Pedaling Change8 Jul, 2014 By: Erik Gruenwedel
New documentary ‘Half the Road’ helps trigger reform in women’s pro cycling, including a race during this month’s Tour de France
As the Tour de France bicycle race enters its second century (it was founded in 1903 as a gimmick to sell newspapers), a women’s race will be held July 27 on the famed Champs-Élysées in Paris — the same finishing circuit the men will navigate hours later at the conclusion of 2,272 miles of racing over 22 days.
“La Course,” the one-day women’s event, marks the return of “les femmes” to “Le Grand Boucle” following a 25-year absence racing at the same time as the men during the most famous bike race in the world.
The new documentary Half the Road: The Passion, Pitfalls & Power of Women’s Professional Cycling (streets July 8 on DVD for $24.95 from First Run Features) showcases the challenged state of affairs female racers faced in 2012 — a predicament exacerbated by dated thinking about female athletes at Union Cycliste International (UCI), the world governing body of competitive cycling.
Written and directed by Kathryn Bertine, a 39-year-old professional cyclist and three-time national champion of St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean, Half the Road focuses on both the love of sport and the pressing issues of inequality that modern-day female riders face in a male dominated sport.
Equal Pay for Equal Pedaling
At a time when UCI rules mandate basic salary requirements for male professional cyclists, no such “minimum wage” exists for women, about half of whom, the doc claims, earn no more than $3,000 a year competing on a hodgepodge of mercurial teams “financed” more by passion than dollars.
As result, many racers, including national champions, hold down 40-hour jobs while also training and racing full time.
While economic disparity may support the inequality argument, female pro cyclists say it is intransigence within the UCI leadership toward them as true athletes (women’s races for years were limited to 50 miles or less) that relegates their sport as an afterthought to sponsors.
“We’re not just out here getting a workout, we’re racing,” said veteran competitor Emily Kachorek on the disconnect some officials in the sport have about women’s cycling.
With little respect shown by the sport’s governing body, advertisers and marketers — lifelines to underwriting professional cycling — often focus on the higher-profile men.
For example, at the Tour of Flanders in Belgium, one of the most prestigious one-day races on the UCI calendar, the women’s winner got $1,500, while the men’s winner received $95,000.
Conversely, the doc points out that in the sport of triathlon, which includes cycling, men and women winners receive matching prize money competing at the same time on the same courses over identical distances.
“I get annoyed at the inequalities in men’s and women’s pro cycling because it is just so blatant,” said Emma Pooley, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist from England.
Singing in the Rain
While Half the Road exposes double-standards female racers have faced for years, director Bertine might not have imagined the impact her film would have as catalyst for change in the sport — and her racing career.
Wiggle Honda Pro Cycling, a women’s team co-founded by 2012 Olympic gold medalist and Britain’s first Tour de France winner, Bradley Wiggins, July 3 announced it had added Bertine to its squad competing in “La Course.”
“Kathryn was instrumental in creating the ‘La Course’ race and it simply wouldn’t be right for her not to race in this potentially historic event,” Wiggle Honda Pro Cycling owner and manager Rochelle Gilmore said in a statement.
For Bertine, whose “Le Tour Entier” online petition seeking women’s racing return to the Tour de France generated 100,000 signatures, getting a chance to compete in Paris is a dream come true.
“I am over the moon … it is the highlight of my cycling career,” she said.
The UCI also announced earlier this year it had found a corporate sponsor for the Women’s Road World Cup, a series of nine global events — many televised. The sponsor, The Sufferfest, produces indoor training videos featuring women pros. It was an original financial backer of Half the Road.
“We are now looking forward to our investment supporting the UCI Women World Cup and continuing to assist with the growth of women’s cycling,” founder David McQuillen said in a statement.
Finally, Brian Cookson, the senior UCI executive oft put on the defensive in Half the Road, was elected president of the organization last September with a mandate to restore the sport’s credibility following the Lance Armstrong doping debacle.
One of Cookson’s first acts was to appoint — for the first time — a woman to an executive position within the UCI. Cookson also eliminated the rule restricting the number of female racers above the age of 28 allowed on registered teams.
When asked in the cycling media why he now considered women’s cycling a key agenda item, Cookson replied, “Because it’s half the world’s population.”