Three-time world champion Giorgia Bronzini and up-and-comer Chloe Hosking have both been in the news recently, commenting on the state of women's professional cycling. The Italian stating eloquently, "We're relegated to walk-on parts." The Australian, well, was maybe not so eloquent.
No matter how they’ve expressed it, their point is well-taken and rings as true today as it did when I was racing back in the 80's and 90's. There was and still is a palpable lack of interest in women's racing, reflected in the amount of promotion women cyclists receive, the number of quality races they can expect to compete in, and the level of salaries and prize purses they can earn.
I received a lot from the sport that I devoted 15+ years to. Through the struggles, pain and hard-won triumphs,I learned discipline, teamwork and compassion. These are the things cycling offers to its athletes – male and female. Yet I also learned how to work paycheck to paycheck or from win to win when there was no paycheck. I became accustomed not expecting an organized team and a legitimate race calendar.
As I read Giorgia and Chloe’s comments – now as an industry executive, a sponsor of the sport, and Giorgia’s bike sponsor – I see the lack of attention to women's cycling from a different perspective. Don't get me wrong – it's still personal – but add to that my experience in the bike business, and I now see more than inequality. I see a missed business opportunity for the whole bicycle industry.
Today, it is widely known among marketers and retailers that women make more than 80 percent of all consumer purchases. And when not directly purchasing, they heavily influence the purchasing decisions of their friends and family.
What may be less widely known is the fact that women are not only the purchasers of more bikes but also actively participate in the sport at some level. In the Netherlands, women make up 55 percent of all riders. In Germany, 49 percent of bike trips are made by women. Surprisingly, statistics reveal similar numbers in the U.S., where women make up anywhere between 43- to 47 percent of the bicycle riding population.
What does this tell us? That the women are out there, and they’re primed and ready – waiting for us to reach out to them. Take the U.S. alone: there are approximately 20 million women who have some level of interest in cycling.
We've already made big strides. Manufacturers are doing their part – making better products that are specifically designed to fit and appeal to women. Governments are taking action to improve roadways and create safer riding routes (one of the biggest concerns for women is safety). Non-profits and even for-profits, such as insurance companies, are providing ways for women to get involved in the sport as a means of achieving a healthier lifestyle and more efficient transportation.
The missing piece of the equation? The entity that can have the most profound effect on growing the sport: cycling's governing body – the UCI. Along with the sport's biggest event promoters – the ASO, RCS and Medalist Sports – the UCI has the power to stimulate the women's market and create a more complete and comprehensive women's cycling program.
I want to offer a personal challenge to Mr. Pat McQuaid to be at the forefront of this potentially huge growth opportunity. Rather than passively stating, "Women's cycling has not developed enough," why don't you lead the charge? Having more women riding fits perfectly within the charter of the UCI and its "Cycling for All" initiative that promises "to increase the participation in cycle-sport events" by "working closely with National Federations, governments, and other stakeholders."
The UCI is often accused by the bicycle industry of holding back bicycle innovation by placing limitations on technological advances and instituting rules that seemingly slow progress. This is done in part to ensure that competition is human, not technological, and that rich countries or companies can't take control of the sport. While both arguments have merit, it’s certainly controversial turf.
Getting women involved in the sport is a less contentious way to grow cycling. More participants mean more opportunity for everyone – athletes, race promoters, governing bodies, manufacturers, sponsors and media.
Consider Title IX: "No person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance..." Title IX forever changed women's sports in the United States and should be the model the UCI uses to develop worldwide growth.
Here is a start for the UCI's version of Title IX:
· Mandate that WorldTour teams have a professional women's team and that WorldTour Calendar races must have women's events.
· Provide incentives for non-WorldTour race promoters to offer women racing opportunities that rival those of the Giro d'Italia, the Tour of California and the Tour de France.
· Actively promote women's cycling. Make it an attractive choice for women athletes.
· Work with other NGOs to formulate strong programs that reach out to women who find entering the sport intimidating and offer a clear pathway to the pro level.
· And lastly, help team owners and directors become a part of a professional women's network.
I've seen initiatives such as these being pursued on a grassroots level, and I understand that there are obstacles for implementation worldwide. I also understand that change takes time. But until these programs are mandated from the top, movement and growth for the sport of cycling will remain stagnant.
My challenge is out there, and I stand by it, seeing the marketing value in having sponsored some of the strongest women's teams in the world. As an industry, let's create an environment that will attract sponsors and spectators to women's cycling. It will take an exciting, consistent race calendar, and it will take a mandate by the UCI and national governing organizations. But it's a challenge that when overcome will significantly enhance the industry, the sport, and the lives of some of the world's most talented athletes – likeGiorgia Bronzini and Chloe Hosking.
Karen Bliss is a former U.S. professional cyclist who earned the title "Winningest Cyclist in North America" during her career. She is currently the vice president of marketing for Advanced Sports International/Fuji Bicycles, a company that was her first bike sponsor and which has been sponsoring women's cycling consistently since the 1970s.
Fuji has sponsored some of the best women and women's cycling teams in the world including: Petra Rosner, Judith Arndt, Regina Schleicher, Kristin Armstrong, Amber Neben, Shelly Olds, Annika Langren, Mara Abbott, Sarah Haskins, Carol Addy, Jeanne Golay, Connie Paraskevin, Fuji-Suntour, Sundance-Fuji, World TEAM, Equipe Nurnberger, Lipton, Peanut Butter/2012, and Diadora/Pasta-Zara.
"Marketing to Women: How to Increase Your Share of the World Largest Market" by Marti Barletta.
U.S. National Sporting Goods Association.
President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
Bikes Belong Foundation.