A woman’s place is on two wheels

That is, of course, if that’s where she wants to be.

 

Ever since I donned my first pair of cycling shorts, I noticed how few women there were in bike shops, on trails, and in organized rides. Per usual, women were a minority in the cycling industry. Four years later, we still are – and you can add racing to the list of the women’s shortage.

While I’ve met and ridden with a fair amount of awesome and supportive dudes, it’s always disheartening being one of the few women who race my bike. I know there are women out there, yearning for two-wheeled connection, inspired by competition, and aren’t finding it.

I first noticed the lack of women at bike races last year among the sea of Lycra-clad men nearly bursting at the seams with old-school bike-racing philosophy and sweaty testosterone. “Where are the women?” I wondered.

Surely, there are women on bikes, otherwise, there wouldn’t be brands like Liv, that build women-specific bikes. Then I wondered if there are tons of women already cycling, why weren’t more racing?

I joined the board of directors of Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado to help inspire change for women’s racing. In one of our monthly meetings we brought up the small numbers of women who raced in Colorado. We didn’t know. We couldn’t come up with a reason as to why there were women on bikes but the majority of them didn’t race.

I went to Facebook to find an answer; specifically, a Facebook group called Women Bike Colorado. There are 3,106 members in the group. I posed the question,“For ladies who don’t race their bikes, I’m wondering what your reason is not to.” (Read the blog I wrote about this for Bicycle Colorado here)

It generated 300-something comments, half of which were from some seriously offended women. The resounding attitude toward racing was that it’d take the fun out of cycling. Second and third to that was time and money. Women didn’t have either.

Then the race season started. I got distracted and didn’t follow-up with the data I collected from my one Facebook post. Plus, I wasn’t even sure what to do with it.

Last week, a teammate pointed out that the women’s SW 4/5 and juniors categories were nixed from the race schedule for the Louisville Crit. He pasted the announcement:

Saturday is the day (August 25th). Louisville is the place. Please read the flyer. Things have changed a bit since it was first published. Due to some constrictions placed by the town, the schedule had to be jumbled, shortened, and cut. Make sure you know if and when your group is participating. The race now starts at a leisurely 9 AM. As a special bonus, some of the stars from the Colorado Classic are going to drop by to race and/or hang out for the awards party, so you might get to see those riders you just watched all week. Pre-reg closes at 11:59 PM on Thursday night. Race Day Registration is available.

You didn’t know which categories were axed until you went to the flyer. I asked my teammate where he saw that as I scoured the BRAC website and social media outlets. My teammate pointed to the weekly BRAC newsletter. I asked my fellow BRAC board members about this change and for an explanation. Apparently, there was a wedding scheduled in the area and they complained about the bike race.

With a schedule cut 1.5 hours shorter than originally planned, the only categories that were affected were the Senior Women’s 4-5 and the junior girls categories. As this was a Master’s State Championship race, those categories were safe.

After I sent the group email, Audrey responded offering a revised schedule that stayed within the confines of the new time requirements, didn’t affect the Master’s categories, and still found a way to let Senior women 4-5 and junior girls race.

We couldn’t understand why this wasn’t thought of first before cutting out growing categories. We already know bike racing is waning, especially with Jelly Belly and UHC pulling their sponsorships on pro teams. If we want to keep the sport alive, we need to keep categories racing. We need to inspire more people to race. And we need to keep it fun.

I reached out to Barry, the race director for the Louisville Crit, and offered him the schedule Audrey presented me. Luckily, Barry was open to the idea and gave Shawn the final say in the new schedule. Everyone came together in the matter of eight hours to bring the categories back.

Our next biggest challenge was getting women there to race. I personally reached out to several influential women in my network and asked them to pass on the message: prove that women want to race. Don’t give anyone a reason to cut the category ever again. It reminded me of the poem by Martin Niemöller,

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Granted, this is nothing like the Holocaust, but the point is that when we don’t stand up for vulnerable populations, even if it doesn’t affect us, there will be no one left to speak for us later. I wasn’t a Cat 4 or 5, but I used to be. It reminded me of why I joined BRAC in the first place – to reestablish the Women’s Development Committee and improve bike racing for women through women’s programs and beginner racer programs. The results? 14 Cat 4-5 women showed up to race that day. The biggest women’s group that day. That’s what happens when women work together and look out for each other.

I remember when I started racing – not knowing anything about it. I didn’t even know what category to sign up for, licenses I needed, or what I needed for racing. I want to find a way to make it less intimidating for a woman to try bike racing. I want to make it exciting and fun; to give women confidence to take beyond bike racing.

We had our first Women’s Development Committee roundtable discussion this past Sunday. 12 enthusiastic and passionate women showed up to the Brew on Broadway with their ideas to improve women’s racing:

  • Upgrade points depend on the number of participants
  • State champ jerseys in men sizes
  • Shorter courses/times, unequal payouts
  • Promote BRAC/racing at women’s events
  • Grow racing by making it fun, supportive, and friendly
  • Need good promoters and sponsors
  • Barriers to entry: cost
  • Are there too many races not enough quality races?
  • Need to consider national events when scheduling races
  • Add mentoring program
    • 1-2-3’s ride with beginners
  • Beginner Racer Program
    • 4 races through the year (crit, road, time trial, hill climb)
      • Preview the course, cheer on the sides, and debrief afterward
  • Spring women’s clinics
  • Women’s-only race
  • Combining categories
    • Open Women’s categories
  • Make races more easy to find
  • Start community rides out of shops for recreational riders to ride with amateur racers
    • Give them the opportunity to ask questions and learn about the sport
    • Make it social

I’ve already begun the process of updating the Women’s Program page, working with BRAC Executive Director, Shawn Farrell in reestablishing the Beginner Racing Program/Women’s Program (BRP/WP), brainstorming race directors/races who are open to including the BRP/WP at races, and reaching out to organizations like 303cycling and Bicycling Colorado to see what we can do to grow bike racing, especially women’s bike racing, in Colorado.

As Margaret Thatcher said, “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

If you’re passionate (or know someone who is) about women’s bike racing and want to be involved, email me: jdmcwhirt@gmail.com

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