Women's Cycling is Looking for a Stage

This article originally published in April, 2007.

In her decade-long career, cyclist Karen Kurreck Brems raced in the women's Tour de France, the 2000 Olympics and won a world championship in 1994. Now, as director of the Webcor Builders team, she is frustrated by the state of women's road racing.

"We have one of the best teams in the country, but we're always playing second fiddle to amateur, second-tier men's teams," said Brems, of Redwood City.

At a time when men's cycling is enjoying the popularity of the tours of California and Georgia, the women say they are being left behind with limited budgets and fewer opportunities to race.

Their best chance locally is the Sea Otter Classic, which runs April 12 through 16 in Monterey, Calif. Fifty-four pro women are entered in Saturday's circuit event, a 50-mile race at 10a.m. on the Laguna Seca course.

The race features Kristin Armstrong of Boise, Idaho, and Christine Thorburn of Sunnyvale, who finished first and third, respectively, in the time trial at the 2006 world championships.

Their performances highlight the paradox for American women: Although they have become some of the world's best a year before the 2008 Olympics, they have been relegated to an afterthought when it comes to financial support.

The disparity is illustrated by Webcor, a Bay Area-based team.

"It's April and we're missing a quarter of our equipment," Brems said.

The manufacturers sent gear to racers in the Tour of California first, the consumers second. Brems said the women need bikes, wheels, tires, shoes and helmets. Webcor is making do with last year's products.

Sponsor money spread thin

None of this is surprising because cycling still is a niche sport in the United States. Limited sponsorship dollars are divided between men and women in road racing, mountain biking and now BMX, which will make its Olympic debut in China next year.

The Sea Otter used to host a multiple-day stage race but scaled back in 2005 when it became too expensive. Sea Otter President Frank Yohannan said each stage can run in the six figures.

With the Tour of Georgia also held in April, it would be difficult to attract top domestic men's teams anymore. And holding a women's-only stage race would cost about as much as one for men and women, so that doesn't make economic sense, either.

Jim Williams, manager of Colavita/Sutter Home, said he understands Yohannan's situation, "but the women suffer because of what's going on on the men's side," he added.

Thorburn, a 2004 Olympian and a rheumatologist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, said Sea Otter's competition has diminished because some of the top teams don't send full contingents to the one-day race.

The top five American teams -- the ones trying to qualify athletes for the 2008 Olympics -- are represented. But about half the field is composed of Bay Area women, making the Sea Otter a marquee race for Northern California. The men's purse is $10,000, the women's $8,000.

Yohannan would like to expand the road-racing segment someday, but his event also includes mountain biking, BMX racing, adventure racing and an industry trade show. "If it makes sense to conduct pro stage racing, we'll do so," he said. "What we are lacking at this point is the sponsorship support."

Pro women almost an afterthought

The issue for women isn't an event such as Sea Otter. It's the feeling of being left out at a time the industry is marketing and selling more products to recreational female riders.

Meantime, the market demand hasn't translated to growth of women's pro racing. Without backing, the Americans have fewer chances to gain International Cycling Union (UCI) points they need to qualify for the Beijing Games. The UCI points also determine a team's chance to compete in the best races.

The Liberty Classic in Philadelphia and the Tour de Leelanau in Michigan are the only American races offering UCI points for women. The Americans compete in the National Racing Calendar series from March to September.

The situation makes it difficult for up-and-coming teams, such as Team Tibco of Palo Alto, to join the world's elite programs. But Tibco's director, Linda Jackson, who twice finished second at the prestigious Giro d'Italia in the late 1990s, is hopeful more promoters see the value in women's racing.

The former Canadian Olympian living in Pescadero plans to start pushing the issue with the likes of Tour of California owners AEG.

"I will get my girls to the race," she said. "Just put the race on."

Find out how the Sea Otter Classic grew from a small local race to one of the largest events of its kind here.

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San Jose Mercury News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to www.mercurynews.com. Copyright (c) 2007, San Jose Mercury News, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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