“I’m Not a Feminist, But. . .”

Marianne Vos

Marianne Vos, arguably one of the greatest cyclists, male or female of all time. Who would probably make more money flipping burgers.

Last night my partner and I went to see Half the Road: The Passion, Pitfalls, and Power of Women’s Professional Cycling, a documentary by Kathryn Bertine that describes the deliberate and systematic discrimination directed against women professional cyclists.  It is chocka with a who’s who of the women’s professional peloton (both past and present), the majority of them mightily pissed, and with good reason.  Despite the fact that women have been riding and racing bikes for as long as men, women cyclists are paid a fraction of what men are (and I mean a fraction; this is no debate about whether women make 70 or 80 per cent of a male wage; if women cyclists currently made even that much it would be a huge improvement), find it difficult to find sponsorship (and even harder to keep it), can’t usually get multi-year contracts, have fewer professional races (at any distance, often less than a third of the number of men’s races), and are actively prohibited from racing the same distances as men.

No, for those of you checking your calendars at this point,  we are not talking about something taking place in the 1800s.

The Union Cycliste Internationale.  That’s French for Fig Leaf

In fact, the documentary provides abundant evidence that the place of women in professional cycling has actually gone backward.  For example, in the 80s, there used to be a women’s Tour de France which was raced at the same time and, for the most part, over the same distances and courses as the men’s race.  Now?  According to the UCI (professional cycling’s governing body) this is now, way, way, too logistically difficult.  Apparently, with all our enhanced communication and technological prowess, we are less organizationally capable than they were back in the 80s.

The truth is, of course, that those kinds of excuses are all bogus.  There is a pretty clear villain in Bertine’s documentary (the UCI) and it is hard to argue that Bertine hasn’t got it right.  The UCI has made very clear rules defining a completely different world for women professionals than for men, and then used the fact that that world is very different to argue that women are incapable of inhabiting the same world as men.  And if this sounds very much like the way women are discriminated against in any number of professions, it should.  Some of the documentary’s most powerful arguments in fact are those that draw on the way women were once discriminated against in other sports (like running, for example).  We now look back on arguments (which were common as recently as the seventies) that women couldn’t run long distances like a marathon because their uteruses would fall out with the contempt those arguments deserved even at the time.

And yet.  The UCI has consistently argued that when it comes to cycling women are not as physically capable as men.  This is on the written record, and the point was made by the current president of the UCI repeatedly in the documentary.  Therefore all their races are capped at usually half the distance of men’s races, and there are virtually no women’s stage races that are even as long as some of the shorter men’s stage races like the Dauphine Libere.  And because women, according to the UCI, are constitutionally incapable of standing up to punishing longer endurance efforts, they have had for years a rule mandating that the median age of all women’s races must be 28.  Because, you know, if women are going to put their ovaries at risk, we want to make sure that younger, healthier women, who have the best chance of surviving to bear children, are the ones who are racing (if we have to have women racing at all, I guess).    This, as the film points out, ignores the way in which entrenched sexism produces multiple cascading effects for women.  Because of a) sexism in the cycling world in general that sees cycling (particularly in Europe) as primarily a male thing, and b) the fact that women cyclists can’t make a living at it, it tends to mean that a lot of women don’t pick up cycling professionally until they are much older, and they need to keep racing longer.

This raises the obvious question: why is the UCI apparently. . .scratch the apparently. . .an organization run entirely by neanderthals?  As several medical professionals pointed out, the UCI’s position goes against current medical science, which is increasingly pointing to the fact that as distances increase, women, even relative to men, become more adept at handling the bodily stresses associated with endurance and ultra-distance events.

There are a couple of reasons, why the UCI can adopt a system that on the face of it, let alone upon further investigation, is blatantly discriminatory.  While the UCI did, just as the film was wrapping up, rescind the long-standing age median rule, this is of a piece with what one interviewee (the CEO of Exergy, I think?) noted was a pattern of making small concessions to appease the loudest voices.  He argued that the UCI does this primarily to distract from it’s biggest problem: internal corruption.  And after some of the revelations about the UCI’s role in supporting a culture of doping over the years, few would argue that such a culture is not well established in cycling’s governing body.

But the major reason the UCI behaves toward women cyclists the way it does is for exactly the same reason institutionalized discrimination always flourishes.  Because so many people benefit from it.

It isn’t all About Professional Cycling

Oddly enough, the focus of the film is also the basis of my only criticism of it.  The frame of reference is solely professional cycling.  Now before anyone accuses me of having missed the point, let me explain.  One of the things I’ve pointed out repeatedly on this blog is that the world of cycling as a whole has in fact suffered from the fact that professional cycling (a world that involves only a minuscule fraction of people who ride bikes) dominates the larger biking world: from the bikes that are available, the clothing that is marketed, the people who work in most bike shops, the training and fitting protocols, etc.  That creates some huge blind spots.  As cyclists whose lives are defined by that minority element of cycling culture, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that women pros would share some of those blind spots.

So, for example, the film’s historical argument about the role women have played (until recently) in cycling would have been strengthened if they had looked beyond the rather narrow world of road cycling.  One of the things I’ve really enjoyed over the past year has been expanding my own (extremely limited, as I now realize) knowledge about cycling history.  This is where publications like Bicycling Quarterly and Adventure Cyclist have been invaluable.  Both of these publications spend a lot of time doing the hard work of historical recovery: reminding us of what used to be common knowledge but is no longer.  And one thing that both of these publications do is focus a great deal on women cyclists.  Why?  Because in earlier eras cycling culture was not defined exclusively by a racing focus and women were not seen as being interlopers in a privileged male domain.  A recent issue of Adventure Cycling highlighted early riders who crossed the US, many of whom were women.  Bicycling Quarterly has consistently highlighted a the role of women during a period (1900 to approximately the 50s) in France where cyclotouring and randonneuring existed side-by-side with professional racing.

The major missed opportunity in the documentary is actually randonneuring, and not just in terms of history.  The film spends some time highlighting the world of triathlon (with an extensive focus on Chrissie Wellington) to demonstrate that the UCI’s argument about women being physically incapable of extended endurance is a piece of crap.  (Triathlon is also interesting for another reason that I will get to in a second).  But it is randonneuring that in fact torpedoes the UCI’s argument about women’s physical endurance.

There are several women in our local randonneuring club, for example.   They ride the same distances that all the men do.  And those distances are pretty damn far.  Moreover, as far as I can determine these women seem to ride these extreme distances more quickly than most of the men.  When we rode our 600k for example all the women finished.  Not all the men finished.  I barely finished.  Why is randonneuring so important in this regard?  The longer distances we are talking about are distances that have no equivalent in professional cycling.  No one rides a 400k stage.  Now randonneurs don’t race, obviously (although if we want to shunt the randonneuring argument up against a distant cousin, there are more than a few women racing RAAM).  But these distances are also more extreme than most pros would even undertake for a training ride.  And from what I’ve observed, none of these women randonneurs seems to be on the verge of having all their internal organs fall out.

One of the toughest things facing women professional cyclists struggling for parity is that the arguments being employed by groups like the UCI resonate because they are so culturally familiar.  When it comes to misogynistic opposition to women’t equality of opportunity it always comes down to arguments about women’s physiology.  Claims about the inherent physical disadvantages of being a woman are most stridently deployed when we are talking about extremely physically demanding professions, and these arguments seem to succeed with many despite–or maybe even because of–a single logical flaw: they attempt to apply claims about averages to situations that are highly non-average.  So opponents of women becoming fighter pilots in the US argued that being a fighter pilot is an exceptionally physically demanding job (which it is).  Because most women are physically not as strong as men, they aren’t cut out to be fighter pilots.  But here’s the thing: neither are the vast majority of men.  The same goes for being combat soldiers, fire fighters, professional triathletes. . .and professional cyclists.  Clearly physiology means that most women won’t be able to cope with the physical demands of being a fighter pilot.  The statistical imbalance also means that there will probably be a larger pool of physically qualified male candidates than female candidates.  But neither of those two facts means that some women can’t be fighter pilots.  Thankfully the US military finally came to this realization with regard to fighter pilots.  But that didn’t prevent the same uphill battle for combat status.  Nor does the fact that women end up performing entirely satisfactorily in a profession for which they were supposedly physiologically unsuited mean that very same arguments won’t be employed the next time women want to enter some other physically demanding sphere.

The same goes for cycling.  Do all women who are professional racers want to undertake a soul-destroying three-week stage race?  Probably not.  Would all women who entered one finish it?  No.  But both of these things are also true with regard to men’s participation in the Tour de France.  Three-week long bike races are not an “average” activity so all assessments made on that basis are specious.

This is what tells us that we are not simply dealing with a few scattered institutions still clinging to a sexist ideology, but rather a systematic cultural and social pattern that still discriminates against women.  I know, I know, that is an unpopular view, especially given the apparently entrenched belief among many women (I see it a lot in my women students, but they don’t have a monopoly on this view by any means) that gender equality has been achieved and we no longer need a feminist movement (and in fact shouldn’t even mention the F word).  Well, good luck with that belief.  Until such time as women pro cyclists are paid the same as men and have as many races as men and can race the same distances as men, we need a feminist movement.  Until such time as a woman can volunteer to fight for her country without fear of sexual harassment by superior officers or being raped by her fellow soldiers, we need a feminist movement.  Until such time as women receive the same pay for the same work, we need a feminist movement.

Storming the Guy’s TreeHouse

Sexism is not simply a belief or an attitude.  It is a system.  This brings me to an issue that the film really only hinted at, for reasons that I am guessing are entirely politic.  The film was very careful to avoid making male professional cyclists the enemy, concentrating its outrage (fairly, as I’ve pointed out) against the UCI.  But what this obscures is the fact that the entire system of male professional cycling is the way it is and is benefiting in the ways that it is (and that means the benefits accruing to individual male riders) largely because of the systematic marginalization of professional women cyclists.  This means that if women are to achieve parity in the pro ranks with men in the short term, it is unavoidable that some male professional cyclists (and probably tour directors and a lot of support personnel) are going to lose their jobs.   That, of course, is the unspoken fear behind the UCI’s discriminatory practices.  Don’t take the jobs from the boys.  But if it happens, I’m fine with it.

But why should it happen at all?  One thing that the UCI, pro men’s teams and pro women seem to agree upon is that sponsorship is limited.  Ideally, we wouldn’t have to consider this a zero-sum game; ideally there would be more than enough sponsorship money to have as many pro women’s teams as there are pro men’s teams.  Meanwhile, back in the real world. . .this is cycling we are talking about.  Popular as it is in a few countries in Europe, it is hardly futbol.  And in the US cycling is a virtually invisible sport.  I’m sure there are also more than a few potential sponsors that are scared off by the seemingly perennial association of men’s professional cycling and doping. . .a fact that is sadly ironic given the willingness of many companies to hand out large sponsorship deals to physiologically improbable athletes with poor impulse control in other sports.  If you follow the cycling press on even a casual basis you see quite a stark picture.  Sponsorship is pulled abruptly even from successful teams.  Teams disintegrate abruptly at the end of a season and new teams are hastily cobbled together prior to the start of the new season, often with a wildly improbable collection of sponsors.  Some teams simply go bust through financial mismanagement.

Women’s teams do open up some attractive new sponsorship opportunities for companies hoping to reach different demographics, something that was emphasized in Bertine’s documentary by Colavita, a long-time sponsor of women’s cycling who feels they get a much greater return on their investment with their women’s team than their men’s team.  But initially these kinds of image-story connections are going to have limited effect simply because most women are not even looking in the direction of cycling women.

So if we want professional women to be paid what they are owed and to race at the level they should be racing, it will mean they will need a share of a relatively small, only incrementally increasing, and highly unstable sponsorship budget.  That will mean fewer professional men’s cycling jobs.  It may even (and perhaps should) mean fewer professional men’s teams.  But you can’t in good conscience argue that the likelihood of that outcome is a reason not to admit women to the professional ranks.  Because what that same argument is really saying is simply that the jobs that exist now only exist because of women’s exclusion.  What you are trying to justify is nothing less than a system of entitlement and privilege for men.

If your goal is–as the UCI’s seems to be–simply to ensure the longevity of male professional cycling, then of course women will be seen as interlopers and the argument about limited sponsorship will be seen as a reason not to level the road.  But if your goal is to ensure a vibrant professional cycling culture for men and women, then you need to acknowledge the sponsorship issue as a reality and make adjustments to your professional practices and organization.

This might mean, for example, that your professional men’s teams simply become smaller in order to fund a women’s team as well.  This may mean that teams have to be a little more selective about what events they focus upon and this in turn may well change some aspects of the spectacle of professional cycling.  Many men’s teams maintain very large rosters of riders precisely so that they can compete in multiple events.  Some of the team might be riding some early season stage races (Turkey, Quatar, Downunder) while the rest of the team is riding the classics.  Part of the team may be groomed to ride the Giro while the rest of the team builds for the Tour de France.  If your men’s roster was whittled down to include a women’s roster as well then a team might not be be able to do all those things.  Garmin-Sharp might have to say “OK, this year we concentrate primarily on the Giro with the men, while the women are going to focus on the Tour de France feminine” (bit of wishful thinking on my part there, no such tour exists or is planned).  Cue predictable outrage on the part of male cycling fans.  But you are entitled to such outrage only if you also admit that the reason for your outrage is that you are trying to preserve a system where only one gender of team is able to ride as many events as possible and that you are, therefore, supporting a blatantly discriminatory system.  In other words, that you are being a sexist prick.

Another possibility is that there could be fewer teams in the pro peloton, which would aid in a consolidation of sponsorship.  Fewer teams, with more sponsors.  But aren’t cyclists’ jerseys already crowded with sponsors?  Well, take a look at NASCAR: there is always room for more.  I stumbled across a NASCAR race on TV a while ago (as a TV spectacle it is about as interesting to me as baseball) and I think I may actually have caught a glimpse of some paint that wasn’t covered by a sponsor’s logo on one of the cars.

The overall goal can’t be re-stated too often: establish a viable men’s and women’s professional cycling structure.  That is not going to happen by trying to preserve an existing system that operates the way it does largely by virtue of the fact that it excludes one half of the human population.  If women are to be admitted as full participants to the system of professional road cycling rather than shoe-horned in around the edges in ways designed not to disrupt the boy’s club, then some things are going to need to change.

Looking Up From My Aerobars

The fact that Half the Road spent so much time talking about triathlon helped me notice a lot of things that I’ve pretty much taken for granted.  For reasons that I don’t fully understand, triathlon (or multisport more generally, to include things like duathlon, aquabike, etc.) seems to have evolved in a way that is considerably less discriminatory than women’s road cycling.  For both amateurs and professionals alike, men and women race on the same day and on exactly the same course.  No one feels the need to provide a shorter Ironman for poor, delicate women.  In most races women professionals earn comparable prize money with the men, start at the same time as the men, and a significant number of women professionals finish faster than many of their male professional counterparts.   I was never sporty at all before joining the multisport world so in terms of actual sport participation (rather than virtual participation via television) this is pretty much the only world I’ve ever known, a world where I’ve always been surrounded by amazing men and women doing amazing things with no one questioning their ability to be able to achieve those things and their right to attempt to do so.

Hardly surprising then that in the US at least triathlon has surged in popularity largely on the back of significant growth among women triathletes.  There are all kinds of reasons why attempting a triathlon is intimidating, but in the US one of those reasons is categorically not because someone is telling you that as a feeble woman you can’t do it and are not allowed to try.  (The situation in Europe may be quite a bit different; friends who have raced Ironmans in Europe report that the women’s fields are tiny by comparison).

This doesn’t mean that the world of triathlon is magically shorn of all sexism.  This is the US after all, still a society that discriminates against women in many ways large and small, visible and invisible.  The two of you out there reading this who are not cyclists may not be familiar with the term “chicked.”  This is a verb describing a woman cyclist or runner who passes a male athlete.  This should be an unremarkable act, but the reason the verb exists is because there are all too many men who, once passed by a woman, feel as if their balls have immediately fallen off.  While “chicked” could refer to any act of passing, it is most commonly used in relation to cycling.  Why?  Well, Bertine’s documentary makes that obvious.  The cycling community is still a deeply sexist one.  A lot of male cyclists have consciously adopted or sub-consciously absorbed exactly the kind of non-scientific bullshit being peddled by intellectual midgets such as those at the UCI.  It shouldn’t be possible for a woman to pass you on a bike because women are inferior cyclists.  Therefore if you are passed it can only mean one thing: your Manhood is being called into question.

This typically produces a compensatory behavior that up until now has had no name but for which I am proposing one: dicked.  Being dicked is when a male cyclist who has been passed then strains every muscle and fiber; grunting, sweating, heaving and straining as if they are trying to have sex with a donkey, they re-pass the woman who has just passed them, only to abruptly collapse in front of her before being passed once again, this time for good.

Being passed by a woman has never affected me in this way.  I’ve been chicked by some of the best and when a woman passes me I never feel as if she is riding off into the sunset with my testicles.  I pretty much think the same thing as when I get passed by a guy.  Wow, he/she is flying.  Man, what an athlete. Of course, I am a guy, so I would be lying if I said that I never noticed that the view after being chicked is often a little better (this also has a lot to do with the seemingly gender-specific fact that a disturbing number of men don’t seem to realize when their cycling shorts have worn through to the point of transparency).  But most of the time, I get passed by women so fast that I barely have time to register they even are women.

Therefore Bertine’s triathlon example made me appreciate a lot of what I’d never really noticed before in the multi-sport world, and made me grateful that my athletic coming-of-age happened in that community rather than in some others.  But, as I said above, it also made me wish the film had emphasized the larger world of cycling, especially the large randonneuring and cyclotouring communities.  Why?

Well, in some sense I also want exactly what Bertine wants.  I would love for my two nieces to have posters on their wall of Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley, Kristin Armstrong, or Bertine herself, in the way that young girls in the past have idolozed Mia Hamm, or Venus Williams, or Kerri Strugg.  But I have very mixed feelings about the obsession, particularly in the US, with worshiping athletes as role models.  I am certainly in favor of having young girls idolize athletic women instead of siliconized fembots like the Kardashians.  But to be blunt, I’m not entirely sure that worshiping male or female cyclists is an unadulterated positive.  There is a very narrow range of body types represented in both men and women’s cycling, and there’s also an obsession with minimizing body weight that is not necessarily a road we need to make any broader for young girls in particular.  This is one of the things I’ve always loved about the multisport and now randonneuring worlds.  You see all kinds of physiques and body types out there.  There are the long and lean with zero body fat, and there are the people built like a brick shithouse, and they are all being successful.  (I’m also aware that there in both road cycling and multisport there is a vast difference between amateur participants and professionals; most amateur women triathletes do not look like Chrissie Wellington).

But the larger reality is that the ranks of professional cycling will (assuming the UCI pulls its neanderthal brow out of its arse) be an option for very few women, just as it is an option for very few men even now.  And what I ultimately want for my nieces is for them to get on a bike and to discover the health benefits, sure, but more importantly the joy and freedom that cycling brings.  I want them to experience cycling as a way of slowing down the world and paying close attention to what is around you even as your pulse quickens and your heart races.  What promotes that is not simply the existence of people doing something on a professional basis (in fact a professional profile can become a liability, if people see the activity as only associated with an impossible to achieve level of performance).  Will some young girls get inspired if they see women racing bikes on TV?  Certainly.  But I believe kids get inspired, primarily, by what they see their parents doing and even more so if the behavior their parents model is not portrayed as something extraordinary and exceptional but an everyday part of life.  Watching your Dad commute to and from work by bike.  Going out on a weekend to watch your Mom crush another triathlon.  Being taken along on a family cycle touring holiday.  The challenge is not in getting young girls to see cycling as extraordinary, but to see it as the ordinary.


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