The seventh Yoplait Nouriche Women’s Cycling Summit was held in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as part of the Great River Energy Bicycle Festival. The Summit took place the day before the start of the Festival’s Nature Valley Grand Prix, and included many of the riders and managers who were racing in that event along with many area women cyclists. After an introduction by Maia Jenneman, the conference focused on two topics: getting recognition for women in male-dominated sports and the identification of barriers to women at the grassroots level.
Recognition for Women in Male-Dominated Sports
The conference was led off by keynote speaker Kari Miller, a NASCAR driver who would be piloting the pace car in the Nature Valley Grand Prix’s races in Minneapolis and Stillwater later that week. Miller races locally in the Bomber and Figure 8 classes. Her goal is to advance to the Late-Model class, but this requires sponsorship that’s been elusive.
As one of the few women racing on Minnesota’s NASCAR circuit, Miller has faced challenged in acceptance from other drivers. These challenges are faced by any new driver, but seemed to be particularly intense because of her gender. Experienced drivers often test rookies through intimidation and physical contact on the track. Miller has been in a number of wrecks, in some cases breaking bones. Acceptance from other drivers comes once they realize that you can’t be pushed around and will respond in kind. When asked what her favorite moments are on the track, she responded “passing other cars”.
The sponsorship that Miller needs to move up to more prestigious classes has been difficult to obtain. This is partly because the local NASCAR races aren’t televised, but Miller also feels that potential sponsors view women drivers with skepticism. Some seem to feel that the appropriate roles for women are as wives and mothers, and that these roles may get in the way of their racing goals. Others may fail to see the marketing value of supporting a woman driver, even though this would make their sponsorship unique.
Laura Van Gilder (TEAm Lipton) followed Miller, providing a parallel view of women in bicycle racing. Van Gilder has been racing for 16 years and feels that she’s seen little positive growth in her sport. Events on USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar, for example, vary widely in their promotion of women’s racing. Even when women’s racing is a priority, the distances and prize money are often less than for men. USA Cycling also seems to groom the men’s programs, but give much less attention to women.
As with NASCAR, sponsorship for women’s bicycle racing is very difficult to obtain. Stand-alone women’s teams typically have much smaller budgets than equivalent men’s teams. For management companies that support both men’s and women’s teams, the women’s team is often a line item on the men’s team’s budget. Women are frequently the decision-makers in family spending and promoters and managers should use this fact to increase their sponsorship for their women’s events
Van Gilder felt that women’s racing should be more aggressively promoted by race organizers. Some should give the women top billing or hold women-only events. They should also restrict the women’s races to just elite athletes even though this would mean smaller fields.
Jim Williams (Colavita / Cooking Light) offered a slightly different view, arguing that building women’s elite racing benefited from providing racing opportunities to women who progressing through the sport. He felt that there were benefits to allowing mid-level racers to enter the top events since this would give them a taste of top competition and would motivate them to take their racing to a higher level. Local women’s races often offer small fields, modest competition, little excitement and minimal motivation. Giving mid-level women the opportunity to experience a top event will give them a goal to pursue.