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New England Bike Races Nudge Cycling Toward Gender Equality

For the first time this year, the Exeter Classic – a “criterium” style bike race – offered equal prize money in their pro women's race as their pro men’s race.  In September, the Portsmouth Criterium will also offer an equal purse to women for the first time.

Top female bike racers say regional race directors in New England and Northern California are pushing national and international governing bodies toward equality for women as they make room for women’s races and attract sponsors for equal prize money.

  On Tuesday night in Exeter, 50 pro-level women sped around corners nearing 25 miles per hour. At the finish, audience cheers broke into gasps as four women careened off their bikes in the sprint finish.  They were vying for a piece of the $1225 purse, distributed among the top 10 finishers.  

Criteriums are fast, aggressive road races known for crashes as cyclists do laps in a pack around a tight course.

The Glass Ceiling

For years, race directors have claimed there are too few female competitors to offer women’s races or prize money.  But increasingly, race directors are changing their tune.

Third place winner Gabby Durrin is a full-time cyclist who took home $360 on Tuesday night. “It’s really awesome when organizers are able to do equal prize money,” she says, “because not every race does that.”

Frustrated with the disparity in opportunities for female cyclists, top racer Robin Farina started the Women’s Cycling Association in 2013.

“You know the men’s’ teams have an RV, and everyone is getting paid a minimum salary. The women – we’re struggling to make it to races, to have enough equipment to go around, even I dare say jerseys, kits.”

The Old Bottom Line

There are gender-based disparities at regional and local races, too. Thomson Riley runs the other road race on the Seacoast, the Portsmouth Criterium. He says if women don’t show up, the money doesn’t add up. In Portsmouth, he says, it can cost about $2,000 for an hour of racing. An equal purse will run about $1,000.  “[If] there are 5 or 10 people who show up for that race paying $30 to race,” Riley says, the organizer is out more than $2,500.

This year, Riley is also offering a pro women’s race with equal prize money for the first time. His fellow race organizer in Exeter, Drew Szeliga, says organizers have to be proactive if they want to grow the sport and attract more racers and bigger audiences.

“How can you encourage women to show up to a race if you aren’t going to offer them the same money - they are doing the same work, they have to travel the same distances they are putting themselves at the same risks? Everything’s equal except for the prize money.”

Szeliga and Riley see themselves as part of a collection of ahead-of-the-curve New England race directors who are pushing the sport toward gender equality from the grassroots. Szeliga says ultimately, he hopes the international governing entity, UCI, will regulate women’s teams the same way they regulate men’s teams.

“For big [men’s] cycling teams, there’s a minimum that riders have to make. For women, there’s no minimum,” Szeliga says.  If you’re on a women’s professional cycling team, Szeliga says, you’re probably not making enough to live on.

Robin Farina says most paid female pros make between $8 and $15 thousand dollars a year. The top of the field is closer to $25,000. Only a very few can make $50,000.

The New Bottom Line

Race directors say it is now possible to award equal prize money because bike shop managers see dollar signs when it comes to female riders and female spectators.

Colonial Bike Shop manager Pete Mead says he’s always looking for marketing opportunities in the community. This year, his shop is the sole sponsor of Exeter’s women’s race. Colonial put up $1500 for that title, and will be doing the same for Portsmouth’s women’s race in September.

“I think there’s a lot more money to be made with women in cycling purchases than with men,” Mead says.

Not only is there more growth in women’s cycling, buy the men’s market is somewhat saturated, he says. Mead also says women also buy their kids' bikes, and even approve their husbands' bike purchases.  That’s why Colonial Bike Shop sponsors a women’s team and women’s race events.

Women riders may not have always come out in large numbers for regional races. But if the 2015 Exeter Classic is any indication – things are moving in that direction. This year, Szeliga says, he had a goal of 30 female racers. After some heavy recruitment, his field had 51. 

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