Women’s Wednesdays: The Women Of Cyclocross Speak Up

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Women: just as tough as men on the cyclocross course. © Cyclocross Magazine

Women: just as tough as men on the cyclocross course. © Cyclocross Magazine

by Molly Hurford

There have been two specific incidents in the past month that got me seriously thinking about what it means to be a female racer.

The first: I was at a race with my friend, and he and I were standing around waiting for results to be posted after a time trial that we had both done. He left to get something from the car and after he walked away, results were posted. I went over to look, and as I was searching for my name, the guy to my left said, “You need to look over here for your boyfriend’s results.” Thanks, buddy, but I was looking for mine.

The second: as the women lined up to start a road race, us “ladies” (not racers) were told by the announcer that we were all “very good at pinning numbers,” because “none of your ponytails are blocking the numbers like they usually do.” It wasn’t meant as an insult, but it was one just the same.

Last time I checked, we were racing the same course, the same distance and the same intensity as the men, so why were we being treated like children, or like the “weaker sex”?

Both of those incidents ended with me chatting with women around me, trading stories about being a woman racer. And that leads me to the best part, for me, of being a female cyclist: we’re a small but mighty group, and the camaraderie is amazing. Don’t get me wrong: I love being a female cyclist (wouldn’t trade it for anything, especially not a Y chromosome), I think there are so many great things about it, but as with anything, it has its issues.

We’ve heard, in past Women’s Wednesday interviews, from women who’ve said that finding sponsor money is harder, the payouts aren’t nearly as lucrative and being taken seriously in the sport is more of a challenge. Today, we asked all types of women cyclists the questions, “what is the hardest part of being a woman cyclist? And what’s the best part?” Answered ranged from serious to humorous, and I was amazed at how many women had a lot to say about the cycling scene.

From the Twit-o-sphere:

Eva_DP: “There’s a bit of a prejudice that women don’t know a lot about cycling.”

IlliniSuze: “Getting equal race time and equal payout is the hardest. The best is beating the boys.”

ChristineInLou: “Best is feeling empowered on the road or trail and always learning. Worst is small race numbers, pay outs and such.”

AnalogAmanda: “Hardest is the assumption that we’re weaker (and so we get shorter/less tech races), and being told I ‘look cute all muddy.’ Compliments like ‘great race, nice work’ etc are always welcome, however.”

DivingCaroline: “Hardest is finding female-specific kit in colors other than pink or baby blue.”

CXHelen: “The worst is not getting treated as equal to men (in Europe) and best is the male:female ratio!”

eGrindcore: “This goes for both: I have tons of wonderful women to ride with, but very few toe the line at races.”

EGray2: “Best: Respect. Worst: Getting no respect.”

MuddySkier: “Hardest: finding consistent training buddies; small fields means everyone knows you had a bad day. Best: getting covered in mud every weekend and incredible teammate and team support since there are only a few of us ladies.”

TakeWrning: “Worst: being lapped by a guy and lack of good women-specific product reviews. Best: Riding with awesome ladies!”

MissCThompson: “I see a lack of appropriate-level large group rides and training races. You’ve got to be super strong to hang with the guys. Best part is being part of an awesome community of strong, supportive and friendly women.”

T_Bonn: “This isn’t hard, but it is annoying (and I email organizers): when the men’s 4 race is 40 minutes, but the women’s 3/4 is only 30. One promoter emailed me back and said that they were 30 minutes so ‘women would feel welcome.’ What?! Also, don’t like when the registration fee for women 3/4 and men 4 is the same price, but only the dudes get payout. Love that women are amazingly supportive during races: like when Lauren Kling cheers me on from another part of the course!”

A couple of our wonderful pro women chimed in as well:

Christine Vardaros added a humorous voice to the debate (while stating a real issue for women) saying, “The most difficult part about being a woman in cyclocross is having to pee just before the race. We have to strip all the way down in freezing cold conditions while the boys stay nicely dry and warm and have the job done in a fraction of the time.”

Genevieve Whitson also added her two cents: “I’d say the hardest part is not getting the same recognition or exposure as the men’s races or the same prize money. We train and race just as hard as the men and deserve to be treated the same. Everyone in the cycling world knows who Mark Cavendish is, but if I were to name ten of the top female cyclist in the world, at least half the cycling community would look at me blankly. The best part: having lovely male friends in the pits willing to wash and clean my bikes,  as well as an abundance of men to teach me more about servicing and maintaining my bike for the ’cross season.”

And the Facebook and Cowbell Forum community also had quite a bit to say on the topic:

Cooper Ambjorn-Olsen: “For me, the hardest part is just the lack of respect. We aren’t presumed to train as hard, race as hard, want it as bad or deserve it as much. Look at the payouts at the elite level. And I’m very lucky, I get to race in the OVCX series that takes women’s racing seriously. But others aren’t as lucky.”

Linda Elgart: “I’ve always been a woman racer, so it’s hard to know how it would be as any other kind. As I get older, I notice the lack of women’s masters races, but we still don’t have the critical mass to have age groups. In NorCal, we are lucky to sometimes have women 35+, but only at districts and nationals can we race with our age group. I’m hoping as time goes on, the numbers will be there and eventually women’s masters racing will be as thriving as men’s.”

Karen Wh: “I agree with what Linda said. As I get older, I also notice the lack of age groups other than 35+. As a 59-year-old rider, it sure would be nice to at least have a 45+ like the men have or, even better, a 55+. It might encourage more older ladies to give it a try. Fortunately, like Cooper, I compete in the OVCX series which has a great group of ladies who make it fun to be out there racing. The friendliness and camaraderie in the lady’s group is what makes it the best part of racing.”

Kim Dubeck: “The hardest part about being a woman racer is the relatively smaller fields (compared to the numbers in the men’s races) and how challenging the jump from B’s to elite was. Being a full-time working single parent, I found it really difficult last season to dedicate the necessary training and focus required to effectively compete at that level. It was worlds apart from racing in the larger B field. I’m sure I’ll eventually strike a a balance, as my son gets older and my life circumstances change and evolve. Until then, you will find me wholeheartedly plugging along at the back of the pack.

The best part of being a woman racer? Racing affords me a great opportunity to set goals and keep trying (not that there’s anything inherently “female” about that, but I think it’s a great example to my son). I love the adventures that racing brings … a constant change of scenery and being a part of something “else.”

Beth: “The hardest thing? In road it’s that there are frequently no fields or even races to do. Not so in ’cross. For me the hardest thing is to balance work/family/husband that races … and coordinating our warmups and racing while juggling two small children. The best part? The atmosphere of inclusion and the great friends I’ve made. People are supportive regardless of how fast or slow you are. It’s always a good time!”

Eleanor Blick: “I think the best thing about racing for me is the camaraderie in the local women’s fields. We’ll duke it out with our game faces on while on the course, but five minutes later when we’ve all caught our breath we’re chatting and laughing about what just happened, who face-planted in the mud and who had the best sprint. The diversity in the fields is awesome too: the woman who beat me yesterday is more than twice my age and I look forward to seeing her and catching up every time we race or ride together.

Of course, that tight-knit social circle can be a curse too. When you’re racing the same small group of people every week things get a little bland. I keep joking that this season it will be a race for 4th place. Even the pre-registered names for USGP Madison just look like the front line of a Chicago Cross Cup race right now. More women equals more surprises, and I like surprises. But I have to say, the number one long-standing battle I’ve faced as a female racer is finding a saddle that I can ride for more than 45 minutes. I can give you 5,000 words on this, easy!”

Thanks to all the wonderful women who chimed in. And promoters, take note of how many women are ready to compete and have some serious opinions about the way races should be run!

Let us know if you have an opinion to add about best/worst parts of women’s racing below in the comments, or continue the conversation on the Cowbell Forums!



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I think that awareness of Women's issues coming into play at races is extremely important. We (as a society) like to pretend that women are now magically paid equally and that childcare is now equally distributed among both parents. The reality is quite the opposite. I hate hearing the comment "maybe if I can pawn the kids off on the wife/girlfriend I can race/ride."


I believe that utter encouragement from both men and women racers, riders, and promoters needs to occur and be more of a priority for everyone. This can mean a discount for Women's Categories, equal race/lap times, equal payouts, and offering to sit the kiddos so she can warm up and race.

I can remember sitting in a field of over 100 women at a CX race last year and almost crying at how amazing it was. I also found myself thinking: "I cannot wait for a day when this is just normal". I ride with mostly women now and they are all amazing, fast, and challenging to ride with. I feel lucky.

Issues of gender in cycling in general need to be written about more. The problem with cycling articles on women, specific training, or femininity, is that they are written from the overarching dichotomy that plagues our culture.. Boy/Girl; Man/Woman; Feminine/Masculine and oh so straight. So many people in our communities identify outside of this or in between this. Where is their place?



The anonymous commenter makes a really good point - why aren't female endurance athletes into cycling as much as other sports? Well, I've participated in a lot of different endurance sports for the past 20 years, including triathlon, open water swimming, and running. Cycling is the only sport I have participated in that did not provide equality in the categories and prizes offered.

When looking at participation in extreme sports around the world, there is nothing that comes to my mind to demonstrate that women are not interested in competition or risk taking. Women are willing to push through just about any circumstance to follow their dreams. So why aren't more women dreaming of cycling?

When I was a teen and transitioning from competitive pool swimming to open water swimming, I was thrilled that I could win tangible, valuable items at these races. Just like the men, I am a competitor and I want to be rewarded as such. As I got into triathlon and running, I never felt like a lesser participant, because the women always had the exact same categories and prizes as the men. In pro triathlon, equal prize money is paid to both sexes. The male and female winners may be Olympians, and the 10th place athletes are chasing their dreams. They are all deserving of their rewards. The 75-year-old female Ironman finisher gets her own 5-year age group, just like the men. The sport, as an institution, understands that it is not okay to say that as a minority, women will be given less.

In order to compete in cycling, I have had to accept the fact that I am considered "lesser than" by the institution as a whole. I am grateful to the promoters and sponsors who go against the grain to do what is right and provide an equal experience for women. It goes beyond the prizes. For example, as a pro cyclist, I do not appreciate that when I look up results online, I have to scroll past every single male category that is listed above the women. C'mon folks. Pro is pro. Beginner is beginner. Women want respect. I wish for a fundamental change. It doesn't matter if the age-groups are not all filled, or if the prizes are not all claimed. Cycling needs to retire the excuse that smaller women's fields are a reason to give less to those who do participate.

Jay Melena
Jay Melena

Encourage more girls and young women to try the sport. My LBS has a youth development team, and guess what, it's all boys! WTF? I live in NorCal (bay area) so this is surprising. Create high school teams or sport clubs that have loaner bikes. Sometimes it's not necessarily a social factor, but a financial factor to any young person joining the sport. When I was in high school (1990's era, very progressive city) we didn't have a cycling team. My friend had a super sweet cannondale road bike and I couldn't imagine affording something like that. Now I have 5+ bikes for all types of riding, and race at a high level locally. But I didn't start racing until I was 26. Too bad I didn't get an earlier start.


That's why I asked for the hardest AND best parts! I think a lot of the women (myself included) had a lot of positive things to say about racing. I'm from the New England area myself, and I've had a lot of great experiences. I put the question out in all of our forums and posted the answers we received- both good and bad. I'm really happy that you did respond to this post with positive feedback, I wish I had your reply when I was crafting the post! (I really like your idea about starting to split the 3 and 4 field- I think a lot of women would like that, especially in the bigger Verge and Mac fields.)
And this is my first foray into looking into the "women's issues"- until now, Women's Wednesdays have been devoted to science and interviews, so this is all new territory for me. Hopefully we can do what you suggested and be talking to promoters in the future. Obviously we do give a huge thumbs up to women racers in this column, since we've highlighted so many of the great women racing- a lot of whom have had great things to say about the state of women's cycling.
It's been great getting an idea of what women are asking/talking about when it comes to racing, for better or worse. There are certainly AMAZING things about women's racing, and there are things we can fix. I'm just hoping to start a conversation!


Hey Molly,

why are you so much negative-frustrated about women's racing? Why you never focus on actual improvement in women's cyclocross racing? I raced 3 seasons in New England in the 3-4 field and last year was much more positive, rewarding and the participation was also higher. Our series has been recognized for the first time, with a leader jersey and staging by series point vs no series, jersey and registration order for staging. Also, most of the promoters-officials agreed to give us 40 minutes of racing time and our start was before the cub-junior. Maybe you don't remember that there was often a 10-12 years old kid that was still in the holeshot area while we were all coming together and some women were stuck behind him. Gloucester, Providence and Northampton had more than 70 starters and we were 99 at G-star. Several local races in the Boston area had more than 40 starters.

I remember that after a race early in the season that the promoter Adam Myerson came to talk to the women and mentioned to us his interest in women cx racing and what we would like to have. Maybe a better communication between the promoter and the women racer can help? A lot of women would like to have a master field with a proper staging. I noticed that the stronger women in that field were getting yelled sandbagger by spectators or other women instead of acknowledgement of good performance and skill. Maybe it is time to have a cat 4 and cat 3 women field? What about the junior women? It is something rare.

Even if NECX improves a lot the racing experience for women in the intermediate category last season, there is more to do than complaints about lack of payout because the category 3 men has money. None of us are riding or racing for an income with the exception of the elite categories.

Please use your column to say something positive about women racing and thanks to give us attention in general!


An anonymous commenter wanted me to post this, and I think he makes a few great points:

Cycling century rides have 50% (+/-) female participation, running races from 5K to marathon often have more women than men and triathlons have enough female participation to warrant major women-only tri's. So what is it about bike racing that is such a disincentive for female participation compared to these other endurance sports that, on the surface, would seem to appeal to the same type of athlete? Has anybody studied this? If so, I've never seen it. One thing is certain, women are not men -- so treating them as though they are just a slower men's class will frustrate the women, the promoters and even a fair number of the men competitors. I'm on dangerous ground here I know, but women are not generally inspired by the same emotional stimuli as men . THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS, but we all know certain things appeal more to men them women, and vice-versa (how many guys do you know that saw the Mamma Mia or Twilight movies multiple times?). The ultimate problem may be that, for whatever reason, bike racing may only be appealing to the minority of the general female population that are those exceptions. If that's the case, then we need to be asking women endurance athletes who DON"T race bikes how to increase the fields. I'm NOT saying that we need to make the sport cute or pretty (mud runs draw plenty of women competitors). I'm making the point that there are a LOT of women endurance athletes in America, maybe we should find out why THEY aren't racing bikes to better understand what needs to be done.


Wow! It sounds like you're really doing your part to promote the sport for women, and I really admire you for that. Keep up the good work- and let us know if we can help you in any way!


As a race promoter in Southwestern Ohio who puts on 15-20 events (mainly road) each year, I would like to chime in a bit. For the past couple of years, I have been listening to the local women racers and trying to improve the race quality in the area as far as category breakdowns, prize money, and if possible, age groups. I have been experiencing a lot of the same things everyone has mentioned above with the small field sizes. Only 13% of licensed racers in USA Cycling are women. What do we need to do to increase this number?

I have been putting on a weeknight race series the past couple of years that is geared towards giving the entry level racers some additional race experience. I would typically have 6-7 women each week in the Women's Cat 3/4 field. I did have one week that brought out 11 women, but also had another week that only brought out 1 woman. These races also offered the same prize money for this women's field as it did the Men's Cat 3/4 field which would have 30+ riders in it.

A couple of years ago, I put on a road race that had two separate women's fields (not racing together) with a large prize purse. It ended up being the lowest turnout of women I had all year and was a huge disappointment. This was something the women were asking for, separate fields and real prize money. I offered it up, and no one showed. It;s a shame that those who are most vocal won't come out and support the promoters who are trying to fight for them.

It appears to me that we need to work on getting more women into the sport. I have been trying to do this with regular races and have even been a culprit of using the phrase "more welcoming" or "less intimidating" for the women. For 2012, I am working on a women and junior weeknight training series that will specifically target the cat 4/citizen women who may be intimidated by the "Big Races" we have. We will have coaches on hand to work with the riders how to handle the course and other riders as well as a Sports Psychologist to handle the mental obstacles that newer racers have. In addition, I am also planning on putting on an "Intro to Bike Racing" seminar that just explains the different types of bikes races, what USA cycling is, what the different categories mean and how to get started in bike racing. This seminar will also have coaches on hand as well as several of our local teams recruiting so that a newer racer will have the support system as their finger tips before they even buy their first race license.

The hardest part about women's racing is getting the women to show up. The best part is the gratitude expressed from the women who do show up and recognize the hard work that I am putting in for them, even if it is they same 6 or 7 women that come out to all of the races.

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