Friday, 26 February 2010

Poking the ants nest some more

So what do I do in my spare time? I sit and ponder the issue of why only 17 women entered the Ladies' Diamond Stakes this year.

After my post on Wednesday (which is stirring up some interesting and unexpected responses!), a friend sent me through this link from a pro female cyclist in The States, who has some very pointed observations on elite (as in pro, not licence category!!!) women's attitude to team racing.

I have seen versions of this locally in both men's and women's racing.  The racing pond for women is smaller, so such attitudes are more obvious. This is one issue the author doesn't address, and one I think is a major contributor to the prima donna syndrome. In men's racing, the numbers are obviously larger, meaning it's actually more difficult to win (well, there can only be one winner, and 2 other placegetters). There is a big difference between 3 medallists out of 40, 50 or 100 riders, compared to 3 medallists out of 3 (been there!!), 6, 12, 30. There is less room (literally) in women's racing for the workhorse ethic that is common in men's racing. Simply, there are more tempting opportunities for individual glory, at the cost of team results. And we all enjoy that winning feeling!

My friend who sent me the link offered this theory: locally, most competitive women train with mainly men (due to circumstance and again, the numbers game). As there will be a smaller subset of female cyclists who can keep up with  fit, competitive male cyclists, these women are "unique", even more so as there may only be one or two or three in the training group. As a consequence, they are "special" and considered/treated so within the group (also in part due to their "difference" ie 1) from other women, perhaps including non-cycling partners of their training buddies, and 2) well, most hetero males enjoy the company of bright, fit, energetic women. I'll leave # 2 at that!!). Take these women out of that environment, and place them in a group of other "uniquely special" women, and you have an interesting mix of individuals. Remember, it's just a theory, for consideration.

How one deals with this, as a Manager, coach etc, in a team environment I am leaving alone! From a development point of view ie getting women racing, and more importantly, keeping them racing, it adds another layer of complexity to an already multifaceted "problem". My immediate reaction is to ask why individuals race. Each answer will be unique and personal, and only one that the individual can provide.But these answers are key to encouraging and supporting women to remain within the sport as competitors. Sometimes I think it's too hard a question for people to answer. They simply race because they like it, and their friends do it (mind you, some of those friends may have come AFTER a person takes up racing, so the social support network becomes self-fulfilling). But to dig deeper than that may be too complex, too deep and unable to be clearly articulated.

Take for example that I race because it makes me feel special (there's that word again). Special because I wear specific clothing, ride a specific kind of bike; am capable of doing things other women don't dare or physically can't; special because I face challenges through racing that others find too difficult; special because I am part of a select group.  Feeling special is vague, amorphous. So what happens when I stop feeling special? Why do I stop feeling special? How do I deal with that? How do I respond to that? How do people around me respond to that? Even more vague and amorphous!

Cycling is an individual sport, with the winner taking first thanks to some kind of team (formal and structured, or informal and opportunistic) effort. It's full of colourful, flamboyant, unique individuals who are all special for what they do: race bikes. Take a bunch of those special, unique, colourful personalities and gather them together to do a job of getting a designated person to the finish first,and try to unite that group under the label of a team, and well.... it's an ask and a half.

So while I take Kerry Litka's blog post as a generalised statement, as well as a personal response, and agree with her sentiments and experiences, I also think it's not as simplistic as she writes. And that's why getting women racing, and keeping them racing season after season (ignoring life's little curlers it throws us), let alone in a team situation,  has no ready-made, easy answer.


Buttsy said...

Another well worded post about a topic close to my own heart too. I actually find for me persaonlly I am a bit intimidated by racing and that is why I prefer individual events (ITT and Pursuit) and find the sprinting finish events difficult and disheartening. Mind you I love our hard training rides, where there are sprints (where I still suck) and everything, but they are more fun. I do love the national titles as I am I am in my age group and it just feels like a more even playing field. I just dont know the answers, I know a lot of women say they want to race, but for different reasons, just dont seem to get on the start lines??? Another great blog entry and interesting reading.......

Monas said...

Sorry but I have to comment here. Interesting reading, but I wanted to clarify something.

Kerry Litka is NOT a pro cyclist and does not speak from experience. She may have raced for an under-funded regional team where the situations she described may have occurred. I have never seen her name in three years of racing the circuit in the US.

In a pro setup, where racing is your main job and not something you do on a weekend, the situation is completely different. Perhaps I lucked out on a great pro team setup. But the respect we had for each other, the sacrificing we did for the overall team goal, and the overall work we did to ensure we were presented in a professional manner and represented our sponsors well, were all a huge part of being a pro rider.

Australian cycling is different for many reasons (main season is the 'pro off-season', prize money only to top three rather than top 30, crap prize money, no Saturday night races in the city centre etc etc) and track cycling in Australia is different again. The lack of team racing is a big problem. So are shorter race distances, and not having other type of race incentives (mid race primes anyone?).

Lack of team racing is in part because there is no financial incentive to share the payload. Racing in a team to split $50 goes nowhere fast.

Racing with the guys means expectations are lowered. No one thinks you should win. Racing with women raises expectations of a result which then results in more pressure and fewer risks. The World Cup scratch displays this to a tee. Although this is also the same for the men.

But if well supported and set up right, womens racing is awesome to watch. Many many US Saturday night crits draw a bigger crowd for the women - they have excellent commentary (a big factor!) and the racing incentives are awesome and the women put on a great show which the public can understand and enjoy. This is then followed by the men which cannot be enjoyed the same way as the size of the field is twice as big and they move too fast to recognise. Most of the crowd leaves before the mens finish. Yet the men still rake in way more moula - but that is another story.
Women racing in Aus is improving - my measure is seeing new faces each year and this is now happening. We are doing well on the world scene and this will also filter down. Why women don't rock up to every single event that is put on has always been asked by the men who run them. This is the end of the season - races are never supported well after Nats and States. Road starts soon. There is a major womens tour on in New Zealand. A friends wedding. The MS MegaSwim. Money is tight. etc. Adding these up from a small pool of women will always affect numbers. How many had Sid Patterson and MCOW as their season goal? If anything, end of season goals are usually targetted at Bendigo.
This is a complex topic and I have already crapped on for too long so will now stop.

Monique Hanley

Lawrence said...

Thanks for commenting Monique, and for clarifying re: Kerry Litka.

I'm still not convinced prizemoney is the (complete) answer, as the Ladies' Diamonds and the Jayco Series Aggregate experiences indicate. Money doesn’t seem to be so strong an incentive to race; it may be for some under particular circumstances. So what is?? If you have numbers to race, then you can think about teams, more money, attracting sponsors etc. It’s a brave potential sponsor to put up money for something that doesn’t have the strength of numbers to justify that expense in the first instance.

I think you are almost talking culture change for Australian cycling, and in particular track cycling. Teams are not a strong focus for track racing, where the individual ethos is strong. Teams are a very recent inclusion in the road/crit racing scene locally. The uptake has been difficult for men's racing (ie teams are now struggling to maintain the team, from what I have heard), so what does that say for the opportunities for women's team racing? St Kilda is working on this, using a club-based model, but for a limited number of women only. Finances are the limiting factor for teams racing locally.

So my post was about small women’s fields in track racing… I don’t believe prizemoney is the answer, although in some circumstances it may be. Why does the Tour of Bright, or the weekly St Kilda crits, attract large numbers of women, whereas the Ladies’ Diamonds Stakes doesn’t? Maybe it’s just the sub-genre of the sport? Maybe it’s seen to be less accessible, more cliquey and exclusive? Ie we have a personality and perception problem with track racing?