When the Amgen Tour of California roars into town Saturday, the speeding peloton will feature some of the most accomplished women in the sport, their heads down and hands gripping low on the bars as they race to the finish line on L Street.
These pros train long, grueling hours on the bike and, much like their male professional counterparts, put on an exciting and inspiring show for the fans. But the similarities end when you begin to dig into the details.
Women are paid less, get far less media attention, and, when invited to participate in high-profile events like the Tour of California, often don’t get to race on the same challenging routes as the men.
“That gap is pretty huge. When you think about it money-wise, that definitely sucks,” said Coryn Rivera, 24, who will compete at Amgen. In early April, she became the first American to win the prestigious Tour of Flanders in Belgium.
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Who knows what’s going to happen in the future?
Kristin Klein, president of the Amgen Tour of California, about using the same route and number of racing days for men and women
She said she earned roughly 1,100 Euros ($1,210 U.S.) compared to about 20,000 Euros ($22,000 U.S.) for the men’s champion, Philippe Gilbert.
Rivera, whose tenacity and blistering finishing kick make her a favorite to win both Saturday’s and next Sunday’s stages in Sacramento, will once again earn less than the male competitors, though race officials were not able to provide a breakdown of men’s and women’s prize money by press time. She and her female competitors will ride different routes than the men and race for four days, compared to seven for men.
Prize money for the Tour of Flanders, along with the Amgen Tour of California and other top-tier races, is determined by the sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI. On its website, the UCI points to several advances in women’s cycling, including having the same number of medals as men in the Summer Olympics.
Equality in money and treatment should be the goal. The women athletes are working just as hard as the men. I know I trained just as hard as the men trained.
Julie Young, who was a pro cyclist in the 1990s
But advocates say there is no minimum salary for women, as there is for men, and female cyclists don’t have access their own version of the Tour de France, the sport’s greatest spectacle.
Unlike pro sports that rely on ticket sales and television contracts, bike races are held on public streets, where fans watch for free, except for pampered VIP access in limited cases.
The sport is largely a money-losing proposition that only makes sense financially because numerous sponsors pitch in thousands of dollars and, in the case of the Tour de France or Tour of California, cities pay big bucks to host a stage of the race.
For Sacramento, which is hosting the overall finish of the women’s race and start of the men’s next Sunday, that’s about $100,000, according to Mike Sophia, director of the Sacramento Sports Commission. The money comes from local hotels, which pay self-imposed dues. The race not only draws attention to Sacramento and boosts tourism, it can generate all kinds of interest domestically and abroad as the racers ride scenic routes around Lake Tahoe, high into the mountains and along the Pacific coastline.
“It has been a big asset for us through the years,” said Sophia, noting that the estimated economic impact locally is $3 million.
The Amgen Tour of California has grown in prominence since its launch in 2006. In 2008, the race invited women to race on a single day in Santa Rosa. By 2016, it had grown to four days and, by then, the boss of the races for both genders was a woman. This year, the men’s field will feature 17 teams and 136 riders; women will have 17 teams and 102 athletes.
“We started out with the men’s race and we saw how successful we were and how the communities and partners embraced the race. We thought it (adding a women’s race) was such a great opportunity to grow the platform,” said Kristin Klein, the race president and executive vice president of AEG Sports.
While women have generated new-found attention for the race – and for the goal of promoting the state of California as a tourist destination – Klein was non-committal about using the same route and number of racing days for men and women. This year, the four days of the women’s race amount to 256.6 miles, compared to 575.9 miles over seven days for the men.
“Who knows what’s going to happen in the future?” Klein said.
Kathryn Bertine said she won’t be satisfied with the treatment of women cyclists at the Amgen Tour of California until men and women race the same routes for equal prize money.
Bertine made a documentary in 2014, “Half the Road,” to bring the gender disparity in the sport to mainstream attention.
“With professional cycling, we’re talking about an occupation,” said Bertine, who also wants women pros to race the same grueling route as the men in the Tour de France. “Men are being paid to race and women are being severely underpaid.”
Julie Young, who made her mark in pro cycling in the 1990s after starring as a collegiate golfer, said she made a good living racing her bike in Europe 20 years ago. She now owns Dai Endurance in midtown Sacramento, where she trains endurance athletes.
But she’s concerned about the pay gap, among other things.
“Every sport contends with this. Golf is the same,” said Young, who cycled for Kahlua, Saturn, Timex and Autotrader, and raced in Italy for Team Fanninia. “Equality in money and treatment should be the goal. The women athletes are working just as hard as the men. I know I trained just as hard as the men trained.”
Even the presentation of the awards at the Amgen Tour of California seems to cater to men. The daily prize presentations are led by so-called podium girls, models wearing clingy dresses and high heels. The Amgen race calls them, “podium ambassadors.” The presentation mirrors the pageantry at the Tour de France prize ceremonies.
“Personally, it actually really does bother me” said Rivera. “I don’t want to be grabbing my trophy from some random girl in heels.”
Klein calls the prize presentation a “nice tradition” and said the ambassadors do far more than present prizes and plant kisses – they interact with fans and sponsors, and sometimes even help with language barriers.
“They are a part of the Amgen Tour of California family,” Klein said of the current podium ambassadors.
As for the quest to close the pay gap, closing it comes down to generating more interest and getting fans, both casual and hardcore, more familiar with the personalities in women’s cycling.
Whereas millions of fans adore superstar Peter Sagan for both his powerful riding and fun-loving personality, far fewer are aware that Rivera has 71 national titles in various cycling disciplines or that Megan Guarnier, last year’s World Tour points leader, worked in risk assessment for nuclear power plants before racing as a pro full-time. Chloe Dygert, the young sensation from the Hong Kong world championships, is being pegged as a future superstar in road racing.
“Its pretty amazing when you talk to these women,” said Klein. “It’s amazing how accomplished they are off the bike.”
As the only American to win the Tour of Flanders, Rivera’s rise to international prominence means she has the potential to make a difference in the quest for pay equity.
“I do want to see myself as kind of a role model, being in the sport at this time where there is much room for change,” she said. “I want to be part of it and to speak out. But I also don’t want to be one constantly complaining about it.”
Bertine is more than willing to take on that role.
“That is how all change happens. We have to call out the problem,” she said. “I hate the idea that we have to evoke public ‘shame,’ but if that’s what has to be done to make women equal to men, that’s what we have to do.”