Bike racing is but one corner of the larger cycling ecosystem. It is one of the most visible, sure, but when you look at participation numbers in the U.S., bike racing is dwarfed by bicycle commuting and those numbers are dwarfed by recreational riders. However, when the health of the sport is discussed, bike racing is often held up as that little yellow bird at the end of the shaft. And that makes it an excellent way to point out how poorly cycling treats women.
In the comments in response to Amanda Batty’s open letter to podium girls there was an exploration of market forces and whether the compensation for women racers should be based on actual equality, on an equitable split based on field size, on market forces or on actual fitness.
I’m going to shoot these last two down as simply methods of making sure that women remain second-class citizens. If we really only believe in rewarding who is fastest, then we should eliminate all categories—all of ’em. Nevermind the result would create such a barrier to entry for new racers that bike racing would implode.
What about market forces? Well market forces favor the status quo. Only Wall Street is Wall Street. So market forces will ensure that women continue to receive less of the winnings, because they receive less of them now. Who can manipulate the market forces? Only the powerful, the people already well-served by the status quo.
So we are left with two options for those who profess to be evolved enough to desire a society where absolutely everyone is equal. Do we award prize money based on category and field size, or do we take a more normative approach and compensate women based on our values rather than their current market value? Put another way, do we want to reward women who race enough to do it well, or do we want to show our support for women racing by incenting new women to race?
That’s really the question. Do we want women to race?
For those who believe in a completely free and open society that purports to value equality, it’s difficult to support anything other than either actual prize equality or an equitable split based on field size.
I’ve had a few people ask me on rides recently what an equitable split based on field size looks like. Let’s do this with really simple numbers to make the illustration clear. Say you have a men’s field with 100 riders. Let’s say the promoter plans to pay 10 places deep. And let’s say he pays $10 to first, $9 to second and so on down to a single buck for tenth. Now, let’s say the women’s field is 40 riders. Their field would pay four deep because it’s 40 percent of the size of the men’s field. First would still pay $10. Second would pay $9, but the pay would end after fourth place.
I’ve heard people argue that this is the only sane course of action because in the event you have a men’s race with a field of 200 that pays 30 deep and a women’s event with only 30 riders, if you parallel pay, every women in that field would get something, and—God forbid!—we should pay everyone just for showing up. Insanity.
Prize equality is what I hear women express a desire for most often. The idea I’ve most often heard is to pay the top six in the men’s and women’s field. Exact same payouts, six deep. More recently, I encountered a proposal to pay just the podium—top three. I’d genuinely like to see winnings go deeper than that to the pro fields, but given how many races go away because they just aren’t profitable, a smaller prize list is an interesting idea.
Consider for a moment how often women complain about being treated poorly. I’m not talking in cycling; I’m talking life. I’d be inclined to say cycling tracks roughly in line with society as far as how men treat women, but given how poorly women are treated in bike shops, this sport may actually be worse than society at large.
The reality is that if we treated women racers better and women cyclists better, in general, there might be more interest in cycling across the board, which could spur more sponsorship dollars. That said, if you look at strictly market-based answers, yes, women will always be paid less in sports like cycling. However, there’s a deeper question about society and the social contract. What sort of message do we want to send? And bear in mind that if we consistently demean the sporting accomplishments of women, there could be pushback in other arenas. What if women suddenly decided, “Hey, we do more of the parenting than men, so we should get greater say in custody, educational decisions, financial considerations, etc.” The courts are happy to weigh in on such issues and are prone to coming up with loathsome verdicts. Let us recall that a black man at one time was considered to hold 3/5 of the value of a white man. What if the courts decided that men only do 2/5 of the parenting and reduced a divorced father’s right to visitation accordingly? Ultimately, if we want an equal society, we might want to consider giving equality across the board, rather than in a piecemeal approach. In other words, if we treat people better, they might have more interest in our sport. Build it and they will come.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s Stonyfield Farms sponsored a series for women racers. Not a single dollar went to the men. The series, started by Fran Castano and then shepherded by Gerri Moriarty, sponsored races that held separate fields for the Cat 3s and the Cat 4s. No racing against the fast women. The upshot is that women began to concentrate on events that Stonyfield Farms sponsored. Field sizes grew. Eventually fields grew to the point they began to fill. And not only did Stonyfield Farms offer prizes for those individual events, there were prizes for upgrading as well as a series-long points total that resulted in additional prizes. While I don’t recall how it was structured, they incented upgrades so that women clearly capable of racing in the 3s didn’t stay in the 4s to dominate.
Stonyfield Farms caused an explosion in women racing in New England.
Here’s the interesting part: by bringing in a big sponsor to focus at what is the most grass-roots of racing, and growing the population, those additional racers paying entry fees made those races more profitable. A race organizer can do many different things with newfound revenue. They could potentially run more events. They can invest in their infrastructure with things like better timing systems or a finish camera. They can also put more money into the men’s prize list. Think about that; more women racing can result in a better payday for men.
What I love most about the series was that it wasn’t a race promoter asking for money for a one-day bike race. It was a series promoter asking a brand to sponsor a single population (women) across a challenging endeavor (develop the athleticism necessary to compete as an elite cyclist). It’s a terrific women’s empowerment program. Hands-down the best use of money to bring women into cycling I’ve ever seen.
I tried to bring the series to Southern California. I was told by several race organizers that it wasn’t workable, that no sponsor on earth would step up and that women wouldn’t respond even if they did. Even when I showed them numbers from the Stonyfield Farms series, which Moriarty provided me, they held fast and insisted it would not work. Imagine someone telling you planes can’t get off the ground. I gave up in short order.
People in sales and marketing love to talk about low-hanging fruit. Where is the single biggest opportunity to grow bike racing? Where the numbers are thinnest—and that’s in the women’s and juniors’ ranks. The National Interscholastic Cycling Association is doing an amazing job of bringing kids into cycling. Isn’t it time we made the same effort to encourage women’s participation in the sport?
Image: Whit Bazemore
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