Where Are The Women In Cycling?

Posted on 03. Jun, 2011 by in news

Where are the women in Cycling?  Elite cyclocross racer Maureen Bruno-Roy tackles that hard question with the hope that it will open a dialogue within the industry to better women’s cycling. We share the same hope.

A smile from Maureen Bruno-Roy (Bob's red Mill/Seven)

A smile from Maureen Bruno-Roy (Bob's red Mill/Seven)

There has been a lot of recent talk about the lack of women participating in bike racing across the US. Promoters are struggling to find ways to encourage more racers to attend events and they all want to know “Where are the women in Cycling?”

As an Elite female cyclocross racer, regional pro mountain biker and occasional Cat 2 road racer, I get to see the women’s pelotons first hand. Local road races see an average of 25 women at a given event. Mountain bike races see even less with perhaps 10 women in the pro/expert field. Cyclocross however is the only place I am seeing a steady growth of participants, especially in the cat 3/4 field.

Here’s my 2 cents of what getting into cycling looks like for the average US female. Cyclocross may be our only hope!

Some young girls are lucky enough to have parents or siblings involved in cycling as an activity and/or racing sport. Some families watch the Tour de France every year but few even know what it is. The average American girl has a childhood bike for riding in the park or around the neighborhood. By the age of about 12, most girls have outgrown their bikes and become involved in activities like dance, gymnastics, soccer, and increased social interests (shopping malls, fashion etc). There are no junior development programs for girls that I am aware of. There are few or no junior racing clubs for those that can’t afford cycling camps.

A few girls like me knew they were meant to be a competitor. My favorite grade school class was gym and I LOVED the Presidential Fitness Award competition each year. I was out to beat all the boys and girls and loved it. Some kids hated it more than anything. As much as I love cycling, it’s being an athlete that I really love. I usually fall asleep watching the TDF and would more likely choose to watch “What Not to Wear”.

In high school, there are so many clubs and sports to choose from that most girls would never consider riding a bike unless perhaps they are at a private school that has a cycling club. (I don’t know of any public high schools with cycling teams.) High school sports are as much about sport as being with your friends, giving high-fives, doing group cheers and having fun. There’s a built in coach with all high school sports and very little pressure for the average girl who is participating-everyone gets to try.

I had no idea that cycling was a sport until high school when I met Tim Johnson who raced mountain bikes. I had never seen it on TV. We were a hockey family and watched the Olympics (gymnastics, Track and Field and Figure Skating-ugh Mom, really?)

College sports are generally reserved by those who love competing, are talented athletes and have scholarships or invites to teams. Colleges offer a lot of extra curricular activities from ultimate Frisbee, yoga, spin classes and dance, giving women the opportunity to participate in a variety of sports without having to be a one-sport competitor. Many colleges are now developing cycling teams with various ways to help girls get bikes and learn to race. However, many can’t afford a bike and the costs of equipment without knowing someone to get a hand-me-down or parental financial support. Even a work-study job often goes toward tuition and books, maybe a car and gas to get to school

I bought my first mountain bike after my freshman year in college. I had dropped out and was working 2 jobs and earned enough for my first real bike. I was able to race 2 summers before having to stop because I could not afford to have that much of my income go into racing. I didn’t return to racing until 7 years later when I had completed massage therapy school, my BFA and had a full time and part time job and could afford it again.

I sometimes call cycling a “boyfriend/girlfriend sport” for many women. You know, the kind of sport that you get into because your boyfriend/girlfriend is into it and says, “Hey, this could be fun to do together”. (This is exactly how I got into cycling and later into Ultimate Frisbee) After college, many women (and men) just don’t do competitive sports anymore. However, it’s often the time that women are introduced to cycling for the first time in their early to mid 20’s. Having a full time job usually means you can afford a bike and perhaps try some group rides that might lead to Cat 4 racing which is reminiscent of the fun high school sports. Lots of cheering on, high-fives and an inclusive feel. But there is really no development for women’s racing. It’s very hard to learn actual race tactics and proper training to have the fitness to execute tactics without a club, coaches and or watching a lot of (men) racing.

Cycling isn’t inherently intuitive or inclusive or all that supportive for women. As you upgrade from Cat 4, the next step up is often right into the Cat 1,2, 3 fields that is mixed with seasoned racers and basically strong Cat 3’s with little tactical practice. This is where women often see and feel that they are best off by sitting in and seeing what happens. The problem is, not much more than a hard group ride often results, making many women wonder why they are racing rather than saving the money and just go on hard group rides. Some women try mountain biking over road racing for it’s more laid back attitude despite being quite physically demanding in a different way. However, mountain biking can also seem really scary for a lot of women and it’s no fun to ride a bike when you are afraid.

You can’t hop into a bike race the way you can hop into a local 5K running race or even a triathlon. Getting dropped is not fun. Riding all-alone is not fun. Having people spectate as you get dropped or ride alone is certainly not fun and does not encourage women to come back for more.

Most women enjoy taking part in something they feel they can not only succeed at, but that they can actually have fun at and do with friends and cheer for one another, like the old days in high school when things were fun. Some women are born competitors and you will see them thrive and improve and race, but I just believe those numbers are generally quite low. I think the number of participants in running events and triathlon prove there is no shortage of active women willing to work hard, but working on a PR is a different reward than road or mountain bike racing

Many women who are introduced to cycling take off and just love riding, racing and watching cycling. For others, it’s kind of scary and takes a lot more encouragement to want to go from group rides to racing. Many women have no teams, coaches or added income to afford racing a full season or year round. Many women who do race can only afford to choose a handful of races to do each season or just one season, never mind coaching, power meters and travel expenses. For many women the choice becomes to spend extra income road racing all summer or one nice long 2-week vacation.

Many women who start racing after college end up leaving the sport in their early 30’s to go to graduate school start a family, travel, purchase a house or make a career change that does not support training and racing.

However, cycling is seeing a tremendous growth in the Fall in cyclocross. I think most of the growth in cyclocross for women is linked to the fun atmosphere and not just the tough athleticism of the competing. Beer, waffles, cheering, high-fives, hipsters, kids events, mud and fun are all mixed into the hardcore race atmosphere.

I have personally never seen road racers having as much fun as ‘cross racers. Everything about road racing seems very serious and I think that is a hard shell to crack for women who might like to compete for fun. It almost seems like a bad word.

I got into bike racing from running by trying mountain bike racing and then cyclocross. I later tried some road racing, but I’m much happier in the dirt! I think one of the best ways to encourage an increase in women’s overall participation in cycling is through cyclocross. It’s the “gateway” sport into cycling!

For promoters of road racing events, I think one of the only ways to see large numbers of women is to remove some of the seriousness and offer a “citizens” category (1-lap at a circuit or -5lap crit) at crits and circuit races in addition to a women’s race category event. Any type of bike, no racing license needed, running shoes and toe clips ok, and reasonable entry fees. Perhaps some of the local female racers could offer a free clinic before or after the “race”.

This would give women the opportunity to participate in a bike event much like hopping into a running race just for fun and see where that leads. There could even be a series of women’s citizen races. Not everyone is meant to be a bike racer but I think everyone is meant to ride a bike.

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24 Responses to “Where Are The Women In Cycling?”

  1. sandy k

    03. Jun, 2011

    So I hate to point out the obvious but this article doesn’t say WHAT anyone is going to do about it! I recently hired a coach and resigned from my 13yr finance career to fulfill my dream of promoting cycling to young women, supporting Smile Train, and a few other personal goals! One problem my coach a FEMALE isn’t really responding to the where are the women’s club teams HOW do I get a sponsor where do I turn? What’s the next step? So yeah my PT is up 20 and I can hang with the boys but I’ve yet to figure out when we are going to stop treating women’s cycling as 2nd class. I think we should all work together…okay so a new rider shows up helmet ahem well outta wack still with the visor on and she’s really in the wrong gear on the hill! Oh and we forgot to tell her county lines are sprints so she never comes back! Wow really that’s how we do? I’d like to say I’m better than that but most of the time I’m choosing who I want to be behind in the pace line and then sprinting myself. By the time the “no drop” ride is over the newbie is gone off the back or at her car never to be scene again! Hmmmm and all because not only myself but no one else took the time to say “hey” or when you see that county line they’re all going to take off (and if it’s a hill we’re doing it in the big chain ring AGAINST what you learned regarding being efficient)… And where are the sponsors for women? I believe that you can be a road racer and BE KIND to your fellow females! How can we work together? We don’t need to roll up in our spandex and start judging…We need to work together it’s called TACTICS!! Men have’em and men USE THEM! You tell me your Podium Insight how are you going to help?

  2. lyne

    03. Jun, 2011

    How Podiuminsight helps?

    By providing equal coverage to women and men races. By providing an avenue for women and others to express their opinions on the state of the cycling industry. By showcasing women that are part of the industry. By being willing to sacrifice covering the men’s races to cover the women’s races when they are run simultaneously.

  3. Tim

    03. Jun, 2011

    I just want to add one point of clarification that there are indeed high school cycling programs for both girls and boys to participate in. The NorCal High School Cycling League was started in 2001 by Matt Fritzinger at Berkeley High School. In the intervening 10 years the league has grown to over 600 student athletes from nearly 40 teams competing in mountain biking in northern California alone.

    In 2008 southern California started its own league, and now there are high school mountain biking programs in California, Colorado, Texas, Washington and soon in Minnesota under the umbrella of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).

    NICA’s goal is to develop high school mountain biking from coast to coast by 2020. It’s one of the best vehicles I know of to introduce girls (and boys) to cycling.

    Learn more (start a league or volunteer!):
    http://www.nationalmtb.org/

  4. tom

    03. Jun, 2011

    Why no mention of track racing?

  5. Jono

    03. Jun, 2011

    So many awesome people across the US are really contributing to making Women’s Cycling awesome. From high school and grassroots level in track, road, mtb and cyclocross, through the regional elite teams all the way to the US Womens Professional scene. Having a platform that glues all these groups together is something i reckon would assist, in addition to the great work already being done by USA Cycling. The sport needs to grow, but the pathways are there, the infrastructure, although skeleton, exists. And the athletes, from grassroots to professional, keep rocking.

  6. Mo Bruno Roy

    03. Jun, 2011

    Happy to see some responses here and thanks to Lyne for posting!

    I originally posted on this as a ‘note’ on my Facebook page addressing only my personal experience as a bike racer in New England. I have only ever raced cyclocross, mountain and road (not track).

    There has been a lot of recent talk in New England regarding women’s participation specifically at road races and I just wanted to add my perspective to the discussion.

  7. tmana

    04. Jun, 2011

    One issue not addressed here is that girls are generally brought up to not be competitive (except perhaps in getting the hottest boy or winning a beauty contest), so even if we compete in PE class (and BTW, we’re taught the “standard” team sports a lot later than the boys are), we don’t consider interscholastic sports (other than cheerleading and gymnastics).

    Cycling at all — much less competitive cycling — also gets a bad rap from traditionalists who (and there’s no delicate way to say this) need their daughters to be able to prove their virginity on their wedding nights. When girls are allowed to bicycle, they are given vehicles that — if capable of going beyond the block — are aimed more at commuting and running errands, rather than competing, and are better constructed to being worn with skirts. (The last time my parents replaced my bicycle, they flat out refused to get me a ten-speed and said I had to have a three-speed commuter.)

    The associated issue with marriage and families is that even with all of today’s “gender equality” pap, women are still the primary housekeepers, child rearers, and caregivers; many women with careers and family have no time to consider athletic endeavours of their own.

  8. Tammy Osborne

    04. Jun, 2011

    My 16 year old daughter just started the first mountain biking club at her HS (yes it’s a public school) with hopes that it will become a team this fall. I’d love to have you out here to speak to the kids and get them motivated. We live in Castle Rock, CO. Come see us! We have great cross country trails too :)

  9. j

    04. Jun, 2011

    USA Cycling needs to step up and support junior women and development riders with training camps, travel support, coaching, and grassroots development. The governing organization needs to get their act together.

  10. bicyclebetty

    04. Jun, 2011

    As much as I hate to say it, I really think tmana hits the nail on the head in the last paragraph of her comment. The article is correct in as much as most women come to cycling in the 20′s, they may even start racing. But, by the time 30 starts approaching many women often turn to child rearing, marriage, career, etc., and unless they have a partner willing to share the load cycling goes right out the window.

    Interestingly, dad usually still gets to line up, even if it’s not at the level of racing he once did. I have met many women at races bouncing toddlers on their hips saying “Yeah, I used to race and really liked it, but now we have a family”. Don’t get me wrong, these women do not regret their life choices, at least not that they will admit.

    And this is where Mo’s next cogent point comes in. Cyclocross is where many women can have a healthy family and compete! It is much more family friendly than particularly road racing; track racing can be inviting as well, but you first have to have a well-maintained velodrome near you and two you have to invest in a track bike. I don’t have enough experience with mountain biking to know if it suits families, it scares me so I don’t do it (right again Mo).

    There is also a much stronger developmental component in Cyclocross, with room for boys and girls. So, the whole family can race. Well, as long as they can afford the equipment…

    Overall, a good article and certainly an interesting topic!

  11. Dan

    04. Jun, 2011

    Professional mountain biker Lea Davison and her sister Sabra have been doing great work getting young girls into the sport through there Little Bellas program http://littlebellas.com/

    Agree that our sport has a long way to go.

  12. Kate

    04. Jun, 2011

    As Tim stated above, the NICA Leagues provide an excellent entry to cycling for both girls and boys as a fun, friendly way to ride mountain bikes with peers and family members. Information on specific Leagues: http://www.nationalmtb.org/

    More and more programs are introducing kids to cycling at younger ages and many have female specific camps such as Singletrack Mountain Bike Adventures http://www.ridesmba.com. These grassroots programs introduce kids to the specific skills for cycling and low key competition.

    More female pros such as Maureen are getting involved and advocating to bring more women into the sport. I see significant positive changes happening such as the women’s only mountain bike race: http://www.betibikebash.com/.

    It requires all of us to mentor new riders and be ambassadors for the sport regardless of the specific discipline. I believe the industry, race promoters, and retailers are better attending to women. With more of us engaged in collaborative, supportive efforts it continues to improve.

  13. MJ

    04. Jun, 2011

    bicyclebetty, I am in that 30 something group and since I have been racing for so long I am having difficulty starting a family. Racing to my potential I realized that I did not enjoy going up against the professionals and those who make racing their top priority. I would love it if promoters had 2/3 races so that we could foster competition without having to face the PROs.

  14. Sean Yeager

    05. Jun, 2011

    I think the fear aspect (of crashing, especially) is critical. When it comes to sports that have a high fear factor (cycling, skateboarding, downhill skiing, etc), women’s events are almost always behind in number of competitors.

    Cycling a very hard sport to get into for many reasons. One reason is equipment (that fits!), but a bigger one is that it’s a sport based on speed, with a high cost for error. Road events are on pavement, which isn’t soft or forgiving. At speed, pavement leaves scars. Boys grow up with the “scars are cool” mentality, and girls are brought up (most, not all) to try to avoid anything that might leave one. Field sports and team sports don’t have that result (broken bones heal on the inside, but road rash…) This goes not only for the young girls; I know women who don’t ride on the road because of fear (of cars, group rides), and they don’t ride on any trail with rocks or any other consequence for error.

    Also, unless you’re only racing time trials, you have to ride at the pace of others and you’re dependent on others’ skills to keep you safe. I can honestly say I’m often uncomfortable with the people around me, and it’s stressful.

    That’s where ‘cross comes in. The courses are generally very safe, and crashes often happen in grass or dirt. There isn’t much pavement, and there aren’t rock gardens or cliffs, and the speeds are lower.

    I’m the Virginia Cyclocross Series Director, and the one area we’ve seen the biggest growth is in the Women’s fields (they’re still small, but percentage-wise it’s a bigger increase than any other field from 2 years ago to this past year.) In USAC license applications, the women’s numbers are increasing, and a lot of this is due to ‘cross. This is good news. It will convert some women into the other disciplines, but it may not.

    I think in order to bring more girls and women into the sport, you have to start with a lower barrier of entry sport. Until recently, we didn’t have this. Now there’s ‘cross and we’re getting somewhere. High school and other programs are a huge help, but we also have to consider that there is a parental aspect of keeping kids active and introducing them to sports rather than leaving that to their school’s PE program (which isn’t going to have cycling on the activity list.)

  15. Amy

    05. Jun, 2011

    Q: Where are all the women in cycling?
    A: Triathlons
    I mean this is the most serious way. Clearly they do a much better job at getting women excited to get out there and compete.

  16. Sean Yeager

    06. Jun, 2011

    Amy’s comment reinforces my comment above: triathlon is a much easier sport to get involved in as a beginner, as it’s a solo sport, and therefore the “fear factor” (I hate using that term, but it is what it is) is much lower. If you can ride a bike, swim, and run, you can do a triathlon. The same can’t be said for any discipline of bike racing. There are skills required that are much harder to acquire.

    I don’t believe women’s attendance has anything to do with USAT, however. Local tri clubs can more easily convince women to give triathlon a try because the risk is low, and the reward is high. In cycling the risk is high and the reward is dependent on factors more complicated than just finishing.

  17. Anne

    06. Jun, 2011

    I think the #1 reason that most of my female friends who could be very competitive at road cycling choose to do other sports (mostly triathlon) is that road racing is (accurately) perceived to be dangerous. After a couple years and a couple serious crashes myself, I don’t blame them. It’s a risk many are not willing to tolerate.

  18. Allison

    06. Jun, 2011

    Appreciate your equal or close to equal coverage, Lynne. It makes a difference. As a female racer, I have come to expect to feel second class at races, but I do feel it’s getting better for us. We are lucky to have great sponsors for our team, but it is very difficult to sell when you know that, even at the same big race, the women’s field will get little to zero exposure (recent Phili TV coverage as example).

    My two suggestions: more women’s teams/racing clubs, more women’s only races at the local level. You shouldn’t have to race with a men’s pack when you’re just learning, and most of us don’t learn any tactics for a long time because we have no team mates when we start and we’re just used to following men’s wheels all of the time.

  19. Beth

    06. Jun, 2011

    I’ve experienced this first hand. First off though, my club/team is all women and has fantastic sponsors http://www.sorellacycling.org. I am primarily a cross racer. I started out doing triathlons, moved to cycling only. I tried to do some road as a 4 and it just wasn’t a good experience. In my experience here’s what happened to me as a new cat 4: showed up and got lumped in with pros, got cancelled completely, or got lumped in with men/cat5s. Even when there is a 3/4 field, the 3s were fast as **** and could oftentimes hang in a 1/2/3 field. My theory as to why there were so fast is that they didn’t accumulate upgrade points since our fields were small. So, I recommend forcing a Cat 4 only field. Will fields be small at first? Yes but if women KNOW they aren’t going to be combined, they’ll come. I’d be out there every road race if I knew that. Also, allow upgrade points for smaller fields and force the upgrades in the 3 field to get those riders up to the more competitive division. In the end, I love cross. It’s more laid back and there’s no pack to drop you. No one cares, it’s all good! Also, I should add I have 2 children, one is a baby. My lack of participation in road has nothing to do with them. I was out racing cross seven weeks after I had my baby boy..and loving every minute of it!

  20. Steve

    08. Jun, 2011

    I guess my daughter is one of the lucky ones. She is 15 and has been riding/racing with the Frazier Cycling Junior team for 5 years. The team has a large number of girls ranging from 10 to 18 and has a solid Cat 3/4 team of 7 girls that actually race as a team. The girls on the team have won 3 national road championships and at least a dozen medals over the past few years.

    The main problem we have in the Atlanta area is some of the race promoters have alienate the women and getting competitive fields at some road races is a problem. As the author stated, cyclocross seems to be growing among the women riders and seems to get more competitive at every race, AND they seem to have a blast racing.

  21. Beth

    10. Jun, 2011

    Yes Steve, we are very lucky to have a great juniors program like Frazier (and Fulton Flyers!) in the Atlanta area which gets a lot of women involved at the junior level. I agree on the rest of your comment as well. We need to get more women out there besides Frasier ladies :–) Cross is just a blast…racing in the snow last year was fun. Key word…FUN!

  22. Name

    05. Oct, 2011

    I resent the figure skating comment. My daughter figure skated competitively for years & I believe it requires more dedicated training than cycling. Don’t let the dresses fool you, a good figure skater is very strong & mentally tough. As an athlete, you should respect other sports.

  23. Name

    07. Oct, 2011

    Well, if anything, the women fields in Road, Track, and Cross has been growing over the last 3 years in the state of WA. Began to race women CAT4 ~3 years ago and the competition and field size in the CAT 3 and 4 has definitely been growing. Cyclocross racing does seem to appeal more to my teammates due to the ambiance and the fact that crashing is usually not as dangerous. Additioanaly the junior teams are growing fast and the high school mountain biking team finished their first season with success. So in my opinion the women and junior fields are growing but just as not as fast as some of you may like it.

  24. Andrea

    23. Nov, 2011

    To the figure skating comment: Some of the best cyclists started out as speed skaters (ice and roller).

    As a competive triathlete, I would agree that road cycling seems dangerous and kept me out of the sport for a long time. I broke my collar bone during a group ride and it kept me out for a whole tri season – I didn’t want that to happen again, so I didn’t consider road racing.

    After I actually TRIED road racing, I found that it wasn’t nearly as scary as I had imagined. I found a fantastic and wonderfully supportive women’s team. They encouraged me to try crits, TTT’s and CX.

    The other great thing about cycling, over triathlon, is that you can actually win money or prizes! Even as a Cat 4! In triathlon, only pros are eligible for cash payouts. AND you only have one piece of equipment and one discipline to focus on!!

    I am way more involved in women’s cycling, at the local level, than triathlon, but that’s because some of my closest, most support friends are cyclists.