Womens cycling has been at the forefront of the sports 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 womens racing was highlighted by the brilliant victories of Dutch phenom Marianne Vos at the cyclocross worlds, the womens Giro dItalia, and the Olympic and worlds road races. But has womens racing truly progressed since Americas Connie Carpenter won the first-ever womens 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 mens race? To find out, I recently chatted with Carpenter, who remains a strong advocate for womens cycling, over a morning coffee.
Connie, you raced in the 1980s when womens racing looked as though it would soon be recognized alongside mens racing, with events like the Coors Classic and the Olympics having dual races. It then dropped off, and its starting to pick up again, but it doesnt appear to be at the level when you were racing 30 years ago. Is that true?
I think its 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 dont get that.
For me, when we were trying to bring the bike race back to ColoradoI was on the governors commission for thatmy sole goal was to see the men and women racing side by side again because I feel so strongly that thats the way it needs to be in order for the fan base to be there. Like tennis, were never going to be as strong as the men but we can still race exciting races, and theres 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 mens racing, mens racing, mens racingand every now and then a womens race. A lot of those are stand-alone womens races, and I think whats been problematic for womens 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 youre going to put 10 million dollars or whatever into a new event, you have the obligation to run a concurrent womens event. And Ive asked at the UCI, Ive asked at almost every level, but nobody sees it as a necessity. To me, its the lifeline.
The initial breakthrough for womens racing was the result of British pioneer Eileen Gray making her voice heard. When she began campaigning for womens racing, there wasnt 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 thats whats really lacking today. The UCI has grown so much but its grown around the mens side of the sport, and what even I dont understand is theres this incredible push for global cycling, taking the sport into Africa, into China and all of Asia, but wheres the womens component of that? So when the UCI is mandated to create the Tour of Beijing, theres not a womens race? I mean, lets do that. Why not? And not at a separate time, but at the same time. It has to be side by side.
But, again, theres no model for it, no mandate for it, and its just a topic that gets left on the table and every so often somebody says, lets have a womens race. Oh, good idea, but. We need to showcase womens racing. Womens racing is exciting. Granted, I didnt 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 Ive 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, its not that impressive if you see races like that, even though the racing itself is impressive.
Today, the standard in womens cycling is for longer races and point-to-point races, and fewer circuit races. Thats a shame because a lot of the races I did were circuit races where the crowds could gather. Again, if you want people watching womens racing it doesnt work so well just to see them fly by and not see them again, especially if its 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 womens events that had live TV this year was the London Olympics, where the womens road race was held on a separate day from the mens and the spectators still came out in their hundreds of thousands to watch, and it was actually a better race than the mens 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, wasnt just in cycling; it was in other sports too. I went to the womens soccer final at Wembley Stadium, where I was sitting in a sold-out stadium of 80,000 rabid fans of womens soccer. And then I saw the womens marathonand 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 womens 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 womens sports have come. But then we go back to the everyday business of cycling, and we say, wait a minute.
Even so, womens 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, its a lot like when I trained with the guys. It really earns a lot of respect among the men, but that same respect doesnt 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 womens team, whose Bernadette Swinnerton took the silver medal in the road race behind Americas first road champion Audrey McElmurywho raced against the men in California as part of her preparation.
In 1977, when we had the world championships in San Cristbal, Venezuela, because the roads werent that safe and there werent 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 cyclingpeople like Francesco Moser and Vittorio Algeri, who I exchanged jerseys withand for them that experience was a big deal because theyd never trained with women before. Wed go up and over a climb with them and theyd be looking at us and going, whoa!
I think theres a lack of respect for womens racing that needs to change, and as a sport we need to recognize that global cycling doesnt just mean pushing pro mens racing into other countries it means [womens racing too]. Well do more as a sport for women in under-served countries than we could ever do for men in under-served countries. But thats not the model right now. Thats what needs to change, and I was really hoping we could lead the way with that in Colorado, but it wasnt meant to be.
Do you think staging a womens race alongside the men at Colorados USA Pro Challenge is still a possibility?
No. Everybody said to me, If we have a race, the first year lets get it off the ground, then the next year we can add the womens race. I said, If you start it without it youll never have it.
There is the small womens 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 townand this goes for the Tour of California, and all the stage races. If every town conducted a womens circuit race of some sort, I think even that would generate a considerable amount of interest. But even then, theres not enough infrastructure for that, and I dont think theres 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 dont see the benefit. At the Tour of California, they throw in [a womens time trial]but I dont know. Womens racing shouldnt just be a sideshow. I always use womens 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, wed better showcase the women then. And its not a factor that the women play only three sets against the mens five, and why women cyclists race only 100K versus the mens 200K. Thats 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 its seen by a lot of people then it will grow.
Perhaps there should be some sort of commission to promote womens racing. There are no real advocates for itother 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 mens, where a Bernard Hinault is working for ASO, or a Jonathan Vaughters is leading a team. They stay in because its a business for them. Not so much for the women. So thats something we lack too.
But theres not a place for them to go or aspire to.
Thats a good point.
One last question. When you were winning the Coors Classic, the Olympic road race and world track titles, whats the one event that sticks in your mind?
Actually, one of the most instructive races I ever had was racing in a mens 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. Id say, Cmon, 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 mens races because thats where I really learned how to race. Because when youre racing from the front [in a womens race] its 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 womens 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 didnt even try to get on.
The most fun I ever had racing were the mens races, especially when [my husband] Daviss 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 awaybut there was no sneaking when you were the only woman in the pack. No way.
I think racing against the men is something todays women lack. The conversation goes to Marianne Vos: should she be able to race in mens races? The problem is the structure today; its so much more rigid, especially in Europe. She cant just jump into any race she wants. And thats too bad because it would be funfor her and for the people watching.