Women’s cycling has been at the forefront of the sport’s progress this year. It began with continued demands from pro women racers for a minimum wage. It continued with women contesting the same number of events as men at the Olympics for the first time. And it has ended with the UCI announcing equal prize money for women and men at every future world championship (except the separately funded team time trial). The viability of women’s racing was highlighted by the brilliant victories of Dutch phenom Marianne Vos at the cyclocross worlds, the women’s Giro d’Italia, and the Olympic and worlds road races. But has women’s racing truly progressed since America’s Connie Carpenter won the first-ever women’s Olympic cycling event in 1984, along with overall titles in the Coors Classic, which was raced at the same time and on similar courses to the men’s race? To find out, I recently chatted with Carpenter, who remains a strong advocate for women’s cycling, over a morning coffee.
Connie, you raced in the 1980s when women’s racing looked as though it would soon be recognized alongside men’s racing, with events like the Coors Classic and the Olympics having dual races. It then dropped off, and it’s starting to pick up again, but it doesn’t appear to be at the level when you were racing 30 years ago. Is that true?
I think it’s pretty hard for this generation of women to appreciate what it was like in the 1980s. On the one hand you can look at pictures of us and our equipment, like friction shifting, and say, “Well, that was the ’80s.” On the other hand, you can look at the crowds who watched us at the Coors Classic and say, “Wow, we don’t get that….”
For me, when we were trying to bring the bike race back to Colorado—I was on the governor’s commission for that—my sole goal was to see the men and women racing side by side again because I feel so strongly that that’s the way it needs to be in order for the fan base to be there…. Like tennis, we’re never going to be as strong as the men but we can still race exciting races, and there’s still captivating personalities and everything like that. And for me, that was a big failure [of the USA Pro Challenge], because the model since the ’80s has been men’s racing, men’s racing, men’s racing…and every now and then a women’s race. A lot of those are stand-alone women’s races, and I think what’s been problematic for women’s cycling right now is the lack of side-by-side events with the men.
What do you think is the way forward?
I think the way forward, honestly, is to legislate it. And that either means the UCI or USA Cycling; someone has to take the lead. When you create a new event, when you’re going to put 10 million dollars or whatever into a new event, you have the obligation to run a concurrent women’s event. And I’ve asked at the UCI, I’ve asked at almost every level, but nobody sees it as a necessity. To me, it’s the lifeline.
The initial breakthrough for women’s racing was the result of British pioneer Eileen Gray making her voice heard. When she began campaigning for women’s racing, there wasn’t even a world championship for women. She got into the legislative side of the sport and made it happen. She became president of the British Cycling Federation and spoke up for women at the highest levels of the UCI. Did you ever meet her?
I knew her, yeah, back when I was racing…. And I think that’s what’s really lacking today. The UCI has grown so much but it’s grown around the men’s side of the sport, and what even I don’t understand is there’s this incredible push for global cycling, taking the sport into Africa, into China and all of Asia, but where’s the women’s component of that? So when the UCI is mandated to create the Tour of Beijing, there’s not a women’s race? I mean, let’s do that. Why not? And not at a separate time, but at the same time. It has to be side by side.
But, again, there’s no model for it, no mandate for it, and it’s just a topic that gets left on the table and every so often somebody says, let’s have a women’s race. Oh, good idea, but…. We need to showcase women’s racing. Women’s racing is exciting. Granted, I didn’t follow a lot of races in the ’90s, after I retired; I was having kids. So I probably missed a generation there, but since then I’ve been following it a lot more.
So what races have you seen recently?
This past year, for example, I went to the Alfredo Binda World Cup race, up in the northern part of Italy. Of course, you get a pretty good crowd at the small town [Cittiglio] where it starts and finishes, but what was interesting to me was there were not many people out on the road. Frankly, it’s not that impressive if you see races like that, even though the racing itself is impressive.
Today, the standard in women’s cycling is for longer races and point-to-point races, and fewer circuit races. That’s a shame because a lot of the races I did were circuit races where the crowds could gather. Again, if you want people watching women’s racing it doesn’t work so well just to see them fly by and not see them again, especially if it’s not on television. When you go to a Tour stage, for example, you can see them fly by and then retreat to your television, and watch the rest of it on TV.
One of the few women’s events that had live TV this year was the London Olympics, where the women’s road race was held on a separate day from the men’s and the spectators still came out in their hundreds of thousands to watch, and it was actually a better race than the men’s race….
Yes, it was a great race, and unfortunately it rained, and so the crowd diminished somewhat at the end. But what I saw in London, which was absolutely stunning for me, wasn’t just in cycling; it was in other sports too. I went to the women’s soccer final at Wembley Stadium, where I was sitting in a sold-out stadium of 80,000 rabid fans of women’s soccer. And then I saw the women’s marathon…and for a small pack of 50 or so women you had millions of people out on the sides of the road five-deep, at overpasses, everywhere, to watch the women run by. And then you had the women’s road race where people were stacked deep to the side of the road, and to me that really showed in so many sports how far women’s sports have come. But then we go back to the everyday business of cycling, and we say, wait a minute.
Even so, women’s cycling is developing its own stars in the media, including world and Olympic champ Marianne Vos, two-time Olympic time-trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, and former Wall Street banker Evelyn Stevens….
When Evelyn, who moved to Boulder last year, trains with the guys, it’s a lot like when I trained with the guys. It really earns a lot of respect among the men, but that same respect doesn’t cross over necessarily into racing. And so how do you take that to the next level? These women are very professional, extremely fit and extremely talented, but nobody sees them.
That reminds me of a story I was just writing about the 1969 worlds in Czechoslovakia when I went training with the British women’s team, whose Bernadette Swinnerton took the silver medal in the road race behind America’s first road champion Audrey McElmury—who raced against the men in California as part of her preparation.
In 1977, when we had the world championships in San Cristóbal, Venezuela, because the roads weren’t that safe and there weren’t many [paved] roads, almost all the teams trained together. And during that week of training I actually made more friends who are still working in pro cycling—people like Francesco Moser and Vittorio Algeri, who I exchanged jerseys with—and for them that experience was a big deal because they’d never trained with women before. We’d go up and over a climb with them and they’d be looking at us and going, whoa!
I think there’s a lack of respect for women’s racing that needs to change, and as a sport we need to recognize that global cycling doesn’t just mean pushing pro men’s racing into other countries it means [women’s racing too]. We’ll do more as a sport for women in under-served countries than we could ever do for men in under-served countries. But that’s not the model right now. That’s what needs to change, and I was really hoping we could lead the way with that in Colorado, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Do you think staging a women’s race alongside the men at Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge is still a possibility?
No. Everybody said to me, If we have a race, the first year let’s get it off the ground, then the next year we can add the women’s race. I said, If you start it without it you’ll never have it.
There is the small women’s Aspen race that has used the same finish line as the Aspen stage of the U.S. Pro Challenge the past two years….
Not the same…. If every town—and this goes for the Tour of California, and all the stage races…. If every town conducted a women’s circuit race of some sort, I think even that would generate a considerable amount of interest. But even then, there’s not enough infrastructure for that, and I don’t think there’s a lot of interest from [California and Colorado race organizer] Medalist Sports for that.
It just means extra work for them….
Extra work, yeah. They don’t see the benefit. At the Tour of California, they throw in [a women’s time trial]…but I don’t know. Women’s racing shouldn’t just be a sideshow. I always use women’s tennis as the example. Part of what they did early on was legislated equal prize money [for every tournament], and because they had equal prize money [the tennis organizers] were like, we’d better showcase the women then…. And it’s not a factor that the women play only three sets against the men’s five, and why women cyclists race only 100K versus the men’s 200K. That’s not the point. The point is the quality of the competition, showcasing the quality of the competition, and building the infrastructure so the sport can grow. If it’s seen by a lot of people then it will grow.
Perhaps there should be some sort of commission to promote women’s racing. There are no real advocates for it…other than a few voices like yours.
There are some strong voices out there, but they just need to come together. Most of it is that we just get on with our lives, we have children and other work, so the smart women who have left the sport have really left the sport, which is too bad. There are not so many women that stay in the sport as they do in the men’s, where a Bernard Hinault is working for ASO, or a Jonathan Vaughters is leading a team…. They stay in because it’s a business for them. Not so much for the women. So that’s something we lack too.
But there’s not a place for them to go or aspire to.
That’s a good point.
One last question. When you were winning the Coors Classic, the Olympic road race and world track titles, what’s the one event that sticks in your mind?
Actually, one of the most instructive races I ever had was racing in a men’s stage race in Colorado, when we raced on the Tour of the Moon circuit in Grand Junction. I remember being dropped on the climb [that rises some 2,000 feet in 6 miles] by Alexi Grewal and a couple of other great climbers, and realizing I had to ride my own pace…. Guys had gotten dropped after me and I would go by them, because I was chasing, trying to get back on. I’d say, C’mon, work with me. A lot of them were just hanging on, and some of them, trying to save face, would take a pull across the top of the mountain, and we re-caught the leaders.
The best, most memorable races for me were always in the men’s races because that’s where I really learned how to race. Because when you’re racing from the front [in a women’s race] it’s a whole different viewpoint as everybody is just trying to stay with you.
And at that Colorado race, when I realized I could catch back up to Alexi Grewal after a climb like that, I looked at women’s races differently. I saw what it meant to catch back up to me, and what you have to do to make the difference, but I also understood the mentality of the chasers and especially as it related to being a woman. There was a fair bit of that, saving face. Some of the men racers who saw me come by in that event were just completely demoralized, and didn’t even try to get on….
The most fun I ever had racing were the men’s races, especially when [my husband] Davis’s team was there because they would help me a little bit. And they would actually encourage me to take a flyer or try to get away. My big goal was to one day sneak away and stay away…but there was no sneaking when you were the only woman in the pack. No way.
I think racing against the men is something today’s women lack. The conversation goes to Marianne Vos: should she be able to race in men’s races? The problem is the structure today; it’s so much more rigid, especially in Europe. She can’t just jump into any race she wants. And that’s too bad because it would be fun—for her and for the people watching.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson