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Women Riding Bikes
By Christopher Fauske
Date: 12/11/2009
Women Riding Bikes

Women riding bikes
Members of the women’s peloton discuss their sport

Recently, by e-mail, Daily Peloton writer Chris Fauske caught up with three members of the women’s peloton based in New England and asked them, as the cross season wound down and during the off-season for road races, to reflect on what it takes to succeed as a member of the peloton.

Chris Fauske: I wonder, as we're going to be talking about the time commitments and the psychological investment you are each making, if you might each share how it was (and when) that you got involved in competitive cycling; I'm thinking more of what cycling offered you at the time you started that you really wanted to be part of, rather than of a specific event or incident.

Anna McLoon: I think that if you ask a bunch of women that question, you'll get as many answers as the number of women you ask.

For me, riding and racing fulfills several things that I love and need; I love working hard physically but with a goal. I love winning or when I fall short, I love thinking about what I can do better next time. These things are pretty universal to all the sports I've done over the years, but cycling fits my life right now for many practical reasons.

I bought my road bike almost 4 years ago (spring, 2006) because I wanted something athletic to do during graduate school after I stopped skiing at the elite level, and fell into racing and the NRC and Team Kenda (where I'll be racing this coming year) through a combination of luck and because I always like a challenge, so when I've reached one goal I always set a new goal that's a bit higher.

Brooke O’Connor:Based on my oldest sister's influence, I started doing running races at about 8 years old and racing triathlons when I was 11. I Found that I was best at the bike leg of the triathlon so started doing bike races (non-USCF ones) when I was about 17. I think I was 19 or 20 when I did my first USA Cycling sanctioned race (called USCF at the time). I'm 35 now, so you can do the math.... :-)

Clara Kelly: I got involved in racing through the NEBC [Northeast Bicycle Club] clinic in April 2008. I was drawn to the adrenaline rush of pushing my limits on the bicycle. I was also craving speed after spending the previous summer on foot— making slow progress through California, Oregon, and Washington along the Pacific Crest trail.

Clara Kelly warming up for the 2009 TDBank Mayor's Cup.

Photo © 2009 Chris Fauske

At that particular time, I was in need of an outlet for my energy. I had spent the previous year having a great adventure with the hiking trip and was trying to settle back into the tedium of working in an office. I was new to the area and I found a welcome camaraderie in my women's team and the NEBC club. The racing brought a needed challenge and focus to my life.

So now you're riding what's been the biggest surprise about what you're gaining from the experience and what, perhaps, you're not doing outside cycling that you thought you would be?

Anna: I guess I constantly surprise myself with how much I'm willing to rearrange my life to pursue this cycling passion of mine. I do many of my favorite things (hiking, running, ski training) much less than I otherwise would in order to put in Quality training time on the bike.

I HATE working out inside, but am willing to put up with the trainer when my coach, Fiona Lockhart, thinks I really ought to do any certain workout and it's not possible to do on the roads. I am not a morning person, but am willing to get up to ride at 6:30 so as to make sure I can also get all my lab work done. It definitely takes some very careful planning to make good progress towards my PhD AND to keep progressing on the bike.

As to what I'm gaining, well, I've done other sports seriously, so I am not surprised by all the things that make it worth it; the fabulous folks I meet, the satisfaction of winning a race, all the moments training that make it all worth it (watching mist rising off the river during an early morning ride, riding through a flock of wild turkeys, feeling like I've finally nailed a technical skill or workout I'd been struggling with, etc.).

Brooke: Biggest surprise has been the realization that I've been racing against the top women in the U.S. for many years and am competitive against them. Because of bike racing, I put off starting a family by about 5 years.

Brooke O’Connor.

Photo © Northeast Bicycle Club

Clara: The biggest surprise about what I've gained from bike racing is an improvement in the ability to be calm and focused in stressful situations. This was a challenge that I didn't really appreciate when I started racing. I've been close to several bad crashes which have been horrifying, but I've been able to take a breath and focus on my riding.

What I'm not doing outside of cycling is hiking and traveling (to an adventure other than a bike race), both which I've always enjoyed. The season before I started racing, I hiked 2,700 miles with my husband which was wonderful. The closest thing I've had to a hike since is trail running and taking my cross bike through the woods. I hope to enjoy more hiking after I retire from bike racing.

The idea for this conversation grew out of an e-mail exchange about women's cycling and the amount of commitment and time you each choose to make. Do you think there's an element of that need to balance time and outside commitments that the men don't have? Is there something extra it takes to stick with riding if you're female?

Anna: Yes and yes. I bet if you did a survey at a big NRC race of the men and women, to see who had to pay how much to be there, it would be amazing what the difference was. I'd bet that a huge part of the women's field had to pay a big part of it out of their own pockets; maybe the plane tickets, maybe the entry fee, maybe everything. And most of us can't count on winning it back either. So that's one element, we HAVE to work not just to support our lives, but to pay for our sport.

I think part of it, too, is that women often come to the sport slightly later in life. Men who started racing as juniors are used to, I don't know, asking Mom and Dad for money until/unless they score a pro contract or something, and from what I've seen are either far more willing to put their other life goals on hold for a couple years, or want to make a career out of being in the cycling world. Women, who often start riding after college, have already started pursuing their other life goals and aren't willing to put those on hold completely, and usually have to make it work financially with whatever they have available. Women at the very top national level still need to have supportive families or spouses/partners (heck, I'm not above asking my parents for their spare frequent flier miles). BUT most women want to/need to keep their careers progressing even while trying to race.

It's not just financial, though. I feel as if women feel pressure to focus on "Real Life." I'm sure if I announced to my family and friends that I want to try to make my living being a bike racer after I get my PhD (and don't worry family and friends, I'm NOT going to do this and abandon my academic aspirations) they'd be supportive but would worry about what would happen when I was done playing, and whether I'd be able to pick up my career again, etc. When little boys say "when I grow up, I want to play in the NBA or Major League," most adults would think about what the odds are of them succeeding, but not as much about whether or not sports are a valid career goal. Nobody's going to tell George Hincapie "gee this cycling thing is really nice, but when are you going to stop playing and have a family and start a real career." Maybe women are held to different standards or maybe most women just happen to be more sensitive to this kind of thinking/these expectations.

And part of it is, it's much easier for men to have a family and leave the wife to make sure the kids get breakfast, whatever, while they train or even disappear for weeks on end to race. Don't get me wrong, there are tons of male master's racers who are fabulous fathers and put in tremendous amounts of time and energy into their families. Still, the societal norm is there, that the mothers are the primary caretakers.

Brooke: Definitely it’s more of a balancing act than for men. How many male racers have to bring their babies to bike races with them because the babies are still being nursed? There is also a very small percentage of women racers (compared to men) who can make some sort of salary to live on. Therefore, most of the women in the peloton either have full, part or off-season jobs to supplement their racing. Most of the women also have at least a Bachelor's degree while many of the men do not.

Clara: Anna does an excellent job summing it up. I think it is challenging for a woman to make the time to train because there is an expectation of maintaining the household, which clearly is a very major commitment for women with families.

I find that the time demands of racing can put a big strain on personal life. For all racers in a relationship, it is important for the partner to be supportive of the racing. I'm very fortunate that my husband is supportive of my bike racing. He is really a champ at picking up slack around the house and also supporting my team at all of our races.

He puts in a lot of effort to allow me time to train. One example of the sometimes extreme lengths we take to get in training for me is that during my first season I worked full time and also took a summer school class at night which was from 6 to 10 pm. To allow me to get in a ride from work to school, my husband drove to the school to pick me up. He then ignored the 5:30 am alarm the next morning which I needed to get on my bike in time to ride it to work. He also drove me to the races so that I could get some extra sleep before those early starts for the cat 4 field.

Bicycle racing is a dangerous sport. For this reason, it is not supported by many relatives and friends who have the cyclist's best interest at heart. Indeed, it is so lacking in femininity that it can be difficult for some people to imagine a grown woman devoting a good deal of energy to it. I suspect that most female racers, including myself, are independent people who feel a need to find their own way in the world and who are not afraid of defying stereotypes and the expectations of others to do so.

I suppose it's no secret that the profile of women's cycling, both within the cycling community and the public at large, isn't as great as for men; are there advantages to this? Disadvantages?

Anna: There is much less prestige or money resting on women's cycling. We do it because we love it. Whatever our goals are whether it's to take a minute off last year's time in a time trial or to win a world championship (yay Kristen Armstrong!!!!) ultimately, we have to take satisfaction from ourselves and from our own little community. If American women do phenomenally in the Tour de le Aude, or the Route de France or wherever, do you know how hard it is to even find those results?

Of course there are disadvantages. It's mighty disheartening to feel like your race is just an afterthought (women's tour of California last year?) and to feel like nobody wants to watch you race. At Fitchburg last year, some older fellow asked me when the pro race was, and I told him "the women start at 2" and he made it pretty clear that he only was interested in watching the men. Why not watch both races? He was already at the course!!

And it's mighty hard to find a team. Men's cycling, there are a lot more rungs on the ladder from good local rider to pro. For us, there's really not much between local racing and the NRC and there aren't as many teams to ride with/for.

There are advantages, too. Because the fields are smaller and the total pool of riders is smaller, it's easier to really get to know your competitors and to feel a sense of community. It can be kinda silly, actually, when for the smaller local stuff we can predict pretty much who will do what when, since we know each other's strengths and weaknesses. BUT we also know about each other well enough to ask and honestly want to know how each other's kids are doing or how that thesis proposal or job is going. And we take that sense of caring with us even when we're in races with 100+ women instead of just the small, local field sizes. We all know that everyone on the line is really in it for love of the sport, and not for fame or $$.

Brooke: Advantages? People are shocked when they find out that you race bikes. It can be a conversation piece.

Disadvantages? There's barely any money for salaries for women; prize money is a fraction of the men's prize list; many race promoters will not even hold a women's field; sponsors are harder to come by; promoters not willing to support an equal distance race for the women compared to the men. Ever hear of Title 9? Bike racing hasn't…

It would be nice if when promoters try to start a new NRC race or move a race from an amateur one to a pro race (Battenkill), if they did so for the women's field, too.

Clara: The main disadvantages that I see to this are financial, with women finding less sponsorship. Certainly lower pay at the professional level keeps many women from pursuing cycling as a full-time pursuit. It is frustrating that we don't have the same opportunities even in amateur racing because not all races offer a women's field.

One advantage of not pursuing cycling as a full-time pursuit is that we may have more balanced lives than the pro men, and more options for employment outside of cycling. Without the financial drivers in men's cycling, we have much less doping in the women's peloton which makes for better sport.

Anna, you claimed second place at the NCCA D1 championships this past summer, and you spent a couple of years before that racing on the Nordic skiing circuit. You're in a Ph.D. program at Harvard now, but I wonder about those years skiing: we think of cycling as a low-profile sport. How about Nordic skiing?

I grew up in a skiing state, Minnesota. Nordic skiing may be a very low profile sport in the U.S., but it isn't in many parts of the world. Cross country skiers are huge sports celebrities in Scandinavia and in other parts of Europe.

BUT yes, in this country, skiing hardly appears in mainstream media. On the other hand, I think there's a level of support within the ski community to which the cycling community pales in comparison, and maybe it's just that a smaller community is going to be more tightly knit. Skiing the supertour (the skiing equivalent of the NRC) is often a largely self-funded endeavor, although thankfully one with full gender equality. Still, elite skiers really feel loved and supported by the community. Part of it is that there's a much bigger expectation that elite skiers give back to the ski community (leading clinics, training with their local junior teams, etc.) and in return the community is so quick to help out with host housing, financial support, and a high amount of respect. And by and large, it doesn't matter whether the racer is male or female.

I think the cycling community is a bit like that, just not quite to the same level. Even the biggest team may find room in their trailer for a TT bike for someone on a smaller team who otherwise can't afford to take the bike to a race. Maybe the men are like that too, I don't know. And so many people are willing to host female cyclists for races.

Brooke, you've got a win at the national track championships at the same time you were doing a lot of the leg work for the club. You have a two-year old at home. How does having a child change what it's possible to think about doing as an athlete, or, at least, change how you have to think about succeeding?

I've directed the NEBC Elite Women's Team since 2007, the year I gave birth to my daughter. I got laid off from my job in May 2008 and that summer I directed NEBC, raced for Hub Racing, and traveled with my daughter to most of my races. To say the least, it was a big juggling act. Now working full-time in 2009, racing for and directing NEBC, I no longer think about my own personal results on the bike. I think about the limited amount of time I have to get in a quality workout so that I can do my best in the race to help and teach the NEBC women how to race their bike with quality training, quality efforts during the race, and help with the lead-out at the end of the race. To me, it's all about being able to execute the team plan and how that execution brings satisfaction to the women being a part of something larger than themselves, that is success.

Clara, you're a more recent addition to the ranks of women's cycling: I wonder what specific practical advice you might give to someone who's thinking of investing some time to see if she can make the grade?

  • Identify a few other strong women in your area whom you can ride with and learn from.
  • Discuss this new commitment to training and racing with your partner.

  • Consider your budget and discuss this with your partner also.

  • Start asking other cyclists about how to find deals and/or sponsorship.

  • Start being creative when it comes to finding time to get your workouts in.

  • Think about how much time you really have to spend on travel to races and plan your race calendar accordingly.

Finally, for all of you again: Do you care to comment on your hopes for women's cycling as a sport?

Anna:I think parity is clearly way too much to ask for, but it would be nice if when promoters try to start a new NRC race or move a race from an amateur one to a pro race (Battenkill), if they did so for the women's field, too. I mean, if you're already paying for the fencing and the PA system and the officials, how much harder could it be to add a women's field?

I wish that the cycling press would do a bit more to help build interest in women's cycling. I guess I'm just as guilty since I tend to just scroll through the men's race report to get to the (always way shorter) description of the women's race, but sometimes I end up reading snippets of the men's race report, anyway, and this means I start to become familiar with the names and teams and such. If all the myriads of men had to scroll through the women's results half of the time to read about the men's races, who knows, maybe eventually the women's names would be familiar enough that they'd start to watch us race, too.

Brooke: It would be wonderful to see it gain some higher recognition and the number of women increase. More support from race promoters would be nice. Because of the current inequality between men and women, but still with the same time commitment to race at the same level, women don't see it as a viable outlet for their athletic endeavors. Personally, with a full-time engineering job and a 2-year old, I find that I'm stretched too thin and have decided to retire (again) from bike racing. I don't have the time needed to train at the level needed to compete at the highest level, like I used to pre-baby. I will continue to compete in sports, but it may focus more on masters swimming and aquavelo competitions (swim and bike portions of triathlons at the half-ironman distance).

Clara: I hope that the numbers of women racing will grow to allow us to have good competition at the local level. I hope that promoters will support women's fields for both regional and national level races. I think that there is an opportunity to involve more talented women at the junior level.

Thank you.

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