Where Are The Women In Cycling?

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)

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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