Their male counterparts might get most of the attention — and the prize money — but women bike racers are starting to make their presence known in Central Indiana.
Gone are the days when only a couple of women would toe the starting line at a race; during the recent Indy Crit, nearly 40 female competitors tried to outpedal their peers across two races. Racing for Riley's Bri Clark took the top step on the pro/1/2 podium and will be one of the top favorites for the Mass Ave Criterium along with Team Nebo Ridge's Sydney Hatten and Team Indiebike's Sierra Siebenlist.
Where are the new racers coming from? Veterans such as Nicole Borem, who started in BMX in 1988 to become one of the dominant racers in the road, mountain and cyclocross disciplines, suggests that the fun and welcoming atmosphere of 'cross is helping introduce women into the sport. Speedway Wheel (wo)man Sarah Fredrickson also sees several women following her example of moving from Indiana University's Women's Little 500 into the larger racing world.
The increasing number of women competitors allows promoters to host two separate women's fields, a pro/elite field, as well as a field for the less experienced riders.
"I've noticed that the level of competition has increased tremendously just in the past year," said A Cycling Team's Janet Sherman, who is gunning for victory in the women's Cat 4 race. "For the same courses, the winner's time from the year before would not have guaranteed a podium spot this year. Also, I see a larger turnout for Cat 2 women this year than last year. I think more women are realizing that they're not the only ones who are out riding their bikes and don't have to be pro-level to go out and have some fun competition with other ladies. It is also a great way of meeting other women who share similar levels of passion for riding their bikes."
Fredrickson agreed that more needs to be done to nurture up-and-coming racers.
"Getting more women involved is a big key to stepping up our game," she said. "It would be nice to have even more races available for different categories. But in order to do this, the women (and men) in the sport need to encourage beginner racers. Often times, beginners are ignored or, in the case of some open category races, yelled at for being in the way or not knowing what to do in a race. I realize this yelling is usually in response to an unsafe situation, but I do think we can be a nicer and more supportive community. If we want more people to race, we need to do a better job of getting and keeping them there."
The newer riders have their work cut out for them if they want to topple the current queens of the mountain, which Sherman's teammate Rebecca Zink is finding out this year. Zink had a remarkable season last year, winning a national championship in mountain biking and state championships in both road and cyclocross. But she's since moved up a level in each discipline and is finding it hard to duplicate her previous success.
The competition is undoubtedly much tougher at the elite level. Borem, who will ride for Don Walker Cycles in cyclocross this year, was back winning elite races just five months after a pulmonary embolism nearly took her life. Little 500 Hall of Famer Clark earned a spot on the elite Nature Valley Pro Chase team earlier this year. Siebenlist graduated from famed cycling powerhouse Marian University, winning a national championship on the track, and has competed several times in the BMX world championships. Fredrickson is a monster on the bike and a threat to win any mountain or cyclocross race she enters. Hatten and Team Indiebike's Jennifer Cvar win or podium in nearly ever race they enter.
"I'd say Indiana women's cycling is very comparable to other Midwestern states, if not at the top of the list," Siebenlist said. "I race a lot in Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois where they have a decent women's cycling scene, but if we were to have a battle of the states I'm pretty sure the strong women of central Indiana would sweep the podium."
Racing is nearly as fast but just as furious when it's done by racers with two X chromosomes, but there's still some inequality at play – at least when it comes to race payouts.
At the Mass Ave crit, the admittedly larger field of pro/1/2 men will split a nearly $2,000 purse, while the pro/1/2 women will be fighting over a $600 purse – less than what some amateur men's fields will collect. Should women get paid as much as the men? Surprisingly, many female racers say no, or at least not yet.
"I don't really think (we) should either, as much I would like to say yes," Borem said, but adding a caveat. "We have fewer numbers and that's the bottom line. I do think it is wrong to pay Cat 4 and Cat 3 men more than the women's 1/2. We may be going slower then those lower cats, but in reality we have worked just as hard and put in just as much racing and travel time to earn similar pay as the Cat 1/2 men, not amateurs. So not equal pay, but more than the lower Cats and more than what they offer now."