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Women’s cycling needs a new visionary

Jim Rabdau’s vision for women’s bicycle racing was inspired on a mountain road in the Italian Alps when police stopped his car so a men’s race could pass.

Twenty years later, his dream was realized in 1984 when Ore-Ida, the potato company and his employer, underwrote his concept with a women’s bike race in Boise, Idaho. Women’s pro cycling reached its apex in 1998, when the event had a new sponsor and the HP Challenge offered $125,000 in prize money – the most lucrative purse for a women’s or men’s cycling event in North America.

Since then, the popularity of women’s professional cycling has fluctuated, sometimes beset by lack of sponsorship, prize money and organizational disarray. Even the athletes who race have different ideas on how women’s professional cycling could thrive. And they have different opinions about if and how women should seek equality with men’s cycling.

A small, vocal and influential corps of women riders pushed for greater prominence with a petition to the sport’s international hierarchy for a full-length Tour de France. More than 90,000 signed on. In an appeasement to the women, a one-day women’s race was held in Paris in July in conjunction with the final day of the men’s race.

In the aftermath of the upheaval, organizers of the 10th edition of the Tour of California expanded the women’s event with a three-day staged race beginning Friday in South Lake Tahoe. But it, too, is a concession.

Women's cycling is improving but the sport needs a visionary.
Women’s cycling is improving but the sport needs a visionary.

The 14-team women’s field will ride 74 miles on the opening day, starting and finishing at Heavenly Mountain Resort. In the second stage, the field will pedal 50 miles in a circuit race, also starting and finishing at the resort. In the third stage, the women will race a 34-mile circuit in downtown Sacramento, finishing prior to the start of the eight-day men’s race. A women’s time trial will also be held May 15 in conjunction with stage 6 of the men’s race in Big Bear Lake.

Since the Tour of California began in 2006, women’s racing has been included in seven of nine editions, all one-day events. Sponsorship has been sporadic, and funding from host cities has fluctuated with chamber of commerce promotion budgets.

Since Rabdau’s 19-year success in Idaho, no one has determined how to make women’s cycling work on the same level. Some have been outspoken advocates, claiming women and men should ride for the same money and prestige, with live network television coverage. Some women believe combining men’s and women’s events is the best approach.

“There are definitely pros and cons to a women’s race being held with or without a men’s division,” said Coryn Rivera, who won the 2010 Tour of California women’s stage in Sacramento. “There may be a crowd on site early to watch the men’s race, and they happen to watch the women’s stage before the men arrive.

“It opens the opportunity for the men’s fans to see what women’s racing is all about. We would be able to lure in more fans.”

Karen Bliss, a former pro racer who is now a company executive for Advanced Sports International in Philadelphia, supports the changes to the Tour de France and the Tour of California.

“But I don’t think making demands of races that have an ingrained history is the best way to go,” she said. “Sure, talk to whoever is organizing the event. But talk to them about a separate race.

“Again, I am very happy about these events,” said Bliss, who won more than 300 races in a 14-year career that ended in 1998. “I am not going to be angry about them by any means. But I think there’s a better strategy for equality or equity in the sport.”

Lauren Stephens, who competes for TIBCO-SVB and is the reigning national race calendar titlist, disagrees. “Piggybacking off of the men’s races is the best we are going to have. We are gaining TV coverage from that.

“There are so many women out there who are about women’s rights and that everything should be equal. But until we start returning the same amount of racers, I don’t really feel like that’s our right,” said Stephens, who will be racing next weekend in Lake Tahoe and Sacramento. “I would rather see equal riding distances over equal prize money.”

Katrin Tobin, a Santa Cruz real estate agent who retired from racing in 1990, said, “I don’t think we are doing ourselves a favor necessarily to ask for that kind of equality. I also think it’s unfair to say women deserve the same prize money as men when we don’t have the same number of women participating.”

Steve Brunner, owner of KOM Sports Marketing in Colorado Springs, Colo., has worked in the cycling industry for more than 25 years at men’s and women’s events, including the Tour of California. “It’s a healthy discussion to have, but why does women’s cycling have to be exactly like men’s cycling?” Brunner asked. “Do we care about women’s cycling as its own discipline, or are we being pushed to like women’s cycling?

“On its own, it’s as compelling and maybe it’s better competition, pound-for-pound,” he said.
Rivera believes women’s racing is increasingly more competitive and women should race for equal prize money, but she’s torn about how women’s cycling is best presented.

No one has been able to promote women’s cycling like Rabdau, who cultivated volunteers and pursued additional sponsors. He had community support, financial backing of a national company, and he secured a national television network contract.

In the late 1990s, Rabdau helped the Ore-Ida Classic and HP Women’s Challenge achieve its own identity, apart from men’s racing. The women raced hard on the back roads of Idaho and through small towns that held post-race community barbecues for the athletes.

The media followed the race while sitting on hay bales in the back of pickup trucks. The riders were receptive to interviews, unspoiled and enthusiastic about a new athletic frontier. What wasn’t to like?

“It was awesome; it was the first time I can remember feeling like a rock star,” Bliss said. “In most of the other races, it was like, ‘Oh, ho-hum. Now the women are going to race.’ But there, they wanted your autograph. It was – whoa, this is cool.”

It was a great time, too, for Tobin, who won the Ore-Ida Challenge in 1988. “We raced our bikes. People took care of us. I made enough money to save some for a deposit on a small house. But there was no pressure.”

Rabdau, who died in 2013, achieved his success with a unique combination of skill sets. He was a former Green Beret with a soft voice and a persuasive demeanor. He was big in stature but relaxed. He often wore Birkenstock sandals and donned a baseball cap. He loved women’s sports.

“I consider Jim Rabdau as a gift to the sport,” said Tobin, a former national champion.

While cyclists have differing opinions over what’s best for women’s cycling, there’s little disagreement about what the sport needs – another Jim Rabdau.

(Originally published in the Sacramento Bee on May 2, 2015.)