Riding Uphill: Challenging Gender Superiority in Competitive Cycling

Riding Uphill: Challenging Gender Superiority in Competitive Cycling

Brian Jenkins

For 118 years, the Paris Roubaix bicycle race has challenged the most skilled riders from around the globe. Going from Paris to the border of Belgium, this one-day race features 160 miles of strenuous mixed-surface racing. In 2021, the media exuded much pomp as women were invited to participate for the first time, albeit in a 72-mile miniature version of the course. In stark contrast to the celebrations of “female empowerment!” NBC’s commentary undercut the women racers: “These coaches had their work cut out for them to get these lady riders ready for the cobbles!” Praise for the male coaches’ ability to prepare these woefully underprepared women riders took center stage. While the racing governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), has been less than candid about why women have been historically uninvited to participate on the largest stages, UCI officials often question women’s athletic capabilities both implicitly and explicitly.

This discrediting of women is pervasive in athletics. In 2019, UCI officials in Belgium went so far as to stop a woman cyclist mid-race when she caught up to the men riders who started eight minutes ahead of her. When runner Caster Semenya rose to dominance in 2009, her performance elicited the Time headline: “Could This Women’s World Champ Be a Man?” These examples illustrate that when women display athletic abilities that rival men, there are two responses: the athlete’s womanhood and biological sex are questioned (she must be a man!), or her performance is purposefully and strategically reduced.

The cycling world also frequently conflates gender and sex by assuming all women riders to be female. This distinction is important because the terms are not synonymous; gender is the way we position ourselves in a masculine and feminine world (woman/man) while sex pertains to the reproductive organs of the person (female/male). Because gender and sex are used so interchangeably in cycling, it is difficult to separate the two when also writing about the sport. For this piece, we will use female/male sex categories when discussing biological capabilities and woman/man signifiers when discussing gender. Where it is difficult to separate the two, we have opted to use biopsychologist Sari van Anders’s term gender/sex which “indicates the inextricable contributions of both sex and gender.”

Cyclist wiping out into a shallow river.
Gravel racings’ unique combination of road and dirt surfaces typically includes a few tricky water crossings as well. (Photo by Jake Orness and Belgian Waffle Ride, courtesy of the photographer)

The Darwinian framework of male athletic superiority has been debunked, yet continues to be pervasive in bicycling. Targeted studies have found that while male bodies do on average generate more power on a bicycle, female riders are capable of pedaling at a matched intensity. This means that during a race, men and women riders will pace themselves at similar rates; for example, if male racers tackle a section of the course using 50% of the power they are capable of generating, female racers will have the ability to pace that same section at 50% of their maximum capability. American cyclist Lauren De Crescenzo explained to us in a phone call how these slight power advantages can be washed out over the course of a hundred plus mile race: “As the race gets longer, I think there’s more of a window for myself and other riders to make gains on the men’s riders. Doing well in these races is more complicated than generating tons of power in a sprint.” The ability to accelerate quickly and reach high speeds is an advantage, but in a long-distance race there are opportunities to out-game the competition.

While women racers are proving they can compete on courses designed for men, they face a set of structural barriers along the way. Gender-based disparities in financial resources are significant in professional and competitive cycling. On the largest world stage, men’s UCI WorldTeam budgets average $16 million per year while the women’s teams operate on a $200,000 average budget. In fact, 34% of professional women’s cyclists reported receiving no salary at all, a marked increase from 17% in 2018. In Bicycle Magazine, Lucy Diaz described the impossible situation many pro women cyclists find themselves:

[W]omen’s major cycling races are often cast as the ‘plus one’ to the men’s main events…They don’t get paid because they’re not on TV, and they’re not on TV because there’s not enough funding. There’s not enough funding because the sport elicits so little attention. It’s a vicious cycle.

These wage and funding disparities between women and men, in addition to the “plus one” model described by Diaz, shape investment. One could argue that the market is shifting with more investment dollars being moved into women’s prize purses and campaigns to get more women riding. But as we have learned from the STEM initiative to bring more women into the fold, simple “call to action” campaigns are insufficient. Since 2009, the bioscience field has graduated more women PhDs than men, yet women are drastically underrepresented in academic and research positions across the US; at the Salk Institute, women make up just 16 percent of the senior faculty. Similarly, despite burgeoning and celebrated recruitment campaigns, women cyclists were grossly underrepresented at the 2020 Olympics. In road cycling, there were 67 qualifying women’s spots allotted compared to the 130 men’s spots. While efforts to increase participation are noted, ultimately women are left with a fraction of the opportunities presented to men.

A cyclist carries her mountain bike through the woods.
Racers tackle one of many treacherous rock garden sectors at the 2021 Belgian Waffle Ride. (Photo by Jake Orness and Belgian Waffle Ride, courtesy of the photographer)

In addition to the disparities in funding, marketing, and opportunity, women riders must contend with equipment originally designed for men. The penny-farthing bicycle which rose to popularity in the 1860s was almost exclusively ridden by men. It was not until the invention of the safety bicycle in 1894 that the first wave of women cyclists began to emerge. These bicycles closely resemble today’s design and were marketed as a safer alternative to the dangerously large wheeled penny-farthing bicycle. Today, most bicycle manufacturers distribute bikes marketed for female riders, but rather than a thoughtful redesign, many of these bikes are simply sized down to accommodate a shorter height. Navigating a world designed for another body can have serious safety implications that lead to a higher risk of injury.

For American cyclists, the Paris Roubaix has inspired a similar style of competition called gravel racing. These races, like their Parisian counterpart, feature long distances of over 100 miles and a racing surface that includes road, dirt, and mountain terrains. What separates American gravel racing from the Paris Roubaix is that women participate on the same course and oftentimes ride at the same time as the men, thus challenging the idea that women require a shorter or less strenuous course. At this year’s SBT GRVL race in Colorado, the women’s winner, Lauren De Crescenzo, finished 21st in the men’s field of 633 riders. De Crescenzo and other women racers’ abilities to competitively race these courses challenges the gender/sex construction that males are biologically faster, stronger, and more physically capable than females.

Headshot of Lauren De Crescenzo with dirt all over her face except the area that would have been covered by goggles, hunched forward in a biking top.
Lauren De Crescenzo post race at her first Belgian Waffle Ride San Diego in 2019. (Photo by Jake Orness and Belgian Waffle Ride, courtesy of the photographer)

Lauren De Crescenzo’s impressive rank at SBT GRV should have been cause for celebration, but commentary in cycling publication VeloNews on her success was eerily similar to the Paris Roubaix coverage. Clearly, her achievement could not be because of her athletic prowess, effort, and training. Credit was due to the men around her:

Lauren De Crescenzo added another feather in her gravel cap Sunday with a commanding win at SBT GRVL. De Crescenzo, 31, won with help from her male Cinch teammates, who helped set the pace in the wind, and who handed her a fresh bottle when her hydration ran low.

De Crescenzo and other women riders’ performances provide examples of modern-day challenges to male athletic superiority: statistical analysis of these races provides additional evidence that biological superiorities do not exist. Review of the men’s and women’s results from SBT GRVL 2021 did not demonstrate a statistically significant difference in the speed of the two groups of racers. Women were equally represented throughout the finishing results from top to bottom. Examining other gravel races across 2021 yielded similar results and at the Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego, the mean women’s time was actually slightly faster than the mean men’s time.

As American gravel racing continues to grow in popularity, we can expect to see more women participants and more evidence challenging the belief that women are not as fast as men. This will also likely lead to an increase in the type of gendered coverage we saw at this year’s Paris Roubaix. As women cyclists continue to overcome unequal funding, technological, and opportunity barriers, the last line of patriarchal defense is to limit women to shorter and “easier” courses while providing media coverage that aims to uphold the gendered myth that men are superior to women. While it is disheartening to wonder what more women cyclists need to do to prove themselves, we should also excitedly ask ourselves how much faster women racers will be when we can finally provide an equitable playing field free of gendered barriers.

Featured image caption: The lead pack of women’s riders sprint out to the first dirt sector at the 2021 Belgian Waffle Ride. (Photo by Jake Orness and Belgian Waffle Ride, courtesy of the photographer)

Brian Jenkins is a documentary filmmaker and student at San Diego State University. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Slate, Vox, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the HuffPost. While working on his film Answering the Call - the American Struggle for the Right to Vote, his exploration led to the issue of voter ID laws and how they affect the trans community. This experienced sparked an academic interest in gender and sex that led to Brian pursuing a degree in women’s studies at San Diego State University, with the intention of continuing on in a PhD program.