Friday, April 18, 2014

Women's Cat 1/2 road racing in New England

Question posted on Facebook: It seems that Cat 1/2 Women's fields aren't included in a lot of races here in New England. Seeing races with a Cat 3/4 women's field only is a little frustrating. What have other Cat 2 ladies done in order to keep racing?

I’ve seen many versions of this question over the years, but didn’t feel like what I know is worth saying much about (even though part of my day job is to facilitate knowledge-sharing) until I saw this thread yesterday on Twitter. Hmmm, maybe even though I was a terrible road racer (but had some success in crits), I could sort of be a mentor. (This comment was right-on.)

This is my perspective as a woman who raced 11 seasons on the road, 9 as a Category 2 (1.5 seasons in Hawaii, half a season in DC, 9 in New England). I won two Division 2 collegiate national championships in 2000 in the criterium and team time trial. I stopped road racing in 2008 – once I started a family, I didn’t have that much time to train and big packs started to feel more dangerous. (I don’t want to find out how hard it is to care for two small children with a broken collarbone or separated shoulder.) So now I do cyclocross and some mountain biking.

How do I keep racing when there’s no Cat 1/2 women’s field?  

Do a mountain bike race instead and support a promoter who is offering a women’s field. Mountain biking is great training to improve bike handling skills, and it’s a very supportive and friendly atmosphere.

Try out track racing at Kissena or T-town. I thoroughly enjoyed the two seasons I raced on the track in New England, and the opportunity to practice sprinting and tactics over and over again paid off on the road.

Go to Wells Ave. I haven’t been there in years (perhaps the weekend car traffic is excessive now?), but I remember it as being pretty supportive and safe. Even better, go with your whole team. The best races I had with my teammates on IF happened after we had been together for years and had stopped trying to come up with race strategies before the race started. Instead, we were so familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses that we could key off each other (and communicate) during the race and know when to attack, counter-attack, and start a leadout.

I don’t think that racing with men is a great option, based on my personal experience. (Aside from Wells Ave. and the track.) Men’s racing tends to involve a lot more incidental (or purposeful) contact than women’s racing. After one terrible experience getting leaned on in a corner by a guy with 70+ pounds on me, who starting yelling misogynist insults at me when I asked him to stop, I decided it wasn’t a good option for me. (At first I thought I had done something wrong by getting upset. Later that day, I told the story to an official who said I should have reported it right away and that she would have DQ’d him.) Unfortunately, I know that my experience wasn’t unique, though I hope things have changed in the 10 years since it happened. Of course your mileage may vary, and racing with men may be a great option for you if you’re training for a top-level women’s race with a huge field like the Liberty Classic. Or if you’re braver than I am. Or if you have more physical mass and strength than I do. (I do know some women who don’t mind or even enjoy racing with men.)

What else can I do when I’m not racing on a particular weekend?

Not having an opportunity to race on the road every weekend is not necessarily a bad thing. 30-40 races year-in and year-out is a quick road to burnout and injury. Years of road cycling left me with some really strong muscles but also really weak/tight ones, including the iliopsoas (hip flexors), gracilis (inner thigh), gluteus medius, and vastus medialis (inner quad). I’m working on this in PT now. Try some cross-training – hiking, swimming, yoga, etc. Use the extra time you gain back from not driving for hours to sleep in, read, see your non-racing friends, clean your house, and generally keep your life in balance and your interest in racing fresh. 

Do a hard training ride with your teammates (for the same reason I gave earlier for doing a training race). GPS and social sites like Strava and RideWithGPS give us so many options for great ride routes. 

Put together your own mixed-terrain cyclocross route/ride. I did this last year and enjoyed every minute poring over maps and friends’ Strava rides, as well as exploring trails and ultimately hosting the ride for my friends. It helped keep riding fun for me.

What could we do to encourage 1/2 women to race locally and promoters to offer more races?

Here’s what Laura S. had to say (in a discussion on Facebook) about contacting promoters: “My suggestion when contacting promoters is to be professional and courteous. I always hear from promoters that ‘women whine for races and then don't show up and race.’ If you ask for a race and they offer it, you had better be there!” I haven’t had much success personally contacting promoters, so I gave it up. And I try not to complain too loudly about promoters. They’re mostly doing the best they can and I realize it takes a lot of time and money to promote a race. I have no interest in doing it myself. When a promoter does offer a field that includes Cat 1/2, support them with your attendance and race hard.

Serve on the NEBRA board or offer to help them as a non-board member. I served in 2006 and learned a lot. I ran a women’s racing summit. We posted a list of female-friendly clubs and also included rules in the NEBRA ranking system standards for promoters to follow regarding women’s races. I know NEBRA continues to work hard to promote women’s racing in New England.

Here’s something that Amanda Lawrence (now Rossolimo) and I did in 2004 that seemed to help: we ran a New England Cat 1/2 women’s series. We kept things pretty simple. Hincapie Sportswear donated leader’s jerseys. Serotta donated a custom frame for the winner. We gave a restaurant gift certificate to the first place team. We contacted 15 promoters who were already planning on offering 1/2/3 fields and asked them to be part of the series. It cost them nothing and helped encourage attendance at their races, so they were happy to participate. 71 women from 30 teams raced in series races. Keeping track of series points is now easier than ever, thanks to Colin Reuter, whom my friend Emily recently described as tied for her “favorite Internet male feminist.” It’s not too late to try this again for the 2014 road season if someone wants to take the idea and run with it. 

I was lucky enough to get my start in New England racing through the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference. By percentage of overall racers, they have 2-3 times the number of women racing than USAC racing in New England. Collegiate cycling teams tend to train together and have (usually volunteer) coaches – this really helped me improve a lot in a short period of time. Shortly after I graduated, the ECCC took a top-down approach and led the way among all collegiate conferences by instituting equal series points for women (which was highly controversial at the time). They also added more fields for women (the number of women’s fields are now equal to the number of men’s fields – the hope being that if the ECCC builds it, the women will come), including an “intro” field that features experienced racers mixed in to instruct the beginners in a race situation. This sort of thing is possible because with all the travel involved in collegiate racing, everyone who is racing tends to arrive at the venue at the same time and then stay all day long. There are some factors unique to collegiate cycling that can’t be duplicated in senior/master’s racing, but some that can.

I hope this was helpful and thought-provoking. Thanks for reading.