampsten on the Gavia Pass during the 1988 Giro d’Italia. Photo: Courtesy Darcy Kiefel

Standing out in the crowd

During the 2019 Tour de France organizers distributed 1,800 media credentials to journalists, photographers, and other media; race organizer ASO says that it does not keep track of the gender of the credentialed media. Back in 1988, when Kiefel received a coveted spot on a motorcycle to photograph the race, the gender breakdown was easy to see: she was the only woman with the credential.

The attention Kiefel received from riders and even fans wasn’t all bad, she says.

“They watched me like a hawk,” she says. “I remember once at [the world championships] in Spain, the whole crowd started chanting my name. Even the peloton would go up a pass chanting my name. It was so embarrassing. ‘Dar-cee, Dar-cee.’”

As a staff photographer for French publication Cyclisme International, Kiefel garnered major respect from her peers and the riders. One year, when the magazine put out its weekly special paper on the Tour, every image in it was hers. The strong work endeared her to race officials and others who wondered about the petite, blond woman on the motorbike. Nevertheless, Kiefel faced other hurdles.

Kiefel says that her legitimacy as a member of the press was sometimes questioned. One year, she was shooting the finish at the Champs-Élysées with eight other photographers when two police officers pulled her aside.

“They asked me to leave,” she says. “And the other photographers were fighting with them over it, and I was just standing there.”

Greco, who covered European racing for eight years with her business partner Jim Fryer, encountered situations where race officials and riders simply treated the two differently. In 2009 when they first started shooting races together, Greco says some officials assumed she was Fryer’s photography assistant.

“It pissed me off for eight years,” she says. “He’d be like, ‘She’s 50 percent of the business,’ and I’d just be clenching my fist. It took people a while to understand that we’re a team, and we do the same job.”

Motorola squad of the 1990s
Kiefel captured the early success of the Motorola squad of the 1990s. Photo: Courtesy Darcy Kiefel

Despite perceived differences between male and female media, women navigate the exact same race experience that men do: the chaos, the exhaustion, the logistics, and the excitement. If they don’t produce the shot or the report or get the finish line interview, well, then they aren’t doing their job.

“If you’re sitting in a cafe and you call someone and say, ‘I didn’t feel like going up the mountain one day, do you have any quotes for me?’ that’s not gonna work,” Ford says. “Whether you’re a male or a female.”

The expectations of anyone doing any job shouldn’t be adjusted for sex or gender, yet the reality isn’t often as such. Reflecting on her thirty-year career, Goga says that she felt she had to be twice as prepared as the men she worked alongside.

Earning their place

“I have to know every answer,” Goga says. “I have to have a very well-founded opinion. We are under the microscope. My male partner can be wrong, not know the name or the date, and no one cares.”

In addition to the pressure to get it right every time, some women say they have been haunted by the unspoken assumption that they’ve done something untoward to achieve success. Earlier this year, freelance journalist Sophie Smith wrote an opinion piece for the Australian publication 10 daily after a Twitter exchange she had with a Belgian journalist regarding his inappropriate comments about a young journalist’s tank top went viral. Smith says that she felt compelled to bring up the “darker side to being a sports journalist that men aren’t exposed to — that old adage, ‘she slept her way to the top.’”

Sophie Smith interviews Mark Cavendish during Tour of Qatar Elite 2016.
Sophie Smith interviews Mark Cavendish during the Tour of Qatar Elite 2016. Photo: Anton Vos / Cor Vos

Smith says that she and other female colleagues have at some point in their career struggled with the rumor mill. Obviously, today’s social media echo chamber raises the volume on such conversations, but the content isn’t new. In the early 90s, Kiefel recalls having to share a hotel room with her motorcycle pilot when Cyclisme International wouldn’t pay for two. At the time, co-rooming was uncommon practice in Europe.

“This one rider from Italy, he was just shaking his head,” Kiefel says. “‘But what do you do in the hotel room?’ I go, ‘Guido, I sleep!’ He’d shake his head, ‘it’s just not normal.’”

Kiefel covered the Tour de France for seven consecutive years and became a stalwart on the pro cycling scene. It was her longevity in the media space and her dogged work that eventually won over her peers, as well as the peloton. Graham Watson, the photographer who has captured more images of professional cycling than anyone, remembers Kiefel like any other top photographer.

“She was a pioneer, we just didn’t see her as such,” he says. “She was just our running mate.”

It’s perhaps disheartening to think that Watson’s statement reflects a profound sensibility; for generations, women have had to learn how to navigate the role that their sex plays in professional life. Although the culture of cycling presents certain hurdles for women in media, they are surmountable and even forgettable.

One anecdote from Kiefel’s time in the sport illustrates this point.

At Paris-Nice one year, Kiefel and her motorcycle driver hit the back of a team car when it stopped in the middle of the road. They flipped over the car, and Keifel burned her leg badly. Despite the injury, she continued to work for days on end. Every day a team doctor would cut skin away from the wound and then dress it before she hopped on the motorcycle.

“It was times like that when I think the officials shook their heads up and down instead of sideways,” Kiefel said. “‘She’s one of us.’”