he bicycle has long unleashed the imagination of daring women. Dating back to the suffragette movement in the late 19th century, the bicycle has been utilized as a bold tool of advancement for women pushing for equality.
Today, one woman is devoting her time and energy to promote women’s professional cycling in a world where a women’s Tour de France has woefully fallen to the wayside. Kathryn Bertine’s line(s) of work invite intrigue; pro cyclist, activist, filmmaker, author, and journalist are just some of the roles that she assumes. This year, she and several elite riders formed Le Tour Entier and garnered nearly 100,000 signatures to petition the ASO to hold a women’s race in conjunction with the men’s Tour de France. They succeeded in winning a one-day race, held July 27th, 2014, on the venerable Champs-Elysees on the final day of the men’s Tour. She found the time to chat with us about the snowballing of advocacy efforts, her 2013 documentary about women’s cycling, and insights into the multifaceted lives of female pro cyclists.
Reading back about how cycling historically has been a powerful tool for advancing women’s equality, I was wondering to what extent you’ve seen cycling today continue to promote women’s equality?
I think the reason we’ve got so much momentum in that area today is because more and more riders are choosing to speak out about the inequity or the lack of parity. Once you have more than one person kind of trumpeting the cause, then something starts to happen. It can’t just be one person. Plus it also has to come from the athletes and people directly involved. So that’s what we’re seeing happen, and I think that’s why we’re seeing a real movement start now. I think we’ve all given each other the confidence that we need– when I say we, I mean the women of the pro peloton and the sponsors involved — we are all giving each other confidence to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t right, let’s do something about it.’
Yeah, it’s been awesome to read about your advocacy efforts working with Olympic and World Champion cyclists Emma Pooley and Marianne Vos, and Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington. I love thinking of this image of the women’s peloton kind of moving forward as one pack and working as a team so that the whole group can advance.
Exactly, that’s the only way it can happen.
What was it like to ride in La Course recently and what can the public do to support longer events?
It was really fantastic. As a bike race it was just a good, fast course with stellar competition. So you can’t ask for more in that regard. And to have the people, the fans, lining the course, so excited for the race, it just felt like the cheering was just genuine. Cycling fans need to be given a lot more credit because they don’t care if it’s men or women racing, they just want to see some good bike racing. We just need to show them that, to give the opportunity, because it’s already something that people want to see. So it was awesome to have that platform on the course to do that. There’s not a lot of time for reminiscing during a race, you know, thinking like, ‘Oh, this is change and progress!’ No, at that time you’re just in the moment. You need to do what you have to do as an athlete at that point.
It was pretty fantastic. Loved that experience, and very, very grateful to Wiggle Honda and Rochelle Gilmore for bringing me on in the middle of the season to be able to have that outstanding experience.
It seems like so many female professional cyclists are incredibly multi-faceted…holding down full-time jobs as PhD students, teachers, bike shop owners, all while attempting to elevate their professional cycling. Could you speak about some of the positive and negative aspects of this balancing act?
I think that one positive aspect is that the women truly get the bigger picture. They understand that in bike racing, at least at the professional level, and this is true of any other sport, there is a window to be a professional athlete. You can’t do it your whole life, not at that level. So I think the fact that women have college degrees or own their own businesses at the same time is a struggle and it’s difficult to do that as a professional athlete, but they’re also setting themselves up for a very positive future after their career on the bike is over. So there’s a lot of well-roundedness going on in that department. Also on the positive side, the women understand and embrace that element of community. They understand that they’re going to need to thrive in a different way than full-salaried male pro riders. There’s a lot of support, a lot of looking around, saying, ‘Ok, how can we make our whole sport and our competitors better, not just me personally.’
The negative side…is just that it’s flat-out hard. [Laughs.] As a pro athlete, your first priority is your body and your ability to perform. So anything that takes away from your physical condition being at its top performance level is really difficult. So I think of some of the women in careers outside of the bike where they need to be on their feet during the day, or maybe even cooped up in an office, in a chair all day, those are elements that are very physically difficult. Whereas most pro athletes, at least in the endurance side of the sport, they do their training and then they get to recover a bit. So that can be really hard physically. Also just the demands of a sport like cycling, it’s an expensive sport to pursue a dream at the pro level. Maybe once you get to the pro level you’re taken care of in your gear and in your travel, maybe you have a small stipend, but to get to that level is such a difficult journey of both financial and physical demand. So those are a couple of the negative aspects.
In terms of the inequities between mens and womens cycling, have there been any men that have spoken out and said, ‘Hey we need more women’s events in conjunction with our events?’
[Laughs.] Hmm…all the male pro riders that I know and that I’ve spoken with are all very much for the women’s side. They train with them or have seen the women race, or understand what the women are going through. So they’re definitely very supportive of our plight, but at the same time they’re focused on their immediate world, which is men’s racing. So not all of them know what we’re up against. They don’t truly know maybe how it feels to struggle up through the ranks, if there’s somebody who came out of high school and landed a pro contract, you know. They might not fully grasp all the things that the women are up against. But all the guys I’ve spoken with are really supportive.
In fact, one former male pro pointed out after watching the movie, ‘Hey listen, there are still a lot of men at the pro level who don’t get the salaries that they need to sustain themselves.’ And of course he’s talking about the Continental level, the level that is just under the minimum salary requirements. So those guys under that level are facing what the women are facing. However the difference being that the top of the pro men’s peloton gets a hefty salary and the top of the women’s does not. So there’s still inequity, but it’s important that we do acknowledge that a lot of the guys suffer, too. Or maybe the teams themselves suffer. It’s hard being an underdog men’s team that has to go up against the ranks of the full-on pro tour teams. There’s a big discrepancy there, too. I always like to point that out, too. We are aware that not everything is smooth sailing on the guy’s side, either. I would have loved to have gone into that in the movie, but you gotta call it quits somewhere. It’s already an hour and forty minutes. [Laughs.]
What was the best part about making the documentary, Half The Road?
Oh, that’s a fun question. No one’s asked that yet. I would say that for me, the most fun part about making the film was/is that I’ve gotten to form a real relationship with most of the women that I’ve interviewed. They started out as kind of subject matter, or people that I knew peripherally in the peloton, and I now count many of them as good, close friends. It doesn’t get any better than that when your work ends up affecting your personal journey in life, too, and you come out with these amazing, inspiring friendships. So that part is definitely the most fun thing for me. As was seeing the financial support come in from total strangers, just cycling fans across the world, when they were pledging to our campaign to make this film happen, that was fun. That was really fun to see the world putting their money where their mouth is, saying, ‘Yeah I do want to see a film on women’s cycling.’ That gave me a real boost of much-needed confidence in the project, when people saw the demand for it and created that demand.
Yeah, it seems like generating those conversations and connections gave a lot of momentum to the petition to get La Course started this summer.
Yeah, for La Course too, seeing all those signatures and support come in. You can sit there and say, ‘Oh yeah, the world wants to see women’s cycling.’ But you can’t back that up unless you have data. So that was fun data to collect.
Totally. The obstacles you mentioned in the film, outdated UCI regulations, lack of media coverage, fewer sponsorships, it seems hard to know where to start, what the first thing to work on is! It seems like with the film and La Course, that there’s more and more momentum.
I agree, and I think one of the reasons that La Course came to be was that we, La Tour Entier group, focused on one main goal, and that was the Tour de France. We’ll still focus on it and we still want to see it grow. If we keep clammering on about improvement in this blanket sense, without getting to the specifics, then progress will take much longer. But if we zero in on one or two key things, or we assign task forces to go after the specific elements, then that’s when we’re really going to see change. So I would love to see somebody pick up the ball and start targeting media, another person targeting the distance limitations, someone else targeting grassroots efforts. When we have these smaller task forces as pressure groups, I think we’ll see a lot of change…kind of a snowball effect. I think we’ll start to do that. So that’s what we want to continue to do, to put pressure on in that regard, to target individual elements for specific change and watch it happen.
Do you have any advice for women interested in cycling?
Don’t be afraid because maybe it’s new or you haven’t tried it before, or because it takes place out on a road in this great, big world. All those elements will quickly dissolve once you get on a bike and you just feel that element of being out on the road or the trails for a ride and just really enjoying the moment. I think that’s the first thing. The second is, if you want to start cycling and don’t really know how to go about it, my advice is always, go to the local bike shop and ask the folks there, ‘Are there any groups, or any women’s groups that I could get involved with?’ The good ol’ Internet is fantastic there– you can find a cycling group in just about any town these days. So utilizing those resources and just taking that first step. I think cycling is a great community where people are really willing to help others get on a bike for the first time…and hopefully stick around!
You don’t have to race to bike or to love the sport. You can commute, ride for fitness, do charity rides, there are so many elements. That not necessarily true of every sport out there. So it’s great that cycling is one of those sports that’s so accessible to different personalities and goals.
Last question. What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever ridden your bike?
Oh, that’s so hard. I don’t know if I can pick just one.
[Laughs.] You can pick several.
Alright, I’m going to have to give that a trilogy answer. I am partial to the roads of upstate New York, because I’m from that area. St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean is one of my favorite places, specifically the island of Nevis. I race for St. Kitts & Nevis, and I love the island terrain. And then, home sweet home is Tucson, AZ. My favorite part about riding here is that I’m fortunate to be a part of a community that just supports one another in terms of cycling. We have these great group rides, and you always have a training partner around. We see each other out on the roads and wave to one another, and there’s a true sense of home when you go for a bike ride in Tucson.