RICHMOND — The women will blaze down Broad Street to the finish line Saturday wearing the red, white and blue of Team USA, awash in the screaming of thousands of fans and captured in the glow of millions of television screens.
After the glory of that moment, however, those women and most their foreign counterparts will return to the near poverty-line living that curses the professionals of women’s cycling.
While men’s teams on the World Tour level have big budgets and dole out multimillion-dollar paychecks to top riders, just four or five international women’s teams pay a living wage.
“You have this whole other category of racers who call themselves professionals who are racing for a free bike, a jersey,” said Robin Farina, a freshly retired rider who heads the advocacy group the Women’s Cycling Association.
At the top tier of American women professionals, the salary ceiling is about $25,000, she said. That penurious existence may begin to change for women professionals as the result of an announcement made by the governing world body of cycling Thursday.
“There is huge enthusiasm for women’s cycling out there and huge potential which we’re beginning to unlock now,” International Cycling Union President Brian Cookson said in an interview. “It’s only right and proper that we men should take more account of women’s views, women’s potential and women’s validity as sports people.”
Cookson said that next year UCI will launch Women’s World Tour of 17 events across Europe, the United States and China. The circuit to which the top 20 UCI-ranked women’s teams will be invited will include the Aviva Women’s Tour of Britain, the Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile, the Amgen Tour of California and the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic.
“We have at least eight of the events that are committed to broadcast live,” Cookson said, with the rest required to provide at least a live Internet stream and highlight clips for distribution to media outlets. “We can give women’s cycling more than a kick and a boost and help drag our sport kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”
UCI’s influential muscle behind a women’s tour may help address the conundrum that has plagued women’s cycling: To gain corporate sponsorships, teams to need to provide sponsors with exposure.
“It’s good for the sport,” said Jack Seehafer, who directs the women’s program at USA Cycling. “A lot comes back to the media coverage. Until you get a bigger increase in that, you’re looking at sponsors questioning the return on investment on it.”
More than 30 hours of the championship week here are being broadcast on NBC, MSNBC and NBC’s Universal Sports network. The Richmond race organizers paid a flat fee to NBC for the air time, and they, not NBC, get to dictate that the race sponsors are the broadcast advertisers.
If the women’s world tour took the same route, with the broadcast advertising cash streaming back to UCI, participating women’s teams could argue for a slice of that pie.
“We need to find more team funding so that more women can do this full time,” Farina said. She said women on the top five teams have the luxury of training and racing full time because “they’re not juggling full-time jobs.”
“We’ve got to spread out the wealth among the teams, because that’s the only way to make this sport more competitive and give more riders opportunities to shine and to thrive: to have teams on an equal playing field with similar budgets,” Farina said.
Cookson said teams on the women’s world tour will not be held to the same organizational and financial requirements that the top men’s teams must meet.
“As the teams get stronger and sponsors and funders see more sense in investing in the women’s teams, we will increase the responsibilities that they have organize themselves professionally and remunerate the riders, teams officials and team staff as well,” he said.
Farina points to a pivotal moment in the rise of women’s tennis 45 years ago, when a group of women players rebelled against the financial inequities in the tennis establishment. They formed the Virginia Slims circuit, which later evolved into the Women’s Tennis Association tour.
“Virginia Slims was a company that took a risk, but it paid off monumentally. It changed tennis forever,” she said. “All you have to do is find a company that’s willing to take a risk. You find companies that are invested in the promotion of women and seeing women thrive, giving women opportunity.”
Farina said she expects the racing over the next three days — and the women’s racing in particular — will showcase the sport’s potential.
“You’re going to see on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from the juniors all the way up to the elite pro level, some really exciting racing,” she said. “We can be just as brilliant as tennis; we can be just as exciting. Give it a chance before you decide that we don’t deserve it.”
Note: A pair of Americans took the gold and silver medals in the junior women’s cycling road race Friday at the UCI World Championship.
Chloe Dygert and Emma White repeated their one-two finish in Monday’s individual time trial. Dygert won by 1 minute 23 seconds over White, who nipped bronze medalist Agnieszka Skalniak of Poland by five seconds.
The United States was less successful in the men’s under-24 championship race. American Daniel Eaton finishing 48th, 48 seconds behind gold medalist Kevin Ledanois of France. Italian Simone Consonni took silver, while another Frenchman, Anthony Turgis, won the bronze.
The women’s elite championship is Saturday; the elite men’s race is Sunday.