The Chainlink

For Women Cyclists, The Struggle is Real

By Jen Groen (intro by Brett Ratner)

Despite its image as a progressive, forward-thinking activity and sport, cycling inexplicably seems to be saddled with a 1950's attitude toward women. Several examples of this have recently cropped up, both on the international and local stage. Here are some highlights:

Since this is a topic well worth discussion, The Chainlink is thrilled to have local cyclist Jen Groen weigh in with her perspective.

Groen is a veteran 12-month-per-year bike commuter. She also races road and cyclocross for Half Acre Cycling, and is a regular participant in numerous local group training rides. This past summer, Groen traveled to the Alps, where she tackled several of the Tour de France's most feared climbs, including the fabled Alp D'huez.

I was reminded recently of just how far women's bike racing has to go. The first spark was a retweet of a cynical comment by Helen Wyman regarding the absence of women at the UCI gala in Dubai:

"Hey girls maybe if we try a little harder next year we might get an invite too!! #sarcasm #shakeshead"

Apparently, there was a sensational party to honor the top WorldTour racers and it ended up being an (almost) all male revue. Since the first reports of this event were published (stating that one woman was present), it's been revealed that more women were invited, but they declined for various reasons. Who exactly, how many and why the questionable location/delayed timing are all still a mystery. But one thing is for sure, the evening was thick with a chest bumping, testosterone fog.

More here, if interested:

When I caught wind of Helen's tweet, I followed up with a request on Peter Sagan's Facebook page: "please consider using your star power to advocate for women's racing equality and inclusion in events like the UCI gala." I thought, if anyone has passion for this sport and can understand the need to race bikes, it's this guy. Not to mention, he's got the spotlight on him and clearly showed compassion for others in his post Worlds road championship interview. I mean, don't get me wrong, there may have been fantasies about the Wolf of Wall Street pinging me back to discuss, but the logical part of my brain didn't put any hope into a response. As expected, no word from Peter or his media minders. However, it did grab someone's attention. One misguided voice in our local Chicago racing scene. He ran to Peter's rescue and slammed me immediately with "What's your bitch? Women just need to shut up, go race and prove themselves worthy." In other words, who do you think you are coming into a man's world and demanding things?

Needless to say, Internet justice proved swift and severe, and the man behind those cancerous words was essentially nuked by the social media community. The upside: this incidence showcased an overwhelming healthy attitude towards women's racing equality by both men and women. The downside: it exposed a festering misogynistic underbelly, even among an immensely active, vocal and progressive local racing community. Which then begs the question: if this exists in our small circles, could this be an undercurrent in the broader, professional scene and part of the reason why women's racing isn't evolving at a faster pace?

I had a male cycling friend say to me during the aforementioned social media melee "I'm not siding with him, but it can be hard for (us) older guys of a certain generation." I responded with, "Who is it harder for? You and your ego or the woman, who's trying to make a career out of racing, being told no or she doesn't matter as much as the men?"

To be fair, let's acknowledge some noteworthy gains for women playing in this male dominated sport:

Photo by La Course by Le Tour de France

Added races for women at major existing Tours

  • 1 circuit race (La Course) on the last day of Tour de France (men race 21 stages)
  • 4 race stages during Tour of California (men race 8 stages)
  • 3 race stages during U.S.A. Pro Challenge (men race 7 stages)

Parity in race times/distances/payouts

  • Cyclocross has maybe shown the most progress here, with recent bumps in payouts and the addition of an U23 category for women
  • Media coverage improvements
  • Many races are still not live streamed, but at least highlights are becoming more available
  • Sporza (Belgian sports channel) has committed to show all the women’s Bpost Bank Trofee races for the next three years

Improvements specific to women's road racing

Regardless of progress, the challenge that women's racing will continue to face is the sustainability of their inclusion. Investments in teams, legislation, media coverage and public interest comes in fits and starts, much like professional Women's soccer. I think any sane person understands it can't all happen overnight, but what if those who hold the power of change don't continue the push for more or set expectations along the way to secure the foundation? What if we all mind our manners and accept the race scraps, calling it good enough? I'm willing to guess "we" eventually starve and go away unnoticed.

This is going to sound biased, but women can't do this alone. Let's face it, men are half of the population, if not more in the cycling scene. As well, their voices help to neutralize the perception of this being a "woman's issue only." Women don't come out in droves like the men, for various reasons, but there's a decent base of female racers without secured funding. Imagine what the numbers could be with investment and awareness campaigns. Not to mention, the marketability of women's cycling gear with the sport growth. Money to be made, I tell you.

As is common with any sport, there also exists that dude 'tude of whether women race as hard as the men... whether they're worthy to watch and/or if they should get paid the same as men to do their "little" races. First of all, I guarantee most of these pro ladies could hang with the men's tour pelotons, if allowed. Second of all, let's remember, this is a sport with tactics to it. It's not about who's the strongest meat head in the bunch. It's about prowess, attacks and strategy. Lastly, think Alfonsina Strada, Beryl Burton, Tillie the Terrible Swede, Missy Giove, Katie Compton, Marianne Vos. Talent galore. There are more of those incredible ladies out there. They just need the notion and "doors" to step through.

Something else that demands addressing and it falls inline with the above. Women racers aren't play things. We're not on exhibition. We're not there to look sexy, be leered at or smacked on the fanny as we ride by. Just like the men, we're there to compete, to turn ourselves inside out for the win. We show up to bust our asses, not shake them. Respect the athlete. Leave the slobber at home in the privacy of your bathroom. While we're at it, it's high time for podium girls to go away. Guys, you're not Gods. They're not there to admire or adore you. They're getting paid to kiss you and smile for the camera. Women are part of this sport now, not pretty little sideline presents. Again, respect.

Groen running barriers at the Chicago Cyclocross Cup series (photo by Trish Bosch).

My point in all this, we're stronger together. Women becoming an equal partner in the sport will only help make the sport more broadly appealing and profitable. Major teams, that create women's squads, can be twice as prominent, if they invest and develop correctly. Let's unite the voices, light up the channels and keep growing this sport, for everyone's sake.

If interested in learning more, here are a couple of additional articles setting some tone for what lies ahead:


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