by Jonathan Krall
Early this month, race promoters announced the Tour of Washington County cycling stage race without inviting women to race, as in years past. By excluding women from this race, one of the four races that the Antietam Velo Club sponsors each year, race promoter Joe Jefferson inadvertently launched a minor on-line revolution. A discussion on the MABRA-USCF e-mail googlegroup, ongoing as I write this, is delivering near-term aggravation and raising awareness. Will it bring change?
In a stage race, riders compete in a series of races over several days (or even weeks, as in the Tour de France). With few opportunities to race, excluding women from a stage race is a major blow. Cyclists of both sexes expressed disappointment, while others noted that the mens junior (boys) category has a similar problem. If anyone mentioned the womens junior category, I didn't see it.
In a discipline where mens categories either fill to capacity or can be grouped together to fill each race start, partially-filled womens categories are a source of frustration. Promoters wishing to maximize profit and organizations running a race to raise money for charity sometimes feel the need to choose between inclusion and the bottom line.
Reached via telephone, Joe Jefferson stated that, “the numbers have continually gone down. Only 19 women entered the stage race last year.” In a post to MABRA-UCSF, Jefferson added “we do our best to balance the needs of the competitors with fiscal responsibility to our team and sponsors,” and that the decline “has continued despite the fact that we have tried to spur these numbers by offering free and/or discounted entry and other incentives such has free housing.”
Suggestions abound. One commenter pointed out that, per USA Cycling Rule Book, women are allowed to ride in men's races for which they would otherwise qualify, and are allowed to race one category lower (easier) than their women's racing category. “Maybe not ideal but you're not totally excluded from this event.” However, most people prefer to race with their peers and few women want to be classified as lesser men. “I'd never give … 110 dollars to a promoter who doesn't think my category is important enough to support” was the response from one woman. Jefferson expressed concern that “an angry racer who asks a sponsor to stop supporting racing is hurting the community.”
Many simply asked for more womens races, possibly enforced by changing Mid-Atlantic Bicycle Racing Association rules to require womens categories or to require prize-money parity. Others argued that this would be overly taxing to race promoters. Promoters could include women by setting registration targets for each category and deadlines by which they must be met (or be dropped), but this puts the onus back on women racers and racing programs.
Some suggest that it is up to the women to drive change, by organizing specific race series for women. This has certainly happened in the past. Linda Mack and Evelyn Egizi kept the mid-Atlantic Cat 3 and Cat 4 Womens Race Series running for over 10 years, but it was dropped in 2011. Artemis Racing has grown womens racing since 1999 and teams like the Bike Rack and Sticky Fingers are doing their part, but women shouldn't be expected to do all the work.
My own opinion is that, if everybody benefits from a more diverse racing community, then everybody should make a positive effort. Women can help by showing up and racing. Everyone can help by bringing volunteers and spectators to events, and by making sure that race promoters know why those volunteers are present. Buttons and stickers anyone?
Social change speeds up when people make an effort and even the most embarrassing, tin-eared promotion can keep the conversation going. Those who support diversity in road racing deserve the support of the rest of us, even if all we do is post a link to a local womens race or racing promotion on the Internet.
Personally, I enjoy watching the womens World Champion and Olympic road races and wish there was more video to be found. So what am I doing about it? I'm writing this article. Until last week I didn't know jack about race programs or race promotion, perhaps I still don't. I am confident that I've hit a few wrong notes here, but at least I am doing something. I encourage you to do something too.