Athletes, organizers, USA Cycling consider challenges, benefits for big-time women’s racing

Today there is more UCI road racing in the U.S. than ever before, but the women's peloton isn't enjoying the benefits of growth

When 13-year pro cycling veteran Nichole Wangsgard got a phone call to join the 2013 Tour of Utah’s planning committee, her answer was an immediate yes. For Wangsgard, who currently serves as director for the Primal women’s team and is a tenured professor at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, supporting the advancement of cycling is a natural inclination.

“When I got the call to help the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah with their logistics and planning, I said, ‘Yeah, sure!’” Wangsgard told VeloNews. “My role was to build a curriculum for the local public schools, so students and teachers could understand the sport. I got pretty excited about that.”

That was, until Wangsgard thought through the inevitable questions she would field, specifically, “When will you race?”

As Cedar City’s only professional cyclist, Wangsgard saw the obvious problem.

“Here I was, about to go tell all these kids and teachers about the joys of cycling and how fantastic the Tour of Utah is, but when they ask when I’m racing, I’ll have to tell them I can’t,” she said. There is no women’s professional field at the Tour of Utah.

After careful consideration, Wangsgard turned down the committee position. The only question worse than “When will you be racing?” for female pro cyclists is the subsequent question of “Why not?”

“It just didn’t sit well with me, having to tell young children that women aren’t allowed in the race,” Wangsgard said. “It’s great that 150 of the best pro men come through town, but it simultaneously sends the message that women are not allowed to do this event.”

The absence of a women’s pro field in the six-day Utah tour and other men’s-only stage races leads to a bigger question: Are men’s-only stage races hurting the growth of cycling for both genders?

The Tour of Utah is one of five UCI-sanctioned men’s stage races in the United States that fail to include a UCI professional women’s multi-day event. The Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado follow suit and are nationally televised. (Silver City’s Tour of the Gila and the Tour of Elk Grove — which are not televised — do hold women’s pro races, though the women’s events are not UCI-sanctioned.) While the Amgen Tour does hold a single-day, invitation-only time trial event, for years female pro cyclists have lobbied unsuccessfully for a multi-day event to run in conjunction with the biggest men’s tour in North America. According to Wangsgard, the chicken-and-egg issue of adding women’s races to the men’s UCI events and/or the National Racing Calendar often gets caught in an unproductive blame game.

“Race directors often say they can’t find enough sponsorship to hold a simultaneous women’s event, while sponsors are largely unaware that women want the opportunity to race these events,” said Wangsgard. “So what comes first, the media exposure, the sponsorship, or the general knowledge that women can — and want to — race these events?”

A no-brainer

The majority of U.S. race directors already possess this “general knowledge” when it comes to understanding the desire women have to be included at the highest level. In the U.S. there are six NRC stage races for professional women — Redlands Bicycle Classic, Joe Martin Stage Race, Nature Valley Grand Prix, Tour of the Gila, Tour of Elk Grove, and Cascade Cycling Classic — and these race directors wonder why the men’s-only races like USA Pro Challenge and Tour of Utah haven’t caught on.

“Including the pro women in major stage races should be a no-brainer,” said Jack Brennan, race director of the Tour of the Gila, a notoriously grueling five-day stage race in Silver City, New Mexico, which has hosted a women’s field for 25 years. “The professional women are incredible.”

Brennan cites that the pro women’s inclusion in the race goes far beyond the economic and sponsorship values. “Sure, there are economic benefits to having a race in a small town, but it’s really about the community. Colavita Pro Cycling, for example, would bring boxes of olive oil and products to the local families. They build lasting relationships. It’s wonderful. You’ve got to remember that the economic value of a race first starts in the community. You have to get the community and the people behind you first if you want to have a financially successful event.”

Redlands Classic marketing director Scott Welsh agrees. For 19 years, Redlands has included a professional women’s field in its four-day Southern California event.

“We’re really proud of our long heritage in promoting and supporting women’s cycling. It’s a very important component to the overall theme of bike racing. We feel like we’ve benefitted as much from women’s cycling as anything else we do,” Welsh said. “It’s great to see the variety of sponsors that the women’s field brings in, and we’re proud to bring recognition to those sponsors who support women’s cycling. Cycling is a very competitive environment, and the women put on a fantastic show. It’s absolutely first class, and they work just as hard as the guys do. We’re happy to support it.”

Welsh also values the long-term effect of what the pro women bring to his community. “The pro women are willing to talk to groups, to school-aged kids, to sponsors. We think it’s incredibly special what these athletes give back in return,” Welsh said. “Not to mention, it’s more than just a homestay when there’s a little kid in our community who gets to say, ‘An Olympic champion stayed in my house!’

Good for all of sport

Brennan and Welsh also concur on the economic value of including women’s fields alongside the men’s events.

“From the marketing angle, anytime you have a community event like ours — which is a 100-percent volunteer — and we’re inviting the greater community of Southern California to come and watch racing, it’s smart to have the diversity of events,” Welsh said. “There’s no doubt to the benefits of being multi-dimensional. Hundreds of thousands of dollars is generated in revenue by over 300 professional cyclists, teams, and managers who come to the community, and with the thousands spectators … well, let’s just say our city council really embraces it. This race spurs an economic boom.”

Better still, the Redlands Classic and Tour of the Gila don’t adhere to the chicken-and-egg conundrum of sponsorship allocation in holding simultaneous men’s and women’s events.

“I don’t think there is a difference between attracting men’s and women’s sponsors,” Welsh said. “In fact, there are many shared sponsors. Women bring additional sponsors, which is good for both sides of the sport. When a sponsor sees a highly competitive, talented, professional female cyclist with their logo on her back, it’s good for all of sport.”

Race directors like Brennan also tout the professionalism of the women’s field as a beneficial strategy in attracting marketing and sponsorship.

“In the women’s pro peloton, there are a lot of attorneys, doctors, researchers that work and race at the same time — they are smart folks. So you’ve got this really educated group of athletes coming into the community and getting involved in the race, and they can do so much with that. That’s the one thing I would stress to these [men’s-only tours] … the resources available in the women’s pro peloton is incredible.”

Wangsgard agrees, citing an example from her experience racing for Colavita when the team had a men’s and women’s program. (The Colavita men’s team is now Jamis-Hagens Berman.)

“Sometimes, if the guys’ team wasn’t having a great race, they were thrilled when the women’s team did well because it helped alleviate the burden of getting results — which is important to a sponsor. So, if there were more UCI-level men’s races that had a women’s race, there would probably be more men’s teams that would sponsor more women’s teams as well. Then the sponsors get that much more visibility. It’s good for everyone.”

For Brennan, any race not including a women’s field is simply selling itself short — not to mention the growth of American cycling.

“If the Tours of California, Utah, and Colorado included a pro women’s race, it would expose women’s racing to the greater population, which is now over 50-percent women, and we’d have more women and young girls looking at cycling as an activity they can do,” Brennan said, noting that televised media is key to growth and awareness. “But you’ve got to have those big televised events. [Tours of California, Utah, and Colorado] need to put the money behind a women’s pro field, and push it in the media. If you factor in the pro women, we’ll all benefit. We’ll have more race teams, more races, more women on bikes, and a high caliber of racing. But we need the big dogs to get behind it.”

Dogs and roosters

Michael Roth, VP of communications for AEG Worldwide, the driving force behind the Amgen Tour, believes the solution to the coexistence of high-profile men’s and women’s stage racing begins with creative marketing. Long touted as the “biggest dog” of U.S. stage races in terms of media coverage, the Amgen Tour draws both praise and backlash over the inclusion of its women’s time trial. Some feel the women’s event is a good start to narrowing the equality gap, while others argue that the one-day, invite-only competition is merely a band-aid solution to giving the women their due.

“We feel we’ve done the right thing by getting women involved,” Roth said. He feels that other races like Colorado and Utah should look to California as the starting point for change — a change that could easily include creative ways of attracting sponsors.

“If Colorado and Utah also hosted a televised time trial for pro women, it could be a series people tune in to watch … almost like American Idol. If Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge could meet our commitment, then we’ve got something to take to sponsors and TV stations. Then what if we got Redlands, Cascade, Gila to commit to one-day TV coverage for a women’s race, too? Then we’ve got a platform.”

For Roth, holding a future women’s pro Tour of California starts with the women’s time trial, which he sees as the first step in breaking the chicken-and-egg cycle of women’s equality in racing.

“We don’t want to be the chicken or the egg,” said Roth. “We’re trying to be the rooster.”

According to Chris Aronhalt, managing partner of Medalist Sports, the firm that secures sponsorships for major U.S. events like the Amgen Tour and operated the women’s Exergy Tour in 2012, television coverage plays a crucial role in drawing partnerships.

“Our clients basically watch races like the Tour de France then call us and say, ‘I want that,’” Aronhalt said, regarding the demand to replicate major European races in America. A trickle-down theory of inequality comes then from what sponsors aren’t seeing: a women’s race broadcast alongside the Tour de France.

The 2012 USA Pro Challenge boasted 29 hours of coverage across the NBC Sports franchise over seven days of racing. Currently, there are no nationally broadcast events for women’s cycling. For Wangsgard, this is unacceptable. “With nearly 30 hours of TV time for the men, surely there is a way to factor in coverage of a women’s event,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s chauvinistic,” Aronhalt said. “It’s just what the sponsors see, or in this case, what they don’t see.”

As for whose role it is to open the eyes of sponsors to the possibility of a women’s race broadcast alongside the men, Aronhalt holds fast to the notion that it’s not the responsibility of one individual.

“Change has to be a group effort comprised of visionaries, race owners, men and women. Bottom line? A women’s race will add more expenses, and adding more costs gets a bad reaction from sponsors. At the end of the day, it all boils down to money.”

Statistics argue that female consumerism is on the rise (currently 74.9 percent of all household budgets are controlled by women) and adding a women’s field could attract more sponsors and provide a larger return of investment for promoters of the major U.S. tours. Aronhalt agrees.

“Women’s racing could be an asset, a true opportunity for investors to get in at the ground level,” he said. “I think it’s nuts not to include a women’s demographic, but it’s not our decision.”

Whether change starts with big dogs or new roosters, Wangsgard believes race directors and sponsors won’t reach their potential until USA Cycling unleashes a new plan for equality in stage races. While challenges of equality are nothing new to the women’s pro peloton, Wangsgard’s dilemma calls into question the advancement of all cycling, especially within the U.S.

Currently, only 13 percent of USA Cycling members are women. As U.S. pro tours continue to vie for sponsorship and opportunity, the question remains whether or not the inclusion of NRC and UCI-sanctioned men’s-only tours is furthering the sport as a whole.

“One way U.S. cycling can prosper for both genders is if USA Cycling makes it mandatory for any NRC or UCI-sanctioned stage race in the States to include a women’s field,” Wangsgard said. “Then we’d be a part of the vision of growth as a whole. It’d be such a win-win situation.”

Indeed, the mandatory inclusion of women’s fields by USA Cycling would be a monumental advancement for the sport, not only in financial and sponsorship gains but changing societal perceptions about equality as well. When asked if a mandate for gender equity could be in the cards in the U.S., USA Cycling’s director of communications, Bill Kellick, responded that such a move would be “fiscally irresponsible and unrealistic.”

“While we encourage and support equality and are absolutely committed to that end in our owned events and national calendars,” said Kellick, “to mandate equality as a condition to placing privately owned, operated, and funded events on the calendar is fiscally irresponsible and unrealistic in light of the current financial pro formas of these events.”

Great expectations

“What’s strange is that the cycling world has fallen behind the larger non-cycling world, in terms of progress,” Wangsgard said, referring to the fact that most people in the U.S. assume women are — in this post Title IX culture — allowed to race in the same events as men. “The non-cycling crowd expects women to be at races like the Tour of Utah, and yet the rule-makers of cycling expect us not to be. That’s backwards. Our sport is actually behind society’s expectations.”

If the starting point of change begins with knowledge, then the Tour of Utah‘s education has begun. The race’s ninth edition will roll out in Cedar City in Auguat, and 2013 is its third year as UCI 2.1 men’s event. Jenn Andrs, project manager for the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, is aware that the pro women would like a stage race alongside the men.

“We really respect that the women’s riders are great professionals. It sheds a great light on how capable and strong women are to cycle and do the same things the women’s pro men are doing,” Andrs said. “For 2013, we’re too far down the road for including a women’s component, but we’re not ruling that out in the future. We have in our plans to sit down and analyze how we would be able to potentially support a women’s component in the Tour of Utah in 2014 or 2015.”

For Wangsgard, the knowledge that the Tour of Utah is now aware that pro women want to race is a vital first step in a long, important climb toward furthering the entire sport of cycling.

“I live in a small, conservative town,” Wangsgard said. “The ratio of men to women leaders … it’s not good. When it comes to sports, that attitude is passed down and women are considered not as important. I’d like to make a difference. When you really peel back the layers, this isn’t just about having a women’s bike race. It goes much, much deeper.”

Kathryn Bertine is a pro cyclist for Colavita-Fine Cooking, a national champion of St. Kitts & Nevis, and author of As Good As Gold from ESPN Books. She is at work on a documentary film about women’s pro cycling: You can follow her @kathrynbertine.