USA Pro Challenge helps women’s cycling gain momentum | VailDaily.com

USA Pro Challenge helps women’s cycling gain momentum

Kim Fuller
Special to the Daily

The sweeping peloton you'll see flying through Colorado this year during the USA Pro Challenge may have some ponytails in tow. For the first time in the event's five years, the Pro Challenge is bringing female athletes into the spotlight for three days of competition in Colorado, with large crowd finishes in Breckenridge, Fort Collins and Golden.

"It's the first time that women and men will share a lot of the same courses at a major stage race here in Colorado, so that's big news and great news in itself," said Sean Petty, race director for the women's USA Pro Challenge. "Breckenridge, specifically, has stepped up and embraced the addition of the women's race."

On Friday, the Pro Challenge held the men and women's time trials on the same day and on the same course, starting in Breckenridge for an 8½-mile full-out sprint.

"The women are doing the same time trial course as the men, so it will give some idea on the relative speeds, and I think some of the women will surprise some of the men," Petty said.

Keep an eye out for Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong and Mara Abbott, who is from Colorado "and is probably one of the world's best climbers."

"I am hoping to see a really fast time from Kristin and some of the other women in the race," Petty said. "As we get closer to the Olympics, a lot of this racing and training is focused on earning those Olympic team positions, and that is certainly at play here, as well."

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Uphill battle

Men's professional cycling has been at a high level for much longer than women's cycling, growing in Europe for more than 100 years and expanding internationally. It was not until 1984 that a women's road race was featured in the Olympic Games — around the same time the sport was catching on large-scale for females.

"Women's racing has gotten a lot more difficult, challenging and aggressive over the years, and it's a very exciting form of racing," Petty said. "I think the last Olympic road race in London for the women was absolutely phenomenal, with a really exciting finish."

Amy Charity, of Optum Pro Cycling, lives in Steamboat. It's her third year on a pro team and her fifth year as a racing cyclist.

"Even in my short time of racing, I have seen a lot of headway that women's racing is making," she said.

The main differences between men and women's cycling, Charity said, are the lack of opportunities for women to race and the large discrepancies in professional salaries and prize purses.

"Historically, women haven't had the opportunity to compete in many stage races, like the Tour of California, the Tour of Utah and the Pro Challenge in Colorado, and that's why I do think there is some progress this year, because we have all three of those races," Charity said. "While we are not doing the same stages or as many days or miles as the men, it's a great start that we have these opportunities to race."

Despite the gender-specific hardships of the sport — lack of funding, viewership, race opportunities, sponsorship support and prize purses — women's cycling has taken some strides in the past few years in the United States. The Tour of California added a three-day stage race this year in May, and the Tour of Utah, held in early August, doubled its women's racing this year.

"The Tour of Utah … will continue to showcase the growing popularity of women's cycling within the infrastructure of the men's stage race," said Jenn Andrs, executive director of the Tour of Utah, one month before the 2015 race. "The inclusion of women's racing in the past two years has been part of the growth cycle for the Tour of Utah. The ability to feature a top-ranked field of women's competitors further adds to the stature of the race."

A large discrepancy in salaries between men and women's racing, as well as the prize money at most races, is also something that women in the sport are working to address. Petty said the top 17 world tour men's teams currently average a total budget of around 17 million euros per year (about $18.5 million), and for a few of the top women's teams, the largest budget is around 3 million euros (about $3.3 million), which drops off pretty significantly after the top few teams.

"We are trying to support those races that have equal prize money and really push for a livable wage for all cycling professionals," Charity said. "Some of us don't aspire to have the exact same salary as men but to have a livable wage and to be able to support our profession. We are not there yet, but it's certainly moving in the right direction."

On course

To see women's cycling gain the momentum it is seeking will take some policy changes in the sport, as well as an increase in awareness, which then leads to sponsorships.

"For sponsorship, women are really where the sport is growing," Charity said, "because they are getting more specific on the equipment that women use and the things that can be different, so women's cycling can be a gold mine for the sponsors that are out there because it's somewhat untapped."

New female-specific developments and refinements are being put into everything from the fit of bikes, to the chamois and jerseys women wear — tailoring them specifically to female athletes. It's a growing market, but it's definitely not saturated yet, Charity explained.

"Sponsoring a full, professional women's cycling team is not a lot of money relative to what it would cost to have a 10-second spot on TV," she said.

The Pro Challenge has taken the big step to give women's cycling the exposure it requires to grow, which is not a small commitment.

"You have to have the support and funding to do this because there are quite a few logistics and incremental costs to add to a women's race," Petty said.

The effort takes more than just putting more riders in a race, he said. You have to leave roads closed to traffic longer, for instance, and have to fund more hours of staffing and law enforcement. This year seemed like the right time to get the women's race rolling, he said.

"The Pro Challenge is now on solid financial footing, and this year seemed like a good time to do it," Petty said. "It has been aspirational from Day 1 to have a women's race, and here we are taking this first step in 2015 that we hope will grow the number of days and the stature of the women's race equal to the men's."

Charity said adding women's stages to the USA Pro Challenge this year "really is a huge deal."

"In Breck, we will be there with the men, and I think there will be so many fans out there, and they will have the opportunity to see that we suffer, we sweat and we go through the same things the men do," she said. "And for me, to race in my home state in a highly publicized race is a dream come true and definitely one of the highlights of my cycling career."

Moving forward, Petty said the Union Cycliste Internationale — the world governing body for sports cycling — is focusing a lot of resources, attention and energy on developing women's cycling.

"We are going to see a new women's world tour next year, so things are rolling very well," he said. "We are definitely heading in the right direction, and the women will continue to race hard and put on a great show — I'm sure of that."