Build It

Build It

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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  1. Winky

    Equality would be achieved by paying no prize-money whatsoever. That’s my recommendation. Put the money back into the sport, and don’t worry so much about looking after the minuscule proportion of cyclists who are paid (or would prefer to be paid) to ride their bikes.

  2. Tominalbany

    I live in an Albany, NY suburb. for many years, the Freihofer’s Run for Women was the women’s national 5k championship. It has since lost this status but, still fields an elite contingent along with, seemingly, every woman in a 30 mile radius! The field is 100% women. I know women that started running so they could compete in this even with friends and families. There are multi-generational family teams and all other. My wife has run it any number of times (damn stress fracture keeping her out this year…) and loves that it is FOR WOMEN.

    I don’t know how much the women’s running scene around here may have grown as a result but, it’s one of those things that brings the entire community together.

  3. PedalingScience

    Kudos, Padraig, first for sharing the RKP platform so that Amanda Batty could share her experience as a female cyclist and, second, for tackling the nuts and bolts of how it could work.

    I still marvel at the fact that Twenty20 cycling received worldwide recognition for sponsoring equal pay for the women’s Koppenburgcross. If I recall, it cost them $20,000. That’s a chunk of change for a small shop/team but I sure hope there was some forehead slapping in marketing departments that no one else thought of that. Now, Trek, the much maligned team of he-who-shall-not-be-named is investing in women’s cyclocross. And you know what? It’s working. I have totally flipped my perception of that company. There is a lot of low hanging fruit in the category of ‘not a misogynist’ but hardly anyone seems interested in harvesting it.

  4. Shawn

    “For those who believe in a completely free and open society that purports to value equality…. So we are left with two options for those who profess to be evolved enough to desire a society where absolutely everyone is equal.” Questions like these have driven the sharpest legal minds in the nation to chase their tails. The question is whether we value equality of outcome (engineered equality/Harrison Bergeron) or equality of opportunity (“free and open society”). Answers to these questions may unravel western society as we know it. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is beyond my field of vision.

    My daughter loves to ride mtb. She’s fast. She podiums her women’s age-based races, but she’d be shredded (mtb pun intended) in a men’s field. What to do?

    Equality of opportunity compels a sex-blind answer: she races against men and never sees a podium. It include’s Winky’s no-prize idea. This is the “the way to stop sex discrimination is to stop discriminating based on sex” answer. It’s hard to see this model (Market) increasing female participation in the sport. Quite the opposite.

    Equality of outcome, on the other hand, will likely stimulate women’s racing, and your New England series is evidence it does. But suffers from a severe ideological problem because it demands discrimination based on sex. Indeed, outcome equality requires an implicit recognition that the sexes are not, in fact, equal: but if they’re not equal, then there’s really no basis to demand equality of outcome. So arguably, the solution disproves the need. And that solution — ensuring equal outcomes — bears a striking resemblance to “separate but equal,” and we know where that went.

    Do we not reward women at all, or do we over-reward them (at least in relation to how fast they can ride 45 minutes plus a lap in a church parking lot crit)? Or do we define sex-neutral classes of racers based on how sucky they are? What about persons whose gender identity doesn’t align with their biological sex?

    I have no answers. I’m chasing my tail.

    1. Author

      I think Title IX provided a framework for a response. The Stonyfield Farms example could be called a private industry Title IX. To level the playing field, we will need to spend some time disproportionately encouraging women’s participation.

    2. Shawn

      If the reason women’s racing fields are smaller is simply that there’s less in it for women (rather than because of population preferences) then the 100/40 example makes sense because it increases the “what’s in it” part of the equation. And if the size of fem-fields increases (by incentivizing women — as a population — to place increased value on racing), then the system would scale with its success.

      But even if women (as a population) simply don’t value racing as much as men do for reasons other than prize money, then the 100/40 example still makes sense because there’s no reason to assume that the women who do race value racing less than men do.

    3. Winky

      My no prize money for anyone doesn’t exclude the idea of positive steps to increase women’s participation. Lower entry fees for women would be one option. Spend some money on marketing in women focused media contexts. Basically, work out what approach will increase women’s participation and spend the money there. Don’t give it to the winners, men or women, and the prize-money equality issue disappears and a step forward has been made. Participation in cycling, and even in racing, for 99% of entrants/participants and potential entrants/participants is motivated by factors other than prize money. (I place little weight on the idea that people who want to be paid to ride their bikes may suffer financially. Basically, I don’t care. They can get a job like the rest of us)

      At the grassroots level it seems to be about safety on the roads, followed closely by the perception that the enthusiast cycling culture is male focused and exclusionary to outsiders, particularly women. There is also the creep factor. The perceptions have a basis in reality in my observation. That needs to be changed.

    4. Shawn

      @Winky but the question was more limited: how to increase the number of female racers.

      The What Should It Look Like post is closer to the topic toy’re addressing.

    5. Winky

      To increase the number of female racers, build the number of female cyclists, and remove barriers to entry into enthusiast-level and competitive cycling. The incentive of prize-money won’t get someone who doesn’t race to enter a race, with few exceptions.

  5. Jman's Dad

    Padraig is spot on. Don’t overthink it. My daughter began racing road at 13. The Junior Women embody this We should do everything possible to grow these thin fields. Now, she’s 22, hasn’t ridden a road bike since the collegiate road season ended just before she graduated from college( after 4 years on a cycling scholarship). We joked about the range of her road racing experiences. From a 3 girl field in a nor cal district championship, to the Women’s TOC circuit race in Sacramento. But both of those events had something in common.

    Getting More PEOPLE on bikes is good for all and everything. We should be bending over backwards to get the less represented more involved. The next question is how to make bicycle racing in the US more attractive to minorities and the less wealthy. An untapped pool of talent… Grow the sport where there is room to grow it

  6. Aar

    I’m in favor of all non-discrimination opportunities. Further, men’s competitive sports (not just bicycle racing) has proven way too many times to count that given enough time they will only generate more negative exposure for the sport overall and sponsors than women’s competitive sports. So, I’m all in for taking sponsorship funding from men’s bike racing to funnel it to ladies cycling.

    In the big picture, money corrupts. This is especially true in competitive sports. So, as soon as some lady bike racers start pulling in decent incomes, the negative exposure will follow. In the end, I’d just prefer to see some funding that is pulled out of men’s bike racing get funneled to efforts to encourage children and ladies to ride every day instead of just pouring it all into more racing.

  7. Jim S.

    To me the questions would be:
    1) Why do we think that bike racing is the “Canary in the coal mine” for cycling and useful at all for estimating “health”? I don’t think anyone considers NASCAR or Formula 1 etc to be the sentinel species for car driving. People who want to drive, drive, people who want to race, race and corporate sponsors put money into auto racing because they think it will get consumers to buy their products. I have yet to hear of the automotive industry supporting racing to get more people to drive or to buy more cars, just more of their cars than their competitors cars. Why do we think bike racing (especially pro racing) is an indicator of the interest in or health of cycling?

    2) Why is anyone (male or female or non-binary gender) paid to race bikes? Is it because we think someone who is more skilled at it and decides to focus their life on it deserves to be rewarded or to be able to support themselves by doing it? If that is why, why don’t we do the same for all hobbies / activities? Why is it not bad that people who are good at and dedicate their entire lives being the best at reading books, or ferret racing, or soap carving or mooing (yes it is a hobby and competition) can’t make enough money to support themselves from it. Or do racers get paid because somewhere there is a person who thinks they can get a return on their money by supporting or being associated with the racer? If it is because the people putting up the money think they can get something in return, why do they not think they can get equal return from women’s racing as they can from men? What has been done to convince sponsors that people will spend money on something based on a female racer as they do a male racer? You used Stonyfield Farms as an example of how great those races were to bring women into the sport, but what happened to the races? I can’t find that they are still going on (maybe my Google-Fu is weak). If there actually was a return on the expense for the sponsor, why did they pull out, or push for another similar event when the promoters of the series ended the series? Or was it the case that while women did the events, the return wasn’t there for the sponsor, or to paraphrase how the promoters in California put it “the consumers didn’t respond”.

    I think the real question is does bike racing want to adapt to make their product more appealing to people to influence how people spend money (look at the recent rules changes in baseball and NASCAR) to attract more participants (targets for sponsors) and/or to bring in sponsors or does it want to stay as it is and the status quo of what the sport is and complain that not enough people like the activity. From what I have seen of bike racing in the US at least, the answer is the latter, and not just based on gender.

    1. Tim

      Thanks for that comment Jim. You’re raised many excellent points.

      Padraig I have to question the plan you detailed for ‘equitable split based on field size’. I can follow the idea of paying 4 deep instead of 10 deep for a field that is 40% of the size of the male field. What I can’t follow is the idea that 4th place in both fields should net that rider $7 in prize money. As the 4th placed female rider has been beaten by the same percentage of their field as the 10th placed male rider then both should receive $1 in prize money. Following that logic the 2nd place female would get $7 and 3rd would get $4. I can’t see any other way for an ‘equitable split based on field size’ to actually work.

      On the subject of treating people better, specifically females in this scenario, it has to be improved through the actions of the whole community. It’s not something I’ve personally witnessed in Australia but if I was at a bike shop that I observed treating women poorly I’d stop spending money there. If everyone in the community did that, shops that act in a sexist or discriminatory manner would need to quickly adapt or they would die out just as quickly.

      If you can’t put your hand on your heart and say that you would stop supporting a bike shop that behaves in a sexist or discriminatory manner to women then you are part of the problem. I suspect that most commenters on RKP would do the right thing but if this behaviour is as large a problem is I’m led to believe then it’s obvious that many members of the cycling community don’t feel the same.

    2. Author

      I really don’t want to get lost in the weeds of how a prize list is split among women; I really want to focus on how we define “equal” between men and women.

      Also, I’m not sure that turning out backs on every shop (or company) that has ever exhibited sexist behavior will do much to aid the cause of equality. If you simply stop shopping at a store that doesn’t treat women the way we know they should be treated, they don’t get a distinct message about why you stopped shopping there. They could conclude that you don’t like their assortment of brands or don’t appreciate their service. A big piece of teaching someone is clear communication.

    3. Tim

      Undoubtedly, if someone is comfortable communicating with someone about what is perceived as sexist or discriminatory behaviour they should try and start a dialogue to clearly identify the issue. As you say that opportunity to educate someone is a valuable opportunity to improve our community. Unfortunately many people are not comfortable in making that sort of stand and risking an unpleasant confrontation.

      Having said that I still strongly believe that not supporting people/shops who are part of the problem is essential to improving the attitude of the whole community. I personally have no moral qualms about someone exhibiting this type of behaviour potentially being unaware of why you no longer support them financially. Not ideal perhaps, but an individual customer has still gone from actively supporting a shop that is sustaining/encouraging a toxic culture to supporting someone who respects female cyclists and I can’t see how that is anything other than a net positive for cycling.

      P.S. ” Ever exhibited sexist behaviour” is reading a bit too much into my previous post. I don’t advocate holding past ‘sins’ against a store, only current behaviour. That allows for giving a shop a second chance and rewarding them with your business if they have taken the steps to improve.

  8. Touriste-Routier

    While I appreciate the sentiment and expression of thought here, please allow me to share first hand experience of working on a National Level Elite Race in the US that has offered equal prize money for men & women (>$10,000 each) for several years. I’ve worked at the event on and off for >7 years. This is not a one-off experience.

    The race is well known, and part of a well respected series. It is safe to say that all the teams and riders eligible to participate are aware of it. The race doesn’t have any major competitors that weekend in the region. The race has a very large crowd (>10,000 spectators), has a family friendly festival, and is live streamed. The local media and national cycling media cover the event in person. The course is not dangerous, nor technical, the event has a solid reputation, and offers everything the sport needs to gain notoriety.

    But despite all of this, there are plenty of teams, even local/regional teams that don’t participate. The elite men have >100 participants (the field limit is usually reached), the women <40 (not even close to the field limit).

    The race organizer has to pay substantial costs (much on an hourly basis) to have the roads closed. The organizer has to lobby and "sell" the sponsors to raise the prize money.

    When race day comes, the field of 40 women is underwhelming. Don't get me wrong, there is some excellent racing and superb athletes in the women's field, but this isn't necessarily noted by the layman. Several parties question the endeavor of the women's race:

    The local authorities (why are we closing downtown for 1 hour during "prime time" for this)? The sponsors (why are we paying $XXXX for 100, and the show is better; why don’t we just spend our $ there), to the organizer (How can we justify keeping doing this? This is our livelihood, and the sponsors/authorities aren’t happy with their investment).

    While I (and the organizer of the event) are all for offering equal prize money, it isn’t necessarily sustainable. So please keep these things in mind when considering the issue. It isn’t as simple as “build it and they will come”.

    With this race, it’s been built for many years, the racing community is well aware of it, and the women still don’t come. And the organizer has to look the sponsor executives in the eye, and tell them why it is a good idea for them to keep supporting the event…

    I know in a previous post on the subject the guest author stated (paraphrased), that simply showing up isn’t that simple. OK, I can understand that. But when the opportunity presents itself, if it isn’t seized upon, that opportunity very well may go away.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the perspective. I know that when we look at elite women’s racing the problems can seem intractable. That’s why I find the Stonyfield Farms example so compelling. There are any number of races around the country that could serve as the example you cite; it’s as true in California as it is in Massachusetts. A carrot on a stick hasn’t worked, which is why building women’s racing at the entry level categories is so important.

      I can’t help but wonder how many elite women there are in your area vs. elite men. It would be an interesting analysis to see what percentage of regional elite women show up for that race vs. the number of elite men in the region and then look at the field size as a percentage of the racing population. I can’t help but wonder if we wouldn’t see a larger percentage of local women showing up.

    2. Tim

      It wouldn’t surprise me to see that the percentage to local women racers attending a race is actually very similar or possibly higher. It would be probably be impossible to get accurate stats on but it’s an interesting thought regardless.

      The disparity between Touriste-Routier experiences and the counter point of the Stonyfield Farms races makes me wonder how important equal prize money is versus the women not feeling like they are a secondary event. Even in an event with equal prizes, if the field is smaller and generates less public interest it must be hard to shake the feeling that your category is on some level less important.

      As a male I’m fortunate to have never faced that scenario but I’d be interested to hear women’s opinions on whether or not that is a significant concern for them.

  9. Touriste-Routier

    The race I referenced is in the Mid-Atlantic, a hotbed of racing, in a densely populated region. It is less than 30 minutes from a major city, and within 2.5 hours driving distance of several other major cities. The host town has every possible amenity a traveling team needs; host housing is even available. There isn’t a lack of elite racers in the region. As I noted, several “local” elite teams do not participate in the event, which is baffling.

    An interesting fact is that in the region the typical participation level of women in races averages around 13% (this being that overall entries at events are 87% male, 13% female). This really highlights “the problem” if theoretically the population is roughly 50:50.

    It is terrific that Stonyfield Farms has backed other events to the extent they have. Some stakeholders try to do what is right/just/equal, others do not. There are compelling reasons (for them) why they do/do not do it.

    But there is frustration on the part of some stakeholders who make the investment, do the right things, and it goes underappreciated by the target audience. If they get frustrated, it is easy for them to make the decision to go away, and support another activity.

  10. Fr0hickey

    Thinking outside the box here.

    How about linking the men’s race and women’s race together. And it does not have to be the same course, either.
    Idea is that male racer A picks female racer 1 as their prize-partner, male racer B picks female racer 2 as their prize-partner.
    Of the two races, one race is picked as the prize, and the other race is picked as the multiplier, with top spots determining the amount of the price and the amount of the multiplier (multiplier is never less than 1).

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