Spoiled: part 3

Now, flash forward…

I am sitting here on my couch, writing this while a track omnium is about to begin in New York City. I am registered for that omnium, but am instead writing a blog post in my underwear and looking up new roads to explore on Google maps.

Why am I back to riding, not racing?

I love racing. I desperately want to race. But, the state of women’s racing makes me sad, frustrated, disappointed, often angry and a bit heart broken. My heart is on the track, but I’m not there because I’d rather ride my road bike on beautiful Hudson Valley roads than feel guilty about crushing cat 4 women in a women’s open field (yes, really. All women racing together, pro and beginner alike), or frustrated that while I love supporting beginner racers (I volunteer to coach a beginner program!) it means I have to soft pedal for the first lap of a team sprint when I’m paired with one of those newer women, or gritting my teeth to block out the more than vaguely insulting commentary from the infield, or downright angry when the women’s races are modified yet again to be further shortened to ensure that the program finishes on schedule. Yes, there are two very strong sprinters racing today, but that’s hardly a field. For me, the modifications for the women’s open field race program that went out last night weren’t going to make for a fun, challenging or useful day for training. And, if it’s none of those things, then why go to the race? Ten miles into my road ride, I’ll be able to brush off the disappointment and frustration of the morning, and then I’ll get in some quality training and finish the day tired and happy instead of swearing that I’ll never make that same mistake again.

Many race directors, and even some women racers, have blamed this type of behavior (choosing not to race races that are most likely to be disappointing/frustrating/not enjoyable) for the state of women’s racing; the cancellations and the last minute schedule changes.  It isn’t uncommon for the women who do show up to get a 30 second lecture on everything that the women’s field lacks—at the start line, no less!—sometimes only a breath after being thanked for registering. This is the problem: blaming women racers, not the women racers themselves. The idea that female athletes should pay to spend their day racing events out of an obligation to do so, regardless of event quality or field equality, is massively problematic. That model makes racing a chore or a duty, not a joy. This is the opposite of the pre-race excitement and love of the sport that I had felt while racing in the men’s field. Showing up at a race out of a sense of obligation, with no idea what the schedule might be changed to, and a high likelihood of being belittled or berated by the race director or male attendees because of the lack of field size or perceived quality is not happiness. For me, it quickly became dread. And, my dread became particularly strong for one venue where there was a near guarantee of verbal harassment—I started going to sleep wishing for weather to cancel the races the night before, and waking up desperately trying to talk myself through just getting out the door. Worst of all, racing unhappy out of a sense of duty does not make for good racing.

Why does all of this seem to affect me so much more intensely than so many other women racers?

My answer is, “because I’m spoiled.” I was spoiled by men’s racing. I got a taste of what it feels like to know your race schedule, to know you’ll be challenged, to know you’ll have a full field to race in, and to know that there will be people cheering for your race from the sidelines (cheering really does have an awesome, strengthening effect when you need to find courage for that last effort!).

In my day-to-day life, I walk that line between being “she’d” and “he’d” depending on the circumstances. As I’ve relaxed and stopped trying to “pass” as anything other than myself, more and more frequently I have a hard time telling how I’m being read. Still, I do have the overwhelming privilege of passing as a guy professionally and in many other settings where I don’t wear spandex. This makes it all the more jarring to be treated so differently than the other guys when it comes to racing.

“Oh, woe is me! I have male privilege for part of my life and it hurts to give it up!” Pretty arrogant, right? But, it’s true. I am spoiled. The more pressing question, though, is: why aren’t we all outraged at the treatment of women cyclists? Why does anyone accept this? Sadly, I think most men are happily oblivious and lost in their own worlds, and most of the women who do object will eventually leave the sport.

We, men and women alike, should be outraged by the very concept of open women’s fields. Just the idea that there is no difference between pro and beginner women is horrifyingly demeaning to the experienced women, and creates a phenomenal barrier to participation for beginners, who are often lapped once or multiple times or pulled from the course before their finish.  We should also be outraged by the idea that it is okay to impose last minute schedule changes on the women, and usually only the women, including cutting racing times and drastic shifts in formats. Changing an event from longer group races to shorter sprints (feasable for small field sizes) implies that all racing is the same and makes the assumption that women don’t specialize.

Yes, this is the point where you can tell me I’m wrong and you can certainly recite the litany of defenses for all of these behaviors: not enough women to split the field, costs too much money, the women are too slow (or, as one race director put it, “tick tock”), nobody wants to watch women’s racing, women don’t sprint until the last lap anyway, so it doesn’t matter if you shorten the race, etc. Maybe you’ll even throw in a judgment about my quality as a racer, or attempt some character assassination to discredit my statements. I’ve been called, “the problem with women’s racing”, made the butt of running jokes, and been declared persona non grata when I’ve challenged decisions about shortened races and seemingly punitive choices for race format changes, and I know I’m not the only member of the women’s field who has felt this sort of lash-back on protesting changes. I might be a sensitive guy, but I didn’t misinterpret, misquote or misremember.

Here’s the thing, though: I am also a race director, so the whole, “well, then YOU run your own races” argument doesn’t work here, because I do. Sometimes there are simply not enough women to run some formats of track races, and there is no perfect answer for what to do about it. There are ways to go about reformating a race without enough registrants that makes it fun and interesting, and ways that are just lazy. And, what ever happened to asking the women registered for the races what they want? Ask them, and be respectful. What a radical idea!

If we start listening to women racers about what they want, and what they need in order to make an event fun and challenging, then maybe we will have less women choosing to ride instead of race, and thus be able to fill the women’s fields. 

For now, I am choosing to ride instead of race, except for a very few select events that I trust will allow me to race happy. For me, self-care means choosing to avoid races that will fill me with dread of harassment the night before, and make me sad/frustrated/angry the day-of. Without self-care this sport becomes unsustainable. In my first year of racing in the women’s field, I developed in leaps and bounds and learned a huge amount about myself. But, I wasn’t ready to face the realities of women’s racing when I petitioned for my change of license.

Sometimes I wish I could just be happy for a race, any race of any length and any format, and roll with the last minute modifications and demeaning justifications of how women are too slow/boring/under-qualified/scarce for equal racing time or prizes. It would be a lot easier to sign up, and then show up to races if I could just stop being so outraged and disappointed. And, I’d certainly be a lot more popular.

I am conflicted because I very badly want to race. I want to enjoy the rush of the sprint, the thrill of closing a gap, and the satisfaction of knowing I pushed myself as hard as I could. But, self care is important. If I don’t take care, how do I continue to spread the love of this sport to the new racers come spring? How do I continue to love this sport at all? So, I’ll keep my love for cycling and spend my weekend riding happy, not racing sad or angry.

Photo credit Robert Lai

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Spoiled: part 2

Let’s go back one step.

I began racing in men’s fields fairly anonymously, wearing a kit two sizes too big and hoping none of the other guys would put all of the signs together and notice that I am female-bodied and not just really young. I was a mediocre cat 4 by a couple of months into of my first summer racing, when you looked at the results: mostly midfield, a smattering of top tens in flat crits, a few lucky top-fives on a very good day, but always just shy of the podium. For a while, mid-field was great. I was a new racer, in a field of novice/intermediate racers. And, I was getting faster!

I became tactically savvy and confident, I started training far harder than any of my teammates, I read all there was to read about cycling training, and I worked with a coach. I was in phenomenal racing form by the next Spring. And then, my contentment ended. I realized that I was nearing all I could hope to be, if I was going to keep on racing with novice and intermediate men. This personal experiment in physiology had some early conclusions: my power profile was different than the rest of the guys. I had learned to suffer, to conserve energy and to hide in the field, to push through mental barriers and lactic acid, and to hang on for a mid-field finish (better on a lucky day).

I had become an incredibly efficient rider and racer, and had a lot of fun. But, I was never going to learn the strategies needed at the pointy end of the field. And, I knew I would be hard pressed to ever upgrade to men’s cat 3. I was ready to walk away from the sport because I was frustrated with the lack of a pathway for development. Yet, while I was having an internal discussion about giving up this beautifully painful lifestyle I’d adopted, I continued racing for the love of speed and the sport. I LOVED racing men’s crits, even if the novice men did, well… novice things that frustrated me, or more and more often than not made me sit up coming into the sprint rather than risk my skin for 10th place in a sketchy field.

To quote myself on the issue I was facing“All is not equal in cycling. And, I don’t just mean social differences in the way racers are treated. Bodies matter. Anyone who claims the contrary has likely never experienced the challenges of being the only female bodied person on a training ride with similarly skilled and conditioned male racers.” 

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That’s why I petitioned for a change of license to reflect my being physiologically female. There was no good path for further development as a racer on an unequal playing field. Now, read carefully, “development as a racer” means just that. I wanted an opportunity to progress, to race against women with equal skills and tactical savvy, and to learn from those more experienced and skilled. I didn’t request a change of license so I could win, but to learn the skills and tactics I would need to race successfully at a higher level.

I knew women’s cycling had issues, and I thought I was ready to take on the small field sizes and scarcity of races, and brush off the issues with unequal payout. It seemed hopeful. Yet, at that time, just getting past the hurdle of changing my license and the prospect of a future of racing on a level playing field was almost too much to imagine. And, I accepted the uncertainty of the situation—it was quite possible that when I outed myself to USAC, requesting a change of license under a completely absent and unpublished “case by case” policy, that I would be denied or even have my license revoked. If that had happened, I figured I could go back to just riding bicycles, which is what I was leaning towards at that point anyway, as disappointing as that idea was.

To be continued: finding myself unprepared for the inequality, speaking up, the consequences… and, what now?

Photo credit Charles Rumford (featured), Lee O’Reilly (mid-post)

Spoiled: Part 1

I came into women’s racing spoiled.

Prior to racing in women’s races, I spent a couple of years racing exclusively in men’s races.

Racing in men’s races was awesome in my first year racing. Awesome; that was my world. Every weekend I was gauranteed to have plenty of race options, and would gleefully plot out destined-to-fail race strategies with my cycling buddies, then load up the car and go race! I never expected much, except to have fun, win some preme lap prizes, and enjoy the momentary illusion of grandeur that every novice racer feels while an announcer is revving up the small crowd of spectators (family, friends, passerby) during my repeated and glorious but doomed fliers off the front of the crit. It was awesome. Cat 4 or 3/4 races generally had modest payout, and that seemed fair. I mean, what wasn’t fair about it? I was there to race my heart out, and knew that when I went to race we (the cat 4 guys) would get our 45 minutes of glory and microphone feedback buzz out on the course. It was pretty straight forward: “There’s a sweet race this weekend!”, says my new teammate John. We register. We race. We leave to go get food, and make sure to get back just in time for the start of the pro men’s race.

After a 4am, half delirious and hurried disclosure one race morning, John knew I was not male. But, I was determined not to be treated differently, and he never told and nobody else ever said anything… There were no rules being broken. Anyone can race in a men’s race – that much I knew.

I admit to being pretty oblivious to women’s races.

Was there one on the schedule? When was it? What categories were racing? What was the payout? Was it fair?

If you had asked me that first summer of racing, I probably wouldn’t have an answer for you.  Like most racers signed up for the cat 4 races, I was so caught up in my own race day routine that I couldn’t see past my nerves, attempts to focus on warmup, and carb cravings.

There were women who raced in the region who I admired. They were fast, sometimes far faster than me! And, I felt bad that there were so few of them in the races – It must be hard to keep on showing up when you’re one of the only ones. I knew there were issues with women’s races being dismissed as boring or slow, and was adamant that as a good feminist, I would counter any statement to that effect. I didn’t want to be one of them though, not at that point. A race with 3 up to maybe 15 or 20 racers didn’t seem like much of a race, and the announcers were out to lunch – sometimes literally, they were taking a lunch break at that point – and the lack of narration made it impossible for the casual spectator (watch the race for 30 seconds, talk to friends for 2 minutes, watch the race for 30 seconds… and so on) to follow the race.

That blissful oblivion was while I was content in the cat 4 men’s field, still a new racer only a couple of months into my first summer of USA Cycling membership….

Stay tuned for part 2: How I got there and why blissful contentment stopped working.