Women cyclists forced to wait for men, for progress and for equal opportunity
About eight years ago, I found myself toward the front of a group in the beginner women's Cat 4 race in my hometown. We started to pull away and near the final sprint. And then, abruptly, just as the race was shaking out, officials on motorcycles pulled in front of us, forcing us to soft pedal as the whole field came back together.
Why? So the men's elite race could safely and easily pass us by. When we were eventually let loose again, with a half-mile to go, the finishing sprint turned into a messy crash-fest. It sucked, but we didn't really have anything to complain about. The men were simply better and their race was more important to the organizers and media. They got preference since they were the ones passing us.
This past weekend, the reverse happened -- but, somehow, the men still got preference. And for women, it was yet another sign that the sport considers their race nothing but an afterthought.
At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium, the opening of the Spring Classics, Nicole Hanselmann broke away from the women's field and caught up to the men's race, which had started eight minutes ahead. Yet, officials chose to force her, and then the rest of the women, to stop and wait on the side of the road.
It was cold and rainy, and the women shivered through their five-minute forced stop. When they were allowed to start racing again, Hanselmann was given the amount of time she had earned in a head start but was eventually caught and finished 74th. Chantal Blaak won over the hilly cobbles.
"I attacked after 7 km ... but then a [sic] awkward moment happened and I almost saw the back of the men's peloton," wrote Hanselmann on Instagram. "Maybe the other women and me were too fast or the men too slow."
Would she have held on to win? Probably not. Did the neutralization of the women's race just 35 kilometers in change the outcome? Definitely.
Back when I was racing as a junior when the fast group caught the slower group, the slower group was neutralized to let the fast group continue on...- Coryn Rivera (@CorynRivera) March 2, 2019
In cycling parlance, neutralization -- forcing the field to slow down -- is a relatively common occurrence for any number of safety reasons. Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) regulations, which govern international cycling, allow officials large amounts of discretion when it comes to neutralizing a field. But as national champion Coryn Rivera and countless recreational cyclists have pointed out, it's typically the field being passed that's neutralized for the faster riders doing the passing. Certainly, officials in Belgium could have made that decision and let the women ride by the men. It's happened before, at the Liberty Classic in Philadelphia, for instance.
Yes, it would have been messy. There were a huge number of team cars and TV cameras filling the road around each of the races -- more around the men. Yes, there are a number of factors officials have to take into account when considering one group passing another: where on course the pass will happen, how far into the race it is and if it'll affect the outcome, the size of the fields and entourage and the speed differential.
Yes, in this case, the men likely were taking it easy at the start of their longer event and would have sped up later, re-catching the women and making things messier. It was a bad situation by the time the women caught up to the men's field.
But it also could have been avoided in the first place if everyone involved had just paid more attention to the women's race from the beginning.
The women in Omloop were racing just 123 kilometers, while the men were racing 200 kilometers. It's common for the women's races to go out more aggressively than the men's -- partially because they're shorter and, in this case, with fewer hills; and perhaps partially because the one-day Classics are closer to the pinnacle of the sport for the women, since there are fewer and shorter Grand Tours (like the Tour de France) available to them.
If the organizers had been paying more attention to the female side of the sport, they would have known to give them more of a head start. It would have given the women a clean road and a clean race.
The official statement from the race notes, "In normal conditions, the men ride faster than the women and the gap gradually increases. This year, however, the men were slower than usual in the beginning of the race."
The statement also points out the women were started just eight minutes after the men in order to capitalize on the crowds, presumably before they wandered off -- as if we can trick them into watching women's racing too.
"It's kind of been blown out of proportion," said Nicola Cranmer, who manages the women's cycling team, Team Twenty20. She feels that the headlines about the race were easy social media fodder, but that people "aren't looking at the big picture."
Indeed, this doesn't happen that often, though it does happen. Plus crazy things have happened in the big men's races too. (Think of last year's Tour de France, where, in two separate incidents, the riders were accidentally tear-gassed.)
And, she's right, this might just be a one-time quirky kind of thing -- except that women keep getting the short end in every part of the sport, including the officiating, the courses and the coverage.
This wasn't the worst thing that happened to women in cycling this month. It wasn't even the biggest blow to the female cyclists at this race. The biggest problem is simply how little the women were covered and how pervasive sexism is.
Earlier this month, the men's side of the sport was fiercely split over a photo of a rider making sexually harassing gestures toward a waitress. Many in cycling seemed to think it was just another case of cyclists being cyclists -- just like this neutralization was just, shrug, how cycling works.
Making the women stop riding because they might interfere with the men's race is simply symptomatic of a sport that has never considered women on an equal playing field to the men.
The mainstream coverage of the stoppage has been more than any coverage of the actual women's race. Even Omloop itself seemed to barely cover the female podium. Tweets were posted throughout the race, with photos and video, of the men's breakaways and attacks. Yet there were just a handful for the women's event, which got Facebook coverage and its own hashtag #OHNwomen, but not TV cameras or fancy photo cards.
In cycling, it always feels like there's The Race and then there's the women's race. Without coverage, there are no sponsors, there is no money and there are no athletes. Without treating the women as if they too are The Race, there is no sport.
A 2015 comprehensive report from the Cycling Independent Reform Commission made a note about the pervasive issues: "Glaring opportunities to recognise women's cycling for its potential were tainted by a male-dominated sport that failed to realise the potential of women's cycling," it said.
Despite huge changes in the UCI, the women's Tour de France is still just one day, instead of the three-week extravaganza of the men's competition. The biggest stage race the women get, the Giro Rosa, wasn't on TV last year.
Prize money is often wildly disparate, though starting to change -- for example, when the Tour Down Under became one of the first to offer equal prize money, it had to increase the women's purse from $15,000 to just over $100,000. This year, UCI started the process of rolling out minimum salaries for female riders. By 2023 the very top female riders will earn €38,000 (just under $43,000), the equivalent to what continental lower-level men now earn. Currently, nearly two-thirds of pro women earn around $10,000 or less annually.
Female cyclists have been told for a long time to wait. Wait for more participants before there are more races and more World Tour teams. Wait for more sponsors before there's TV coverage. Wait, and eventually there'll be equal-length events and equal prize money.
And, on Saturday, they waited again.