The trailblazer: UnitedHealthcare director Rachael Heal

Heal brings a new perspective to the team as a woman but focuses on her job, saying "bike racers are bike racers"

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of Velo magazine, the Personalities Issue.

Her story is like that of the others who sit behind the wheel in the race caravan. Raced pro for five years in Europe, four in the U.S., then moved into the director’s seat in the team car, first at Colavita, then Optum, telling racers what to do, and where to be. She’s just like everyone else running a team in the middle of the floating chaos of a bike race.

She’s just like everyone, except that she happens to be a woman. Yet nothing seems different for her in this male-dominated sport; the fact that she’s the only female director of a men’s team seems to vanish once the race is on. She doesn’t notice, she just gets down to business, and does her job. The others? Well, they notice the 41-year-old from England.

“For other people, it’s quite a novelty. Sometimes the photo moto will take a picture of me, because they aren’t used to seeing a woman in the sport. But in my previous career before cycling, I was an engineer, so I’m pretty used to being in a male-dominated atmosphere. It’s never really bothered me,” Heal said.

“Sometimes I feel a little stress, because if I screw up, I think I will be blamed because I’m a woman. In the back of my mind, I know I can’t screw up, otherwise I’ll have 200 riders yelling at me,” she said. “And they wouldn’t say, ‘It’s a new director, don’t worry about it.’ They’d say, ‘It’s a woman.’”

She hasn’t screwed up. She makes a joke about how people say women can’t drive. She can drive. She worked Milano-Sanremo, becoming the first woman to direct a men’s team at a WorldTour event (Robin Morton directed professional men’s teams from 1983-1991 -Ed.). She also worked the USA Pro Challenge and the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. She can drive, alright, because to be behind the wheel of a car during a professional bike race feels exponentially more dangerous than riding a bicycle in the same professional bike race. There are often races within races between directors and teams. Numbers on team cars are supposed to tell directors where to be, but none of these people likes to be told where to be.

“I haven’t crashed, I haven’t pushed any riders off the road, I haven’t been left behind,” Heal said. When she was at the Tour de France last summer, some of the directors told her about a race earlier in the year, in which a Lotto-Belisol director tried to drive her off his bumper. “The driver of that car was doing everything they could to drop me because they thought it would be funny. But I just sat on his bumper the whole time, knowing that I didn’t want to get dropped, which likely earned me his respect,” she said.

Respect. It’s a word tossed around the peloton all the time. Which rider gets the right wheel, which rider can command a race, who can drive a car, who can direct a team. It’s something that’s earned through experience and performance. Sometimes people assume Heal is a soigneur. They find out they’re wrong, and apologize. It’s not perfect, but it is progress.

“A handful of people from other teams will introduce themselves to her and ask her if she’s one of the soigneurs, and she’s polite about it,” said UHC’s general manager Mike Tamayo. “In the team cars, she’s one of us and she gets the respect from other managers. I remind her to throw a curveball every now and again to remind everyone who she is. We’re definitely proud to have her, and the guys really like her, too, because she provides a totally different perspective on racing. It’s nice to have a fresh set of eyes.”

For her part, Heal doesn’t feel that she sees anything differently than her male counterparts. And the only real difference around the racers is that they put a towel around their waists if she’s around.

“Bike racers are bike racers,” she said. “You have different experiences, and men’s races are a little different than women’s, but with experience, you still know how things are happening and I don’t think particularly there is a difference between the two. Sometimes I’m a bit more compassionate, because I’m a lady, but really you have to treat every rider differently. Men and women respond differently to everything and from there, you can’t just treat every rider the same. Some people respond well to screaming, while others need some encouraging, so I have to find that balance.”

The sport is full of demands, regardless of gender, age, or color. Cycling is both big, in the collections of people it holds, and small, in the way they all come together on race day. There are traditions, both good and bad. And there are biases and stereotypes, as with any sport.

Heal will remain in the minority. She will not try to run a team as a man would. She takes a different view. “I just try to be me. Mike [Tamayo] might try to do something some way, and it’s not realistic of me to think that I can do that same thing because that won’t be me,” she said. “So if I go out and act like me, then it’s a lot easier.”

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