Friday, August 17, 2012

Why Don't More Women Race Bikes?

I've ridden bikes with a lot of cool women. Fast women. Bad-ass women. Scared women.

One of the great things about collegiate cycling was its gender equality. The men raced against the men and the women raced against the women, but the results from both races counted equally when determining which team won the Omnium. One of the reasons UC Davis won team omnium national championships was because the women's team time trial squad won their event, and the female road and crit racers were so deep they scored a lot of points.

Now I have daughters. (Well, I had daughters while I was racing in graduate school). One of them is a jock. She plays soccer, softball, and basketball. But she's also a holy terror on a bike, a fact which gives me no end of joy.

I think she caught the bug while watching an acquaintance of mine win a regional criterum in a field sprint while wearing the stars and stripes jersey of the women's professional national champion. She also came to watch a lot of my races. Bike racing excited her, inspired her, and instilled a life-long horror of porta-potties. And through our Omaha Devo program for kids' mountain biking, Abbey has been lucky enough to receive casually structured coaching from a former pro and a number of amateur racers, one of whom is a woman. I've learned to stay away from these weekly Devo sessions and to let the coaches coach. Smart guy, me.

But I worry about her future in the sport. I don't have any hopes for her making a career out of riding. I just hope she enjoys herself and carries her love of games, the outdoors, and physical fitness into adulthood.

But what if she does want to race, even at the regional level? In the Midwest? Will she find support? Races? Opponents?

Yesterday's blog post was designed to encourage discussion about the ways in which scheduling conflicts serve as a microcosm for larger schisms within the Nebraska cycling community. Now I'd like to stir the pot about women's racing. At most events in Nebraska, we see no more than 5-10 female participants. At road races, the Cat 2/3 women sometimes race with the Cat 4 men. (I once watched my friend Brooke terrorize a field of Cat 3 guys. But then again, she was the reigning National Champion) 'Cross seems to fare better, drawing a slightly smaller field for women. We all know the barriers to entry are much lower in 'cross--but why? In other words, why is road racing so off-putting to women? And how do we mitigate those elements of the sport that turn women away? How do we find ways to make it more appealing to women?

Cyclingnews has a piece up right now about building the professional side of women's racing. But if local scenes were more developed, maybe the pros wouldn't face such a hard time receiving pay and attracting sponsors.

I love watching women race. I think the disparity between the aesthetics of male and female competition is smaller in cycling than in any other sport. I'm the father of girls, so I'm biased. But I don't enjoy women's basketball nearly as much as men's--even if women's volleyball is staggeringly athletic and kind of awe-inspiring. Yet women's cycling looks and feels just as fast to me as men's cycling does. I'd really like to see more women pinning on numbers and toeing a start line. So, women, what are the barriers to entry? How do we (a cycling community at large) remove those? How do we find things to market that might outweigh the barriers?

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