In theory, Alberta has two levels of women’s road racing: category 1/2/3 and category 3/4/5. However, in practice Alberta has women who are raced together as a group of women (Category 3/4/5) and women who are raced with a group of men (category 1/2/3).
Though giving the upper category of women the opportunity to race against the men (in Category 3) is a great idea in theory, in that it allows us to race with stronger riders and pushes us to be better, in practice, it sucks. Firstly, women can’t make it out of category 3 and into category 2 without being picked up by a National or Provincial Trade team. For the most part this means that women in category 1 and 2 got there because they were strong enough to make it onto professional level teams (until now, there was no female trade team in Alberta). This is awesome and the numbers of female Category 1 and 2 riders licensed in Alberta or originally from Alberta shows the strength potential of our women. Unfortunately this also means that these women are not likely to be racing in Alberta ever again (with the exception of Tour de Bowness which tends to have a bit bigger draw). So that category 1/2/3 field of women is basically a field of category 3 women.
This leads us to problem two, category 3 women are not racing up. The difference between a women’s category 1/2/3 and a category 3/4/5 race is about double the distance and a minimum of a 4x larger field (when the men are included). This is intimidating. Race organizers seem to be forgetting that though the men racing with these category 1/2/3 ladies had the luxury of progressing from category 5 races to slightly longer and faster category 4 races to slightly longer and faster category 3 races, the women in category 3 choosing to race up have not had this luxury. They have been racing with the same women, in the same field size, and the same speeds, on the same distance of course. It’s a bit like getting thrown into the deep end after learning to blow bubbles and being told to swim. It is because of this drastic jump in distance and field size that many of the category 3 women choose not to race up. But here’s the thing, if all of the licensed category 3 women decided one day to race up, there would be a large enough number of women riding up to have their own peloton. Think about that, no more fighting men for wheels, no more being over taken as soon as you move up for a pull because you’re “too little” to draft off. A peloton of strong fierce women. Let that beauty sink in.
On to problem three, some category 3 women choosing to not ride up still want to race, this means they are racing down. Women who have been strong enough to win the races (often by a long shot) are racing with women who are brand new to road racing. Licensed for the first time. Again, our male counter parts have a category 5 field which is just category 5, ie new or tactically weaker riders. Women do not. This means that poor girl who was stoked to try her hand at bike racing because she loves to ride is getting blown apart and finishing 20-40 minutes behind a veteran rider who doesn’t want to race against men. That’s not overly great for new rider retention. So less new riders continue racing.
In a nut shell, we are failing our women. We have not carved out a place for our stronger female riders, which leads them to stop racing, or race down, driving new riders to not continue with the sport. Alberta licensed close to 100 women in road for 2016, a typical race was lucky to see 20 total women, and usually three or less race up in category 1/2/3. We are failing our women.
In the past, clubs asked their category 3 women to commit to racing up for the year to give new riders a better shot at enjoying the sport. Some riders stuck to this, some did not, many chose not to race. It’s not enough to ask the women to do something, you need to make a place for them to follow through on that ask. You wouldn’t ask your partner to fill the car with gasoline without first fixing the hole in the gas tank. Why are you asking your women to race up without giving them a start line to race from?
In theory, this is an easy fix, shift the categories of women’s racing to 1/2/3 and 4/5 and commit to giving riders in 1/2/3 a start line that is all their own. Here’s where it gets though, you have to hold to that commitment, and spread the word. We understand that race organizers reserve the right to combine categories if numbers are low. We have read that in every tech guide written, we get it. But if you don’t give me a race start from the beginning that’s all my own, how do I know you want me to have a place? If you build it they will come. But you do in fact, need to build it. Everyone wants to see more women riding, so help us get there.
Founder, Watt Riot Cycling