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Carmen Small Q&A: women’s racing, riding in bikinis, the hour record, and more

Carmen Small talks about the state of women's racing, how to improve it, the hour record, and more

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Last year, Carmen Small rode with a few guys from Tinkoff-Saxo. They cruised idly through the narrow backroads outside Lucca, Italy, chatting, until one said something she couldn’t believe: He didn’t know who she was. He didn’t even know she raced professionally.

Last year, Small walked into a coffee shop at the bottom of Mount Lemon in Tucson, Arizona, full of cyclists ready to make the climb, in her distinctive Specialized-Lululemon kit. Nobody asked for an autograph, nobody bought her a coffee; nobody seemed to notice. “If you were a man with your results, you would have been mobbed,” her husband said.

He’s right.

Women’s cycling has a problem. Its slow march toward equality can feel like, at times, barely a shuffle.

This is a livelihood. It’s not a hobby, not a pastime, not a fun little way to pass the time between trips to the coffee shop. Carmen Small is a professional, turning pedal power into dollars for the last nine years, only the most recent of which have seen her garner a living salary. She’s a two-time world time trial champion, and a bronze medalist in the individual event; a stars-and-stripes skinsuit hangs in her closet. She’s one of the strongest riders in the world.

In 2015, Small is pivoting towards the track, aiming at the 2016 Olympic team pursuit. She’ll balance track work with a domestic road schedule, racing with Twenty16-Sho-Air.

Small, a former math teacher who found cycling relatively late, has a lot to say. On women’s racing; on character development; on the ludicrousness of playing football in bikinis; on TV coverage; on the hour record. When she sat down with VeloNews at her coffee table outside Durango, Colorado just after Christmas, she didn’t hold back.

VeloNews: Let’s talk about women’s racing. What’s the next step? We’ve started attaching women’s races to men’s races, do you think that’s the right way?

Carmen Small: I think it’s good. But, yes and no. Things like the Tour, you can’t. You can’t because [media are] not going to pay two different reporters to go cover the race.

So right there, that’s a problem. It’s great that they’re doing (La Course), but we really need to establish our own races somehow. I don’t know what that means, I don’t know how that works, but obviously it costs money. So we need to figure out how to fund it.

Because in the end, we can draw people to it. Our fans aren’t going to be the racers — it’s the mainstream women’s cycling that we need to tap into, it’s the recreational riders. La course did a really good job, all of a sudden we have all these fans we didn’t have before.

The TV coverage is the key. People watched (La Course) here and they were so excited. It was really great coverage. That’s what it takes, it takes putting it in front of people. Our races are really exciting. And I think part of that is because they’re so short. We can race the whole race. Tactically it’s different. You don’t know what’s going to happen. The sport is becoming stronger and stronger, so it’s not like there’s just a dominant five people.

VN: A frequent complaint is that there isn’t enough depth in international women’s racing. You don’t think that’s an issue?

CS: No, definitely not. Especially this year. With our team (Specialized-Lululemon) going away and then not going away, teams have changed. The composite of teams is pretty crazy this year. It’s interesting. I think three or four Rabos left that team.

Rabo were really dominant at one point. But people were beating Marianne [Vos] at the end. She’s human, she got tired, and people can beat her.

I think there’s depth there. Particularly now, with the teams spreading out, it’s going to be really interesting.

VN: Do you want more races?

Yes and no. The problem is our budgets are so small we can’t do any more races. We’re pretty maxed out on budget by the end of the year. So to add extra, I don’t think it’s going to help us. I think the races that are there just need to do it really well. The teams, we don’t have big teams. There are only 10-15 girls per team. Ours was 11.

CS: So the same number of races, but maybe different types of races?

It’s ridiculous that we don’t have more 10-day stage races. Why can’t we race more than a few days? Most of them are like four [days]. That’s not a stage race anymore. You throw a prologue and a TT and it’s not, really. I think if anything we just need more stage racing at a high level. We do have some stage races but, like I said, they’re three to four days and they’re not with big teams.

VN: Would you be for an expansion of La Course?

CS: Yeah, for sure. They did an incredible job. I would never say no to any of the La Course events. That was by far the highlight of the year. It was incredible, the stage that they had, the platform that they had for us.

There’s a big difference between our races and men’s. Whenever we have a men’s event on the same day as our race, like Fleche or Flanders, it’s such a difference. Such a difference. The media coverage, the fans. To have that, to the magnitude of the men, is amazing.

I think we have to start getting on TV without having to sell sex. I mean, we can’t dress up in bikinis like those football players. I didn’t even know that existed, all of a sudden I was watching football players in bikinis, women playing. I was shocked, I’m like, ‘what is this?!’ They get paid a lot of money. But no way am I putting on a bikini and riding around on my bike, that’s just not what it’s about.

It’s really a difficult thing. I don’t know what the solution is. Women’s racing has gotten a lot better since I got into the sport. It’s grown a ton. It’s really fun and exciting.

VN: We keep hearing from various cycling brands that the focus is going to be on women’s gear. It’s the part of their business that is growing. But the focus of their marketing is mostly women’s lifestyle. How do you combine that and women’s racing?

CS: I think it’s selling the story. On our end, it’s selling the story. Because a lot of us women who are in this sport have gotten into it later in life. A lot of the Americans have huge backgrounds that are pretty interesting. To see where we’ve come from, and now where we’re at in the top of the sport, I think that’s what we have to tap into and sell these stories. To get this general population to actually look at the sport.

VN: Look at it more as a participatory sport?

CS: Yeah, how do we get the involvement? It’s about doing grassroots stuff. It’s about doing women’s rides. Getting the community involved. And the healthy part of it, we have this huge epidemic of obesity, how are we going to change that? It starts with the kids.

I’m passionate about this because, one, I was a teacher, and also because I had my nieces for a year. And I was like ‘holy crap, it’s so much easier to feed them really bad stuff, because it’s cheaper and faster.’ But then, I can’t be a hypocrite and eat all this really good stuff and healthy stuff and vegetables and good meat from local places and then give my nieces crappy food. That doesn’t make sense. I can’t do that to them. That part I’m really passionate about. You can do it, you can do it on a budget, you just need to be educated on how. That’s the other piece. You do these women’s rides and you put a little education in there about healthy living. You can tap into something that I think is mostly undiscovered at this point. Will that grow the sport? I don’t know. How do you get these sponsors wanting to be involved in your team? I don’t know.

VN: Why do they want to sponsor a women’s team?

CS: Most of the teams I’ve been on it was sort of that situation, there was a CEO of some company who really likes cycling, and so then they’re going to have a cycling team.

If you compare it, the level I’m on is professional level, same level as the men’s Tour de France. But the budget, it’s like a salary of one of the riders. One.

VN: What about a minimum salary for women, then?

CS: Chicken or the egg, right? If you say you have to pay these riders X, Y, Z, can the companies do it? Or do they just pull out, and say ‘we can’t afford that.’ Then you don’t even have a team.

The UCI definitely needs to do something with the schedule before minimum pay. The men have the tiers, WorldTour, etc. They need to incorporate something like that. Any team can be UCI on the women’s side. They just pay the money and they’re a UCI team. There’s only one level. Everyone can go to these races. Anyone can go do a World Cup if they pay the money. Yeah, there’s an invite and selection, but there aren’t enough teams to not be invited. Most likely you’re going to get in, even if you’re ranked pretty low.

But they need to have something so the elite racing is truly elite. If it ends up being a smaller amount of racers, like 100 rather than 180, fine. Sometimes we get these crazy fields but it’s not like it’s 180 elite racers. It’s like, you have people who work full time and train 6 hours a week and get dropped in the first 10k versus professionals who, this is what we do for a living. So the spectrum is so broad at these races, at some of the lower 2.2 and 1.2s, they need to differentiate it somehow. You have this upper tier, and then those teams can establish themselves as, OK, we have a minimum salary of X.

VN: So include the top 10, 15 teams?

Not even, maybe 8. I mean there are just 18 or so UCI teams anyway. There are more invites for teams to do the TTT (at worlds) than there are teams. On the men’s side, they are fighting tooth and nail to actually get in. For us, where’s the standard?

It’s a weird thing with the minimum salary. I don’t know. Of course I’d like it, I don’t think we get paid enough, I raced for free the first few years of my career.

VN: You said you liked La Course, and that you’d like more stage races. Can you force men’s races to add women’s races?

CS: Make them have another race on the side? Well, it’s not just that easy. There’s a lot of money that’s involved. We have to be realistic about it. At the same time, not just bitch about what we’re not getting. Let’s do something about it. How do we change the sport, and what is the right way? Do we make our own races? How do we make it more spectator friendly? Because really, road racing without television is boring, I’m sorry but it’s really boring. For my mom to watch a road race is like ‘oh, did you see her?!’

VN: What’s televised right now?

Almost nothing. All our World Cups are recorded, I know because I see that damn camera. I think most of the 2.1 stage races have coverage. But hardly anything is live. La Course was live, and any Tour Tracker. Kudos to them. I love TourTracker, because they get my Mom watching, people who don’t watch cycling get to watch it.

I love Tour Tracker. Other than that, I think … I thought UCI was supposed to do coverage of all of the World Cups. Full coverage. And then somehow they found a loophole and they did like a 15-minute recap. So, that’s sad.

But that’s the thing. Who’s gonna show it? Universal Sports did a good job on covering women’s stuff. Why is it beneficial? Why do people want to cover it if nobody is going to look at it? Because it’s a really small piece of the population that will actually look at it.

Men don’t even know women’s cycling. I was in Lucca [Italy] last year riding with some of the Tinkoff guys. I said I’d bring my teammate Tayler and I said we’ll meet you, it’s just an easy ride, we’re just cruising. I start talking to one of the guys and I think he was South American maybe. So he spoke Spanish, but I don’t speak Spanish, but I speak some Italian and he spoke some Italian, his English was pretty bad. So we decided to have a conversation in Italian.

So finally he asked me, ‘well are you pro?’ And I was just like ‘What?!’

I’m not one to hold back, or be quiet. So Tayler hears me, ‘Are you kidding me, are you joking?” Yes we’re professional. Tayler hears me yelling at this guy, and she’s like, “she won the world championship in the team time trial!’ We’re both Specialized teams. How did you not know that our team exists?

So professional men don’t even know about women’s cycling. And granted, out of spite I don’t follow men’s cycling. I’ll watch the races because I like the tactical stuff and I like to learn from watching them, but I do not follow it, I don’t read it. Nothing. If it’s men, I do not read it. Because I’m so pissed about that, how can they not even know we exist?

OK, we work just as hard as you guys. We train just as hard. We are professional, even maybe a little bit more professional than some of the guys. And so, it just baffled me that these guys don’t know anything about women’s cycling until they’ve had to be a part of it.

So if the racers themselves don’t know this exists, why would your brother Joe? Why? And the media has to. If you combine men’s and women’s teams, you have a press officer, that is a position that exists, instead of the director doing five jobs like on most women’s teams.

VN: Speaking of media. Do you think character development is lacking?

I got more acknowledgements and more people came up to me since that story about my nieces came out. Bonnie wrote one, with ESPN, after Bicycling covered it at team camp. And Dan [Wuori, for VeloNews]. So, that story has made me more known than any of my racing. It’s human interest. Nobody knows the X, Y, Z results I did, but they can relate to that. I got personal messages via Facebook, an uncountable number. I didn’t know who they were, they wanted to share their story. Then they’ve become fans since that. So, yes, we need more of that.

VN: One last question. Have you thought about the hour record?

So many people have asked me to do the hour record. I would do it. But I want to do it right. I would make an event out of it.

I think I have to wait a while. The men’s attempts are happening, all these people are doing it. I think it’ll get to a point where it will be really hard to break on the men’s side. It’s not a no, I’m not opposed to it.

VN: How fast do you think you could go?

I have no idea. I don’t know, all the aero equipment, you have to get your gearing right. I would want to do it right, I would want to create a lot of media around it. Because you could actually make it an event.

I really love the LA velodrome. Adam, who runs it, is a great guy. People were texting me like, ‘when are you going to do it!” I got a message from Uli at SRM, he said he could figure out how fast I could go based on my power. Luckily, at this point longer events are better still. I go the same speed for a 20k TT or a 5K.

We’ll see about the hour record. I could geek out with aero stuff. We’ll see.