DISTANCES, PURSES STILL LAG FOR WOMEN'S CYCLING PROFESSIONALS

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

The road to the women's sports revolution of the late 1990s has been fought on many fronts. Access to sport itself has been the major issue for the latter half of the 20th Century, whereupon issues of pay, power, and performance have come to the fore.

Along the way, the equality of men to women in a particular sport has also involved the equality of the games themselves. Throughout the 20th Century, rules were designed to drive a wedge between men and women in sporting endeavors such as baseball and lacrosse.

The timing of events was different in men's and women's events. Even until the 1980s, many high-level women's soccer games were 80 minutes in length rather than 90, college ice hockey games 54 minutes instead of 60.

And in events that couldn't be easily regulated, there was outright prohibition. While men could run distances up to a full marathon in the Olympics since the very beginning of the modern Games, women were not allowed to run more than 800 meters until 1976. Many municipal marathons -- famously, in Boston and New York -- banned female participation altogether.

But when a group of 18 endurance athletes -- 15 men and three women -- embarked on a journey in and around the island of Oahu on Feb. 18, 1978, it represented a watershed event in women's sports history.

The event was the inaugural Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, in which men and women swam, biked and ran the same distance -- a daring concept at the time.

Today, in many endurance events, women and men have the opportunity to travel the same distance. Women ran the marathon in the Olympics starting in 1984. The NCAA races men and women at 500 and 1,650 yards -- though the Olympics stop at 800 meters for the women and 1,500 for the men.

However, the one sport in which the disparities in distance traveled is the largest -- the sport of cycling -- is also racked with disparities in prize money, attendance, and the depth of talent.

According to Giana Roberge, the directrice sportive or manager of the Saturn women's cycling team, there is a big gap between teams like hers -- a dominant force on the American circuit in the late 1990s and early 2000s -- and the regional teams that have little or no sponsorship money.

"The women's teams that exist today are better supported than a few years ago, and the depth on those teams are better because they are able to support their riders better," she says. "You are seeing the better American riders, like Mari Holden, going to Europe."

Even there, in the world center of cycling, there is a disparity. There is no such thing anymore as the Women's Tour de France, or Le Tour Feminin, as there had been between 1984 and 1989. That tour, first won by American Mary Ann Martin, was run by the Tour de France Society, but was dropped after six years.

These days, there is a two-week race after the men have run their course to Paris, called La Grande Boucle Feminine Internationale (or, The Great International Women's Loop), run by the Olympic Racing Club of Toulose. It is a Tour, writ small: instead of having a 20-team peloton with nine or 10 riders per team, La Grande Boucle has 16 teams of just four riders each. There are 14 stages instead of the usual 21 or 22. And there is just one individual time trial -- the event which usually jumbles the standings the most.

"The Women's Tour has never garnered the kind of recognition that the men's has," says David Chauner, the chairman of Threshold Sports, which promotes several men's and women's races per year.

Chauner has a big part in women's cycling, thanks to Threshold's stewardship of the First Union races in Philadelphia, held traditionally the first Sunday in June.

The USPro Cycling Championship has been, for a decade and a half, a happening in the fifth largest city in the United States and in the neighboring borough of Manayunk, where a steep half-mile climb called The Manayunk Wall has become a world-famous race feature rivaling Alpe D'Huez.

More recently, however, female cyclists have taken their share of attention in racing the First Union Liberty Classic. Running on the same course as the men, the women raced five laps of the course in 2001. It is shorter than the 12 laps the men race, but is an improvement on the three laps run in the inaugural Liberty Classic in the mid-1990s.

The narrowing disparity of distance, however, fails to mask a more important disparity: prize money. The total purse for the 2001 Liberty Classic was $50,000; the men got $130,000.

The disparities in distance -- if not rewards -- has been accepted by most in the cycling community.

"You really only have three or four teams out there that have the support to allow the teams to go that kind of distance," Roberge says. "By keeping the races shorter, it becomes more of a race of tactics and less of a race of attrition."

"I doubt that we would ever seperate the two races unless they became the same distance, because I doubt we could get this kind of a crowd on a Saturday," said Chauner as the men's peloton made its colorful appearance near the Art Museum, drawing cheers from the masses. "It's great for the women to race in front of this huge crowd. They don't draw the same kind of press, which goes to many of the issues facing women's sports."

The reasons for the existence of the doubleheader are different when it comes to the USPro/Liberty Classic races. The men -- the American men -- are racing for their national professional championship. The Liberty Classic, however, is a UCI World Cup race, which cannot be used as a national championship event.

The Liberty Classic's lengthening is a step towards equality, one which five-time champion Petra Rossner has noticed.

"I didn't make the rules: I just race," says the powerful German. "If the race is five laps, I go five laps. I raced here when it was just three laps. Then they made it four, then five. But I love the Manayunk Wall; I wish we could go up it 10 times."

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