Genevieve Whitson battles mud and snow at Kalmthout. Photo Courtesy of Genevieve Whitson

Genevieve Whitson battles mud and snow at Kalmthout. Photo Courtesy of Genevieve Whitson

In the US, you may not have heard of Genevieve Whitson … yet.

This racer from New Zealand hit the cyclocross circuit in 2009, racing primarily in Europe, though she hopes to come to the States this season. First a mountain biker, now Whitson is trying her luck on the road circuit with an eye toward cyclocross in the fall. She took some time out of a travel-heavy road season to chat with us, and was particularly interested in talking about what it means to be a woman in our sport. It’s a topic that we don’t often think about, and the purpose of this column is to highlight great women in the sport, but also to focus on how women are looked at and treated within the cyclocross and cycling world.

Cyclocross Magazine: What made you make the switch from primarily mountain to road?

Genevieve Whitson: It came down mainly to funding and support. I had been racing the mountain bike for a long time on a shoe-string budget and it was starting to reflect more and more in my results. At that point my hunger to race on the dirt started to fade and I decided to ‘park’ the mountain bike for a while and try something new. I’ve had a blast on the road. The team scenario for road racing creates a fantastic buzz and has enabled me to do it properly. I have every intention of returning to mountain bike racing in the next two years. I have unfinished business and want to go back and tick off some of the bigger goals I never got to try last time round.

CXM: How has the season been going for you so far?

GW: It’s been great this year and has been a nice progression from 2010. I’ve been racing in Europe and the states and the Euro racing has made the States seem a little easier. The racing in Europe is really tough. You’ve got 180 women on roads that aren’t much wider than a ’cross trail, so you have to be super super aggressive.

CXM: Do you have any season plans/goals for fall? More cyclocross?

GW: Yes definitely more ’cross, how could I not? A sport this fun, it just has to be done. I’ll be targeting a few rounds of the UK National Cross series, and hopefully a few World Cups, definitely Kalmthout. That is the most technical world cup and I just love the course. I would also love to come and race in the States because I always have so much fun there, but that will come down to funding unfortunately.

CXM: How will you prep for the cyclocross season?

GW: At the moment my mentor and I are still sorting out some of the fundamentals with my training and this has made it difficult to do really specific stuff, but that should change come 2012. I do practice technical aspects building up to the ’cross season, like mounting and remounting quickly, short sprinting efforts for the insane starts at ’cross races as well as riding the mountain bike to keep the technical skills fresh. The goal for the 2012 ’cross season is to come into some good form for December/January, which should work in well for ’cross world cups and hopefully (fingers crossed) Worlds.

CXM: What’s a typical week look like for you (training and race-wise) during the season?

GW: During season it’s basically about recovery. I’m usually racing twice a week and with that much high intensity you don’t want to be thrashing it in between as that can totally kill the legs and lead to overtraining – been there, done that, not worth it! So it’s a case of race, easy recovery ride, maybe a few short 30-60 sec efforts and some 2-4 min hill intervals one day, followed by more easy recovery rides and then race again.

CXM: How long have you been riding/racing? What got you into cyclocross?

GW: I consider myself a bit of a grandma in the sport these days. I started racing at 21 and I am now 31. I’ve jumped about a bit, which I think is the reason I never packed it in. It has just kept on diversifying every year. I got into ’cross in 2009 after a guy from a British ’cross club called me up and asked me if I’d race for their team. After one race I was addicted.

CXM: What’s your favorite part about cyclocross compared to the other cycling events you do?

Genevieve Whitson warming up at the 2010 Belgian World Cross Cup. Photo Courtesy of Genevieve Whitson

Genevieve Whitson warming up at the 2010 Belgian World Cross Cup. Photo Courtesy of Genevieve Whitson

GW: The atmosphere.  Crowds are BIG at ’cross events and they are crazy. People dressed in bizarre outfits yelling at you while holding a beer in one hand – who could possibly not want try this out? I also love the technical aspect of ’cross. It’s not just about fitness. You have to be able to handle the bike through mud, over hurdles and a variety of other obstacles!

CXM: How does it feel being a woman in the sport? Especially at the highest levels, do you feel like it’s different than being a male pro racer?

GW: Being a woman in the sport is definitely a different experience. I don’t feel like we are taken as seriously as the men, and I get frustrated that we are not given equal prize money 99% of the time.

CXM: When you first started racing, how did it feel being a woman entering a male-dominated sport?

GW: A little intimidating in some respects. There are a lot more women racing now, as opposed to when I started ten years ago and it wasn’t always easy to get help as you were treated like some one who didn’t know anything about bikes. I’m not saying everyone was like this, as I did also get some fantastic help along the way from men who saw potential in me as a bike racer.

CXM: Do you think there are more women in cyclocross now than a few years ago?

GW: Definitely. I am seeing more and more woman compete at the UK National Cyclocross series every year, which is just fantastic for the sport and women’s cycling. It means so much more to make the podium when you’re up against 20 women, instead of ten.

CXM: Do you see the sport growing for women? (Both as a casual endeavor and at the pro level)

GW: Yes I do. I think ultimately it’s going to grow more at a casual level because it is quite an easy sport to take part in. You don’t have to train for hours on end to compete in a ’cross race and it doesn’t have to take up a whole day. More women in the sport means more coverage and will help to raise the profile of women’s cycling, which is definitely good news.

CXM: Do you feel like there are any sexist attitudes in the sport? (from officials, male racers, press, etc.)

GW: Yes, I don’t like to bring it up, but I see it all the time. Women’s races/results get forgotten about, ignored or disregarded in favor of men’s results. We are not paid equal prize money and I find this incredibly demotivating. Ironically, if women were paid the same amount as men, there would be more of us on the start line and therefore people would take the sport more seriously.

CXM: Did you feel like it was harder to develop yourself as a pro cyclist because you were female? (getting lucrative sponsors, etc.)

GW: Yes and that is ongoing. Women’s cycling still has a fair way to go before it reaches equality. Unfortunately, this is not helped by female cyclists who are now taking their clothes off for advertising/magazine to get attention and money. The majority of female cyclists work so hard to get some type of equality/recognition and doing things like this doesn’t help us gain any respect.

CXM: Do you feel like your experience as a professional athlete has been impacted by the fact that you’re female, or has it never really been an issue?

GW: It has, but I don’t want to dwell on that, because even though things aren’t perfect, they are a lot better than what they were say 10-15 years ago. I mean to think that women didn’t even get the right to ‘vote’ in most countries till early in the 20th century, we have to remind ourselves how far we’ve come since then!

CXM: What message would you pass on to young girls who are interested in the sport?

GW: Have fun with it and don’t take it too seriously when you start. I was very intense when I first got into bike racing and forgot to just go with the flow. Set yourself realistic goals, but don’t beat yourself up if things don’t go quite to plan, just think ‘oh well, that was a learning curve, next race I’ll do that differently’. If you know someone locally who has been doing ’cross for a while and doing well, have a chat with them. You can learn heaps from someone else’s experiences.

CXM: What’s the best training advice you have for women entering the sport?

GW: Make sure you have a good set of pedals for ’cross. If you race in predominately muddy conditions, don’t buy spd’s – get some crank brothers or something that clears mud fast. You’ll thank yourself in the race, as your flying by your competitors who still trying to clip back in … Also don’t plan too far in advance when you first start. Do a few races and see how you get on. Also be patient and don’t be too hard on yourself. It can take a few seasons to fall on your feet, so have fun at every stage and most importantly enjoy it.

CXM: Any racing tips for new women?

GW: Yes, just go for it, don’t hold back on the start line or doubt yourself. ’Cross is the one sport where it’s fundamental to get a good start, so be aggressive. You’re on that start line because you’re good enough. Don’t be afraid or intimated by anyone else in the field. They all had to start somewhere and just because they look fast doesn’t always necessarily mean they are.