Current State of Women’s Road Racing in Alberta

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.


Erin Ruttan
Founder, Watt Riot Cycling


21 thoughts on “Current State of Women’s Road Racing in Alberta”

  1. Thank you for addressing this issue. I raced for the first time last year and have to say was absolutely terrified my first race. I had no idea what to expect or how I would measure up against the other ladies. Throughout the season I improved and managed to earn enough points throughout the season to get to Category 3 – mostly through racing a lot. I now realize the entry level is not as terrifying as I thought but it very difficult to convince ladies thinking about racing of this fact. For me the thought of racing up is now equally as terrifying and intimidating as my first race, for all the reasons you have mentioned. There definitely has to be something for ladies to continue to aspire to apart from racing with the men who may not always want you there, in a huge field that you are not used to.

    1. Diane you have done so well racing! I’m honestly so happy that you got over the fear and dove in.
      Riding up is hard, it’s a good experience though. I promise we are here to support you when you take the leap. I really hope you go for it this year. The more ladies we have, the more likely we are to get our own start line.

      1. Thank you. I had also meant to say that you are absolutely right about the distances that 1/2/3’s are then being asked to race. I know that increasing the distance by 40km (or more) is intimidating for a lot of ladies and through conversations I know that had an impact on their decision not to race up. The distances need to be enough to stretch the fast ladies but not so much to destroy the new Cat 3’s. Getting race organizers on board with this will be key and it was nice to see TdB having this conversation after last years race.

        Thanks for all your work with this. I know that I will be certainly be willing to give it a go 🙂

        1. That’s another bit to the challenge of not having our own start line. We have to race the men’s distance.
          Know that all the women are feeling equally intimidated by the distance increase when they start.
          these issues need to be voiced for change to happen the way we need it to.

          Please feel free to share this post, and these comments around. Unity is important.

  2. Agreed, the difference in field size, duration of races and intensity between the women’s Cat 3/4/5 and the Cat 1/2/3 field is drastic and not particularly conducive to a smooth development process.

    The question is how to create and sustain a separate women’s Cat. 1/2/3 field? Perhaps an agreement with the ABA or the race organizers (well in advance of the event) can be established, so that if a specific number of women register for the 1/2/3 field then a separate race will be run. If that number was 15 women, for example, and you had 12 Cat 1/2/3’s registered, hopefully it would encourage enough women who are Cat. 3’s and were thinking of “racing down” to “race up” instead, in order to meet that pre-determined number, and ensure a separate race is run.

    Perhaps another option is striking an agreement with the race organizers that if “x” number of the volunteers at a given race are there with/to support a Cat. 1/2/3 racer, then a separate field will be guaranteed. Ideally this wouldn’t be necessary, but from a logistics standpoint it may be hard for some organizers to justify a separate category if there are only 8 racers comprising the Cat 1/2/3 field, but if they know that 10 of the 14 volunteers at the race that weekend were brought in by those same 8 racers, that’s a huge help to them and you’d hope they’d recognize and reward it. Again, it shouldn’t be necessary to do this, but just a thought on how to give the ABA and/or organizers some added incentive to commit to a separate women’s race.

    If the number of women registering continues to grow as a result of holding races independent of the Cat.3 men, it would only be a matter of time until it becomes a permanent trend one would hope.

    Not sure if any of those thoughts are useful, but I’m in support of your cause and would be willing to assist in your goal to establish your own start line. At a minimum I can share your post and hopefully get some further discussion and thought on the subject.

    Andrew Davidson
    The Lead Out Project

    1. These are super helpful thoughts. All things that we have been considering as well. I have asked a few people what a commitment from the women would need to look like for us to get a start line. No one has an answer. Maybe that commitment will be determined by each organizer separately. We can work with that if given enough notice. Maybe one wants 10 people, another 15, another just wants each woman to bring a volunteer. Maybe we provide our own driver and vehicle for the comm and wheel car.
      We are open to rallying the women.
      I look forward to further conversations on the best way to do that.

      Thanks for your support Andrew.
      Please share this blog post.
      And if you’re around over family day, we would love to have you at our event.

  3. Interesting read, and it’s worth looking into how big of a discrepancy there is amongst the women’s 1/2/3 and 3/4/5 when it comes to how races organize themselves to accommodate female riders. Something worth pointing out though, women can upgrade from category 3 to category 2 via three different means: Selection to a Provincial or National Trade Team, or, earned a National Championship medal in a road discipline. That last part is obtainable; however, one would have to ensure that they race consistently in category 1/2/3 races in order to have a good shot at earning such a prize. The fundamentals of upgrading between men and women have a completely different set of prerequisites, probably due to the fact that the level of competition between men is much higher due to rider turnout rates, than compared to the women. It’s just my assumption though; I’d think that if there were less people in a certain category, the prerequisites for them to progress ought to be challenging in it of themselves just to offset the lack of competition amongst peers, which would act as its own vetting system.

    The issue of the ABA combining category 1/2/3 women with category 3 men points to a greater problem in the women’s cycling community. Category 3 women stagnating in 3/4/5 races due to the intimidation factor of riding with men is a pretty broad statement that fails to address the underlying issue; it’s that there just aren’t enough women racing in Alberta whom feel it’s worth their while to make that kind of a committal jump in training and time. This also has a detrimental affect on their fellow female racers that are coming up in the sport, in that by stagnating and consistently sandbagging the podium, they end up making it difficult for other women in 3/4/5 to earn points in order to upgrade themselves.

    Upon looking at the Stage Races that took place throughout the 2016 calendar, and in closer examination of the discrepancy between category 5 men to category 2 men, along with categories 3/4/5 and 1/2/3 women, I’d say the problem from what I’ve heard amongst women, and seen as results within racer turnout, we first need to address the fact that women just don’t race compared to the numbers of men that do, and that that puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to how races are set up. Why should the ABA and race organizers make space for less than a handful of women whom want to race a higher category all onto ourselves, and not be lumped with their male comrades? That being said, perhaps the ABA should focus on opening up the bottom of category 5 as a more welcoming stage for women into this competitive environment. If we’re to really look at, and listen to the women whom first come into this environment, most would say the same thing; that the distances are the most intimidating factors; and then to move towards the higher echelons, to then be intimidated again by the combination of men and women racing together.

    In my opinion, we need to make category 5 and 4 more accessible to women coming into this sport by not having them race against category 3 women; we should open up the bottom and make it not as intimidating for these women to come into our space. By doing so, perhaps it’ll allow us to retain more women in this community, thereby allowing a slower progression from category 5-3. As for the progression from category 3-2, first we need more women to step up and show up to 1/2/3 races. It’s an unfair ask for women to make a large jump in distances and race times, but if you’re really passionate about this sport, you gotta do the work in order to show we want our space.

    1. I hear what you’re saying. In fact it seems we are in agreement that having category 4 & 5 women racing against category 3 women is detrimental to rider retention.

      It’s about making space for people. We haven’t made a space for our stronger riders which in turn hasn’t made a space for our newer riders. We lose women on both ends.

      For women racing up, the upgrade to category 2 currently doesn’t make a difference within the province which makes it a moot point for many female riders. The draw is mainly for women looking to race out of province or down in the US. You’re right in that with the current number of women racing and the number of cat 3 women sandbagging, having a point upgrade system to cat 2 simply doesn’t make sense. But neither does winning a national road medal. But perhaps winning races out of province in a large field of women should be considered. Currently that is not an option. But again, moot point if you don’t plan to race out of province

      1. I do empathize with the sheer frustration of the lack of options women have in road racing in Alberta, that I can definitely agree upon. With that in mind, I recently upgraded this year to category 3, and look forward to racing in 1/2/3 this year as well; I suppose I’m just not understanding why so many women don’t chose to race in the 1/2/3 races.

        I’m curious as to what you mean in that, for women, currently upgrading to category 2 from 3 is a moot point within the province; would you be able to expand on what you mean in that “the draw is mainly for women looking to race out of province”? Do you mean category 2 can only be seen as one of exclusivity among most category 3 racers due to the fact that it is no longer achievable via points, and only by status of trade team or national medal, and so, what’s the point in upgrading? I really want to understand what you’re trying to say in your last paragraph; could you clarify on your last point too? I would think that having a point based upgrade system to category 2 would make better sense if the number of competitors were present too, but are you saying it doesn’t make sense to have that system?

        1. We are so happy to hear your are excited to race up in cat 1/2/3 this year. I was equally excited (though admittedly a bit nervous) to race up when I received my category 3. I honestly don’t know why so many women chose to race 3/4/5. I can understand it in the case of a mid or end of season upgrade, perhaps where you barely snuck in the wins that awarded you the upgrade points. In those situations I can see racing down for another race or two. But then you should take the plunge, race up, and make way for newer riders to gain their upgrade points.

          Sorry if my saying the upgrade from 3 to 2 was a moot point was confusing. I can see how it would be. What I meant to say is: given the current state of women’s racing (low numbers and lack of options) this is LESS of an urgent fix for the situation as it doesn’t change the race for the rider. I feel the solution as to what to do for category 3 riders wanting to upgrade to category 2 will become easier to see once ridership grows. Which really takes me back to, award us our own start line. Or at least list it as an option in the tech guide and if the registration numbers don’t warrant a separate race, then combine it with another field.

          I think the upgrade from category 3 to 2 is wonderful. I have been quite proud of the riders I have seen achieve it. It has never come easily. However, I think there are riders in 3 that feel since they cannot upgrade to 2 on points, there is no reason to attempt to race in 1/2/3 (I may be wrong on this). Others feel that even when they do upgrade, if they are racing in 1/2/3 it doesn’t change the field or race distance or podium, and they get dishearten from racing. Which is a shame because where that upgrade DOES make a difference is when your racing in provinces or states with larger fields of women (Ontario, BC, Washington, California etc) and then that upgrade is really pretty awesome.

          You are right in that having a points based system for upgrading from 3 to 2 makes better sense with a larger number of competitors. We just don’t have those numbers right now, so that isn’t the answer for us. However, I feel that results from out of province races in large cat 3 fields SHOULD be considered for upgrading. Given that we do not currently have the numbers in our own field.

          Does that make sense?

          1. Please tell me if I am missing something. I upgraded to 3 at the end of season so that may be the case. It was my impression throughout the season that the only races that actually offered 1/2/3 option for ladies were PRW – Miquelon Lake and TdB. This in itself limits racers options to race up. If it was 1/2/3 and race with men or 3/4/5 with women why not take away the option. Could this be a simple first step by race organizers to make the switch to all races offering 1/2/3 and 4/5? This may be a way of building numbers in 1/2/3 leading race organizers to be more willing to offer it as a stand alone category (ie not racing with men). I do think if this is the case perhaps the requirement to upgrade to 3 might have to be tweaked. I know that I upgraded to 3 but by consistency in racing a lot with better results in criteriums. Perhaps the category 3 upgrade should be based on points and perhaps one or two podium positions as well?
            I may be way off so please let me know if I am but jut thought I’d add my two cents.

          2. Diane.
            For some reason we can’t comment on your response below!
            All of the Alberta races offer a 1/2/3 category. However, this category is raced within the men’s category 3. So same start time, route, and distance.
            At Tour de Bowness women’s 1/2/3 is given its own start time. Typically more women register for this race.

            We encourage to race 1/2/3 for all the 2017 races you do.

          3. Diane.
            For some reason we can’t comment on your response below!
            All of the Alberta races offer a 1/2/3 category. However, this category is raced within the men’s category 3. So same start time, route, and distance.
            At Tour de Bowness women’s 1/2/3 is given its own start time. Typically more women register for this race.

            We encourage to race 1/2/3 for all the 2017 races you do.

  4. I understand what you’re saying Erin, yes! I totally empathize with the many sentiments category 3 women feel when they’re in this limbo between 1/2/3 and 3/4/5 options for racing. And your point on the lack of options when it comes to upgrading to category 2; yes, that would definitely be disheartening for many female riders who want to make that jump; female cyclists have out grown the system we have in place, and it appears as though changes must be made in order to make room for the ever growing popularity of the sport.

    I’ll admit though, a huge part of me is really sad that women can feel intimidated with racing provincially, and to know that it stops a lot of new racers from coming into this amazing environment cuts deep for me. With that said, I’m definitely on the side of expanding and opening up the bottom before anything can be done for women like us. That doesn’t mean I’m unsupportive of the idea of giving cat 2/3 women more opportunities with the set up of races; I’m right behind you on that. I think what ought to come first though is a separate category 5 race for novice girls and women, that way they can feel as though they have a safe and equal footing on coming into this sport, and a more steadily transition from novice to intermediate. The intimidation factor is gone because they’re not racing against more experienced women of higher categories, and their distances are shorter, which would be on par with their entry level capabilities. Once we have a larger base of riders to accommodate, then I think we’d be in a more secure position to give the higher caliber female racers the transitional space they need too. We could do these changes simultaneously, or in quick succession, depending on how quickly things catch on.

  5. Reading this thread has been interesting, and here are my two cents as a CAT3 racer. I agree with the comments above, it is a big jump to race close to double the distance at higher speeds in a larger field of racers; on the other hand, no one wants unintentionally stunt the development of women’s cycling, and for women in CAT3 it is a difficult decision to establish where one fits in.

    I value quality of competition where an athlete can feel like they are participating and being competitive in a field. When I first started road racing I was dropped in every road race, but I wasn’t deterred from cycling because of this, rather I was encouraged to train smarter and improve my tactics so I could hang in with the peloton. The next year I was able to finish with the main pack, but again was not a top contender, and by this point I was in CAT4, then to finish the season in CAT3. Once being upgraded to CAT3 I faced the same dilemma that this article addresses: which group do I fit in with? I had never won a race and was doing well, but definitely did not have the endurance to race with the men, and felt I was still being challenged by racing in W 3/4/5. Following two years of training and dedication I saw consistent success in W 3/4/5 races this year. I have been called a “sandbagger” this past year and criticized for “racing down”; I think this attitude is quite toxic, and can have a negative effect on retaining competitors, not to mention being an overall detriment to the nurturing environment that we want to foster in Alberta’s cycling community; it’s discouraging to have your competition criticize you for participating as you improve, and is difficult to have accomplishments held against you. The perspective I adopted as CAT3 woman racing in W3/4/5 is to help mentor new racers with safety, understanding strategy, and to facilitate a dynamic race. It’s unfair if a racer destroys the entire field by minutes, and if this is occurring then I agree it is time to race with W 1/2/3. There is a significant flaw surrounding upgrading in that it is also dependent on how many ladies race; if a woman happens to attend a race with only a few participants, they will receive points and eventually upgrade. Sometimes this upgrade corresponds with increases in abilities and consistent training, other times it does not, and for each lady racer the experience will be different from race to race and year to year.

    Once a woman is strong enough to race with the men it is nice to have the option to challenge oneself against a whole new level, albeit the gap is quite large between 3/4/5 and Men’s 3. Racing with the men will help to develop strong and competitive women in preparation for larger scale races. After participating in Superweek this year, it is clear to me how fast these ladies are, and being able to have experience with larger field of CAT3 size is valuable for a woman looking to improve. Having a separate Women’s CAT3 race would be helpful for those looking to improve provincially, but do little to help those looking to gain experience of racing in a larger field.

    Racing should be a fun and challenging experience irrespective of participating in 1/2/3 or 3/4/5. The decision to race in the men’s or women’s field is of course a judgement call on part of the athlete. This is complicated by external factors and pressure by other cyclists encouraging a CAT3 to “race up”. There is a certain amount of judgement passed when we discuss racing “up” or “down” and it can leave an athlete with the feeling that they cannot win either way. If I choose to race up prematurely I risk getting dropped and just time trialling to the finish line, but can avoid the pressures of being asked why I am “racing down”. If I race down and podium, then I am a “sandbagger”. Objectively, referencing the watts/kg chart, looking at the numbers; a high end CAT3 or even CAT2 woman is at a level of high CAT4 or low CAT3 man. This may help with structuring in the future. Please see the link for the table I am referencing.

    It is important we respect that each racer has a different background, path of development and goals onto oneself. Not all racers have the same ambitions or timelines, and it is important that competition is fair, fun and challenging with the opportunity for women to progress and see improvements. Feel free to comment on this, cheers.

    1. Really well said Shauna, thanks so much for weighing in.
      You’re right, every situation is different. Last year there seemed to be particularly low participant numbers and I don’t doubt that there are a few women who upgraded to a category they may not quite fit into if they were to go into larger fields. There really isn’t an “easy” solution for this, but having the conversation and involving the women who are doing the racing in that conversation is important.

      It’s really disheartening to hear the you have been called a sandbagger for racing down. I think the decisions you have made over the last two years have been good ones that have aided in your progress in the sport. When you do race your first race in 1/2/3 if I’m not beside you cheering you on you better believe I will be feeding you in the feed zone.

  6. I’ve been road riding with ERTC for the last 5 years and have been adamant that I would never race for the exact reasons that are listed in this article (well the ones directed towards new racers anyway). But last year I founded the Women of ERTC branch of our club ( and it’s taking off! I thought I was alone in cycling, that there weren’t any other women that wanted to ride, but boy was I wrong – most were just too intimidated to join a club and try group riding. So I’m taking down those barriers and helping to reduce the intimidation factor and we’re having great success.

    The same barriers, or worse, exist in women’s racing – I’ve never wanted to try because I know my fitness level and I know I would just be dropped and riding generally solo if I’m lumped in with all the other amazing ladies who race all the time. That’s demotivating. BUT….with the success of Women of ERTC I’ve gotten a TON of interest in giving women’s racing a try. We’ve all committed to each other that if we all at least try it, then hopefully we’ll be able to widen the ability level field and give everyone the ability to compete with others racers similar to their level. But we need help. I’m working as hard as I can to create an influx of new racers this year – but we need to ensure that we retain a lot of them. And for those on the fence, I need them to be able to watch us give it a try this year and be motivated to try it next year.

    I know it’s a chicken & egg sort of this, the very diverse, yet equally valid, issues for both new and veteran women racers. But if we can make Cat 4/5 less intimidating and more of an encouraging learning environment for new racers, I really think some of the challenges facing those in higher Cat’s will ease.

    Thank you for addressing these issues – I’m leading the same charge on my end. We need to create a movement, and we need the support of everyone to do it!!

    1. Thanks Tiffany!!
      I’m really happen to hear you are leading the charge for new racers.
      Good things are coming in 2017 for women in cycling.

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