Segregated Racing: A Matter of Opinion
With DarkCross and MennoCross in the books and under our belts, it’s safe to say cyclocross season has taken the stage with all the flourish and dazzle of Elvis in the Vegas years (minus the sequins and fried chicken). Over the last few days, there has been growing discussion about the possibility of creating a women’s race category for all of the local cyclocross races. When the idea was first voiced to me, my reaction was both immediate and involuntary, and may have involved a slight curling of the lip and puckering of the sphincter. Strangely, I didn’t really know why I found the idea so terrible.
After talking to a number of people, from organizers, to parents, to other women, I’ve had some time to think about it. I still do not have the answer, but I do have an opinion, which I am going to share with you. But first, a story.
One afternoon when I was about eight years old, I was engaged in a riveting session of Barbie Gets a Sweet New Condo with my sister, when she got a call from a friend asking her over to play. Seeing my disappointment (Barbie was just about to negotiate for a pink hot tub in the master bathroom), my mom – with my sister’s blessing – sent us both. When we arrived at my sister’s friend’s house, her mother told me I was too old to play with the other girls (they were 6). She whisked me away to a room where she placed a box of Lite-Brite on the floor, then left, closing the door behind her. I remember feeling sad and embarrassed – she had made it clear that I didn’t belong. I proceeded to carefully craft a picture of the most hideous Lite-Brite witch you have ever seen.
Here in Manitoba, in a addition to a kids’ race and an open race (for beginners/unlicensed riders), there are 3 licensed races at every cyclocross event – the A race (Cat 1/2 men), the B race (Cat 1/2/3 women and cat 3 men), and the C race (Cat 4 men and women). Racers are placed in races based on their abilities, and then seeded based on a system of points which are calculated by both attendance and performance. Needless to say it is complicated and requires math far beyond my limited abilities. It is also not without its flaws. For example, one of the local women (who I will call Anna, since her name is Anna) has consistently posted lap times that would put her mid pack in the A race. So this year she requested and was given the green light to race A. She earned it. She belongs there. And she is kicking ass.
I have been asking myself why there shouldn’t be a blanket ‘women’s race’, and came to the conclusion I was asking myself the wrong question. The question isn’t “why shouldn’t there be a women’s race?”. The question is “why should there be?”.
Is it because there are too many women? …(sorry I just fell off my chair). Our numbers are up, and that is amazing. But on average, men still outnumber women at the races 15:1. So isn’t it more accurate to say there are too many men? (I kid) In addition to Anna in the A race, there are currently 6 women (and counting) in the B race, and around 20+ in the C and open categories. At this point I don’t think we have the depth and numbers for a women’s race that would allow all women to have someone of similar ability to race against. And even if there was, why do they have to be other women, if everyone is already comfortable racing with the men?
Is it because that is how it’s done elsewhere/has always been done? While there are always general rules or truths that need to be considered, we need solutions that work for our community, not those mythical places where the rivers are full of beer and four thousand people show up to race. Elite/pro races are segregated by gender, but in those cases, they have the depth of riders of similar abilities to warrant and allow for it. However, in that system, it’s certainly no secret that women have been given the short end of the stick. Women’s events are far fewer in number, shorter, ill-funded, poorly covered by media, and generally overlooked in favour of men’s events.
Is it to attract more women? If so, we would need to assume that there are a bunch of women out there who don’t race because they are intimidated by the idea of racing with men. This would also assume that racing with men is somehow different/scarier than racing with women. Having raced with both, my experience has been that there is little to no discernible gender based difference in the manner in which men and women race cyclocross. How aggressively or passively someone races has far more to do with the basic wiring of that individual than the absence or presence of a uterus. Locally, the Velodonnas have introduced many women to racing through the women’s only Dirt Skirt series, where they can learn about and experience racing in a non-threatening environment. It seems to be working, since many have made the leap into mixed gender racing.
It it because all women are the same speed? I wish. If that was true I would be Catharine Pendrel, and there would be 20 local women fast enough to give Anna a run for her money. But there isn’t. At least not yet.
Is it because the women are slower, and “in the way” of the men? Hold on, let me ask the fourteen men that finished behind the first place B woman, or the fourteen men who finished behind Anna in the A race. It seems absurd to me that all of the women be lumped together in one category, when the speeds and abilities vary just as much as the men.
Perhaps there is a good reason and in my feminist zeal I’ve missed it. If so, please feel free to share it in the comments below. As far as practical reasons NOT to have a women’s race, I do have a couple (ok I lied). As it is, there can be five or more races in a day. If women have the numbers now for a single race, at what point do the numbers warrant having multiple women’s race categories to match the men’s? How many races can we reasonably have in a day? How do we set the low-end cut-off numbers before races have to be combined with the men’s races anyway? What happens if the numbers drop? In amateur hockey, girls have the choice to play in an all-female league, or with the boys. If a women’s race were introduced, I think this is the only fair and reasonable way to do it. To give women the choice. Which means we could risk splintering the women’s field into even smaller sub-groups, thereby completely missing the point (assuming there is one).
We have to be ever-aware of the constantly shifting landscape, both of the local scene, and of the rest of the world. We have to ensure inclusiveness, fairness, and offer encouragement and experience for our promising litter of young racers. We need to recognize that if girls continue to excel and reach pro levels, things will change and they will only be racing with women, on women’s teams. We need to recognize the broad (and ever-changing) range of skill, speed and ability, in masters, beginners, and kids. What we can’t do is create arbitrary segregation, which is what, in the absence of any compelling arguments to necessitate it, a women’s race feel like. And we can’t let this discussion be led by our own agendas.
I want to be clear that at this point, it is a point of discussion and nothing more. Thankfully, we have great people in our local cycling organization who are always open to discussion and changes that makes sense for our community. Which is why, over the past few days I have even been asked my opinion on the matter. And so, my opinion is this: with things as they are, the idea of being ‘given our own race’ feels a little like being put in a room all alone with that stupid Lite-Brite. Probably well meaning, but with the patronizing undertone of being told you don’t belong.
I think you got it well covered! I echo your thoughts and opinions and I too am interested in the rational for having a women’s only race. I didn’t even know this discussion was being had. (I thought we were more progressive here – with the Anna situation and all!) I too would love to see more women out there, and we do every year, but I really don’t think that is the way to do it. Thank you for this Andrea!!
At some point we (as in Dirt Skirt KimMoniKarinetc) are planning an open forum of all women who ride bikes, MCA members or not, to talk about women and racing, barriers and facilitators. Our spring research (you read the document) found a series of interesting things:
1. That some of women’s responses to deciding to race are more linked to how society socializes women throughout their lifetime — hence why you were playing with Barbies at the age of 9 or 10 and not monster trucks — and this is far more powerful influence on women (as a general trend) feeling that they don’t belong as a racer than anything going on in the cycling community specifically. I am not talking about individual women such as you and me who have somehow put blinders on to that stuff and went and raced anyway without a second thought, but what the average response is to women racing bikes. It still exists.
2. Women are hampered by life, kids, juggling multiple roles. And sometimes that means that they just don’t want to race. They love their bikes but they don’t want the added pressure of a start line or training. They prefer racing in a way they can compete against themselves rather than against others.
3. Some women think they would be in the way or not good enough which we know isn’t the reality but they feel it anyway (and it might be linked to #1).
4. This point is most linked to what you talk about in this blog: Women have NOTHING against racing alongside men. What they don’t like is being nearly run over by men lapping/passing them who are a lot faster. They want to race with people who are like them in mindset about racing regardless of gender. There may be the misperception (related to #1 again) that racing with all women means eliminating some of the aggression factor. Notice I said misperception.
5. It’s expensive (in short), or perceived to be, and this not a gender specific concern. Men have this concern too and it keeps many men off the start line as well.
Even Dirt Skirt does not necessarily believe that we should have segregated racing in this province.Our goal was simply to introduce more women to racing with the intent to bring them over to the dark side and race in the big leagues. That’s not really happening so the question is why? Women seem to like cyclocross though. Women race when they have friends who are already doing it who cajole or encourage them to try and show them by demonstration that they can do it too. So I think one of the solutions is mentorship. Women mentoring women, anecdotally, is what I perceive to be the biggest facilitator in bringing women into the race community.
If I had to guess, if it was put to a vote, all the current women license holders would vote, to a majority, against a women’s only race, but that C race is growing to a ridiculous size so something may need to be done there. Maybe a D category “recreation” racing open to both men and women. I know there are men who would want that casualness too.
Cheers. Hope you attend our open forum when we finally set a date. For obvious reasons, likely after Nationals.
Thank you for opinion Andrea. I know I haven’t been racing much lately (mainly due to Kim’s point number 2 above) but I know I will be back. And when I come back – I look forward to racing in a mixed gender race where the people racing around me are there because we share the same ability not necessarily the same gender. Perhaps if our numbers quintuple in the next few years it might start to make more sense? I’m not sure. But right now it feels like the field will be too thin. And it’s just no fun to race in a small field of women with a huge disparity in ability. (this is just as true in road racing)
Let me offer a perspective as a sometime (poor) racer, and husband to a sometime (somewhat better) racer:
My wife and I do most things together because we tend to like similar things and we enjoy each other’s company. We don’t HAVE to do everything together (and of course sometime we don’t) but we like to. Cyclocross is particularly cool for us because we can, and have, raced together. Not just at the same event in the same day, but actually lined up on the start grid together. That’s not necessary for our enjoyment, but it’s kinda cool.
What would be weird is to be told that we have to race separately simply because one of us has ovaries. Though I’m writing about my wife here I could extend the same logic to any female friend. If we can ride together because we have similar abilities, why not race together?
Because I’ve also hosted and officiated local cyclocross races I can say that it’s not very much extra work to categorize males and female separately within the same race for the purpose of generating separate results, but it would be a lot of extra work to add additional races to keep men and women apart, as Andrea alludes to.
Practical issues aside though I’m basically trying to say that I enjoy riding, and sometimes racing, with my friends and peers throughout the local community (including my wife). Without any compelling reasons to segregate the community, and I just don’t see any, I’m in favour of leaving things as they are. I want bragging rights when I finish ahead of my wife in a straight up battle, because if I keep trying it’s bound to happen sometime, right?
The Dirt Skirt Race was my first cyclocross race. I considered it more of a practice race as it was shorter and followed a great workshop! My second race was Mennocross. I can say that riding with men was really not problematic. Actually more annoying was riding with the younger kids. I was stuck behind several and I wanted to get by them but they kept blocking me. On purpose. If they were men or other women, I would have done something but I felt like it wasn’t worth it. They were trying so dang hard! But one thing that is nice about riding or racing with women is that they do tend to show their support for each other more. Since I don’t ride with many women most of the time, I am always surprised by this when I am with a large group of women riders.. I saw it when I went to Trek Mountain Bike Camps and when I went to Dirt Skirt. I am not saying that men aren’t supportive but they show it in a different way than women do. Women are just more vocally encouraging and considerate. That is why it is good to have training camps or workshops that are women specific. Also, because you realize that girls can do some pretty awesome stuff on bikes. Which you might have convinced yourself is not possible if you are a bit cautious and nervous about riding (me). I agree that races should stay combined but think we could do more workshops or organize a club to get more women involved. My sister tells me that the one in Edmonton has 60 riders out on a regular basis!
Nicely said Tania, and this is exactly what Dirt Skirt is trying to do. You emphasize my point about how critical mentorship is among women. Stronger and older racers need to mentor newer and younger ones. It is the key to growing the sport.
I am not saying that men aren’t supportive but they show it in a different way than women do. Women are just more vocally encouraging and considerate. – See more at: http://winnipegcyclechick.com/segregated-racing-a-matter-of-opinion/#sthash.E2OS60pl.dpuf
We are dicks! Encouraging and considerate is not our brand.
In Ontario and Quebec, women have their own race. Personally I prefer that and the only disadvantage I can see, is that my boys will not be able anymore to tell their friends at school that their mother has overtaken many men in a bike race.
I love your blog Andrea.
we had a family discussion about segregated races tonight.
Best quote of the night goes to Mitchell
“(segregated)racing does not allow for riders of similar ability to be challenged, male or female”.
It is a great feeling when you realize your kid has been listening to what you have been preaching.
Holy hell, get a blog Kim. …Anyway, I totally agree with you Andrea, you can’t force “the ladies” into a women’s only race. Segregation (and I dare you to find a kinder word) is a backwards mode of thinking. Regardless of whatever good intentions you can’t unravel the progress of our social fabric. Is it simply a desire for more podiums, shallower pools and higher finishes for everyone? Please, I see participation medals coming everyone’s way around the corner.
Keep up the fantastic and compelling work Andrea.
I’d be fine with racing with men if i could ever get to a cyclocross event, but the issue I see is that women an men compete in separate categories, not against each other right? Are there prizes for overall winners regardless of gender? I remember running in a mixed race in grade school and I came in the top 3 overall, but boys and girls got awarded separately, not over all. Would the riding and timings be different if there was less traffic in the race for women to compete with?
It’s all mountain biking where I live and women will race with men, but separate categories. As the age levels rise, less women compete so the few women get 1st, 2nd or 3rd by default, not necessarily because of skills. Hopefully that will change as women keep racing as they get older like the men do.
Maybe a women-only category can be put up for the women who feel uncomfortable riding with men? I can’t say though if there are indeed ladies who see it that way. Anyway, as long as there aren’t restrictions in us racing with men, I don’t see any problem or issue.
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