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!