In light of the UCI’s announcement last week that they would commit to putting at least one woman on each committee, I got to thinking again about women’s cycling, and the real reason is matters that more women race bikes.
Women’s cycling is a trendy topic these days, and I’ve gotten to hear a few sides of the debate from attending the past two BRAC Women’s Summits, as well as just casually discussing the topic with other female cyclists.
At the crux of the debate seems to be how to effect equality for elite women’s cycling, how to garner more representation for women at the top levels of the sport, and how to drum up more support for women’s cycling. And an intrinsically and oft-discussed related issue is, why don’t more women race? Cycling is often compared to triathlon and running, which have almost equal or majority female participation while bike racing remains heavily male dominated (the percentage of USA Cycling racing license holders that are women is about 10%). As most of us know, it’s not that women don’t ride bikes – according to the League of American Bicyclists, women represents more than 60% of the population who own bikes. It’s just that they’re not racing them.
Seems cycling websites abound these days with articles (primarily by women cyclists) philosophizing about why there aren’t more women in the peloton. The theories include: Women gravitate towards individual time trial sports like triathlon and running because they want to complete (“finish”) rather than compete. Women just aren’t competitive by nature. Women are intimidated by the cliquey atmosphere at bike races, and the inherently risky nature of bike racing.
Changing the discussion
I get why this is an interesting topic to talk about, but here’s why we need to move on from the discussion of WHY more women don’t race bikes. First off, all this talk about how women aren’t wired to be competitive defeats the cause of getting more women to race. If all of the above is true, what we’re saying is that we’re fighting a losing battle against nature, which is not encouraging anyone, or giving them the confidence, to pin on a number for the first time. Further, to any men reading the article, we’re only reinforcing stereotypes that women aren’t cut out for competition, when in fact I believe that many women ARE extremely competitive – they just need to be exposed to the sport.
That leads us to question #2. Well what if all this is true? Why does it even matter that more women race bikes? I’ve heard the following perspective from a few women: “It would be great if more women would race, but we don’t want to dumb down racing to make it less intimidating”; and “Racing just isn’t for everyone – there will always be very few women who race. Why can’t we just let those women ride their charity rides?” (Charity rides tend to have approximately equal participation — BikeMS remarkably reported that last year, more than half their charity ride participants were female). In short, the attitude is, “Can’t we just accept that women will always be a minority in racing?”
The answer is no, at least not if you care about the future of the sport, and about women being treated equally as men in the industry. Here are three reasons why.
1. More competitors makes all of us faster and better.
Some people think that, because women are inherently less competitive, attracting more of them to cycling will “dumb down racing”.
This kind of thinking is inherently flawed, and as to why, I point to Business or Economics 101. In the business world, the more competition there is in the marketplace, the more innovation happens to the products in question. Sports are the same way – more participants inevitably mean more competition, and more competition forces all of us to be better. Put another way, don’t you like your chances for the podium much better in a field of 15 than 40?
Getting more women into racing is not going to “dumb down” racing — it will force the sport to progress and raise the level of competition. This makes all of us better cyclists, which in turn makes women’s cycling a much more exciting sport to watch. Better spectator sport means more support from the community as a whole, not to mention sponsors for women’s teams.
2. Having more women racing give us leverage in the industry.
Equal prize money. Better start times for higher visibility. Fair treatment in the industry. Truly women’s specific gear and apparel that are designed with the real woman’s need in mind, rather than a “shrink it and pink it” approach. These are things that female cyclists want. But the fewer women who race bikes, the less of a case we have to make to be treated like the men. After all, when it comes to prize money it’s hard to argue that you deserve half the pot when the guys have to duke it out with 40 other competitors, and you only have to race against 15. That’s unfair in its own way, isn’t it?
As to having equal representation at the governing level of cycling and in the industry, here’s another big reason why we need more women to race bikes rather than simply ride bikes,
The vanguard of the bike industry is the racing lifestyle and culture. The newest innovations in equipment and apparel design are driven by the needs of racers, and then trickle down over time to the products marketed for the larger, recreational riding crowd. If women aren’t highly represented at the elite competitive level, we miss the opportunity to spearhead the newest innovations in product and apparel design.
Finally, by and large the bike industry hires and recruits racers because, as mentioned above, racers are the thought leaders in the world of cycling. If women make up only 10% of the competitive cycling population, it’s going to be tough for us to represent more than 10% of the industry workforce. If we’re not largely represented in the industry we don’t have a voice and we certainly are less likely to end up at the top of a national governing body. Authenticity in the cycling world is heavily tied to whether you race or not. It’s hard to fight for respect in this industry when you’re a marginal part of the population.
Here’s the thing. I’m not saying that it’s right that women are marginalized in the bike industry just because we represent a small portion of it. Of course that needs to change. For the same reasons that it’s not right not to offer equal opportunities and rights to minorities in our general population; it’s not right to marginalize women in cycling just because there are fewer of us.
But it’s much harder to ignore a larger group. Strength in numbers.
3. Racing bikes is good for women. And what’s good for women is good for all of us.
Last reason is the most touchy-feely one, but probably the one almost anyone who loves racing bikes can relate to. Training to be a competitive cyclist is good for your mind and body. The health benefits are obvious, but the mental ones may be even more valuable. Training and racing teaches us discipline and dedication — the ability to get up at 5:30 in the morning to get your workout in is a skill to be honed. It teaches us mental toughness too — how to do what you need to do, rather than just what you want to do.
Racing builds our courage, because that’s what it takes to pin on a number. It teaches us to finish what we started, even if we’re trailing in dead last. Racing teaches us that it’s okay to be competitive when it matters, to fight hard for what’s ours, and then to leave that competition behind when your cross the finish line. That’s sportsmanship.
The lessons to be learned from training and racing extend far into life, and for those reasons learning to race your bike can and will empower anybody, particularly a woman. And if you believe the world will be a better place with more confident, disciplined, competitive, and empowered women – then that’s why getting more women racing bikes is a good thing for all of us.
Let’s Talk How
Organizations like the Women’s Cycling Association are out there fighting the fight for equality in women’s cycling today, and we all owe them our gratitude for paving the way. But my belief is that, in the long run the biggest way to advocate for women’s cycling is to get more women racing bikes. More numbers will mean a better case for equal payouts and equal opportunities, and it will raise the level of competition and make all of us better riders…not to mention better people. It will give us a voice in the industry. When our races our 50-50, the UCI won’t have to apply 1980s affirmative action-like policies to make sure that there’s at least one woman in every committee. The demographics themselves will demand equal representation and female faces at the top of cycling’s governing bodies.
So I guess in short, I would love to see the discussion about participation in women’s cycling change from: “Why don’t more women race bikes?” to “How do we get more women racing bikes?” I was so happy to see that at the last BRAC Women’s Summit, this was the direction of the talk — now let’s get the online discussion on this train.
So. How are we going to get more women racing bikes? I’d love to hear your ideas and perhaps share some of my own in another post. Let’s talk action steps, and then let’s do. Because it matters so much. For the future of our sport, for the young women out there looking for positive female role models, for the realization of our own fullest potentials, and for equality in one more arena of our lives.