Why you should care
Because lower pay means fewer female athletes.
The 2018 RBC GranFondo Silicon Valley is a new long-distance cycling event in the heart of the Bay Area. It’s not too late to register for the event, which takes place on June 23.
The world of cycling has had many historic moments lately: The first transgender cyclist competed in a pro U.S. peloton race last year, and 47 women in Saudi Arabia rode together in April in the first public bike race since the country lifted its ban on female cyclists five years ago. Yet for women cyclists in the U.S. who’ve been competing at the highest levels for decades, there seems to be little progress in reaching equality in the sport.
For starters, there is a huge discrepancy in the prize money between male and female races.
In the Tour of Flanders in Belgium, the women’s champion earned 1,100 euros, compared to about 20,000 euros for the men’s champion.
The result? Women racers can’t afford to pursue the sport as easily.
“You almost always have to have a job or someone supporting you,” says Sara Headley, a former pro cyclist. “I lived on less as a cyclist than I did as a college student. And it’s one of the reasons I stopped. I wanted to earn some money so I could buy a house one day.”
The sport has been historically male-dominated, but we’ve worked hard to change that.
Jeffrey Hansen, USA Cycling
Like Headley, many women choose to leave pro cycling after a few years, and others feel discouraged from entering the sport or reaching the highest levels of racing. There are only 8,111 female members of USA Cycling, the national governing body for bike racing, for example, compared to 44,429 male members. “The sport has been historically male-dominated,” says Jeffrey Hansen, director of product management and operations at USA Cycling, “but we’ve worked hard to change this by advocating for more female-specific race categories and equal prize lists, and by investing heavily in the American superstars of the sport.”
Many women’s races also have shorter distances than men’s. In the upcoming 2018 Tour de France, the women’s course is a mere 118 kilometers, compared to 3,329 kilometers for men.
“We can do more,” says Headley. “We do it in Europe all the time.”
Despite efforts from organizations like USA Cycling, little has changed on the ground. “There are fewer women’s races at all levels,” says Janel Holcomb, a cycling ambassador and co-founder of the Women’s Cycling Association. “We have fewer women to learn from, to mentor new riders or to get new women involved.” There are also fewer divisions for women, which makes it challenging for women to ride with cyclists at their skill level.
“Beginners often have to race against more experienced racers, and the experience can be so intimidating that the new racers don’t return,” says Holcomb. “For those who move up in the ranks, often their only option is to race against the pros.”
Headley left pro racing in 2016, but she is still passionate about cycling. She coaches a high school mountain biking team in San Francisco, and in June, she’s participating in the RBC GranFondo race in Silicon Valley. The 75-mile event starts in East Palo Alto and weaves through redwoods at Purisima Creek, the ranches of Pescadero and the rugged coastline that hugs the Pacific Ocean. At the GranFondo, both men and women complete the same course.
Headley will be raising money for Positive Coaching Alliance, an organization working to create a culture in youth sports focused on character building rather than winning. “I love how they believe in building kids’ strengths and giving them positive feedback,” says Headley. “It’s exactly how I would want to be coached and how I’ve been coached. It’s important to carry that vision into what I do for the mountain biking team.”
Headley hopes that she can inspire more girls and women to enter competitive cycling. She speaks at local high schools to encourage girls to join the mountain biking team, which currently has five girls and 13 boys. “Cycling made me realize what I could accomplish and what was possible,” she says. “It taught me how to work toward a goal. I hope a lot of other women and girls get that opportunity.”