Where are all the women?

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Chris Lotts recently (as in a few hours ago) pulled the plug on women’s 1-3 races in his local Southern California crits. His reason? For the last twelve years attendance in this category has been dismal. The extra category, as a money loser, has cost him about $5k per year, and he’s tired of losing the money when he could be filling the time with additional men’s races.

The response was swift and fairly clear. People either supported Chris’s right to make whatever business decision he needed to make, or they castigated him for further reducing the opportunity for women’s racing to expand.

The case for Chris

In its simplest formulation, promoting amateur bike races isn’t a charity, though anyone who’s done it will swear that it sure looks like one. Profit margins are usually loss margins after all the bills are paid. Headaches are legion. Whiny, complaining bicyclists act like prima donnas entitled to NFL star treatment, never mind that it’s their fourth Cat 5 race ever.

More to the point, after doing this for twelve years and continually offering the 1-3 category to women, Chris can say definitively that it’s a money loser, that he’s invested as much as he wants to invest, and that until something in the attendance dynamic changes, he’s using the slot to provide races for the people who are hungry to race and willing to pay.

As Chris likes to say, “If I was a restaurant and decided to stop selling goulash because it was the biggest money loser on my menu, no one would give a damn except the three people who like goulash. And even they would understand that it’s a business and I have to make money.”

To put an even finer point on it, Chris’s response is that people who would prefer a bigger, more robust, more enthusiastic environment for women racers should go put a few on and “watch the dump trucks of cash roll up to their door.” His obvious point is simple. There are 52 weekends a year, and anyone passionate enough to promote women’s racing should go out and do it.

His underlying point is not so simple. Women’s racing is poorly attended and it’s not his job to make it well attended.

The argument against

And in this corner, in the pink trunks, are men and women who think that the restaurant analogy fits poorly. Why? Because the decision to cut the goulash doesn’t disproportionately affect women. It’s gender neutral, whereas the decision to reduce the total number of women’s races to one makes women’s racing less than a second-class citizen and more like a tenth-class citizen.

The other problem is that Chris’s arguments are the same ones raised by opponents to Title IX back in the day, when male-dominated sports programs claimed that the absence of women athletes was due to women not wanting to play rather than to the absence of teams, fields, buses, equipment, coaches, and athletic budgets. Once the money flowed into collegiate women’s sports, athletic participation blossomed.

Women and men who have been through the gender wars know that the first club that the Neanderthals pull of the towsack, whether it’s job promotion, college admission, or athletic participation, is that “Women just can’t get their shit together to come out and [fill in the blank]. They just don’t wanna.”

The other argument is that Chris’s job is not just to make money. It’s also to encourage participation and increase the size of the sport for men and for women. His races are some of the biggest and most popular in Southern California, and they are the default race for countless LA riders who want a quick, safe, convenient, professionally run race in their own backyard.

In short, when Chris cuts out a women’s category, it’s felt on a much larger scale than when done by a smaller promoter who may only do one race per year. As a result, the argument goes, he has an obligation to go the extra mile, even if it costs him.

So who’s right?

Chris clearly has the stronger argument when looking at the number of years he’s offered this racing category and when looking at his right to make a buck. Indefinitely supporting an event that’s a money loser when it’s your money being lost makes no sense unless you’re engaged in philanthropy or are spending taxpayer dollars.

Those opposed to dropping the 1-3 races have the stronger argument when they point to Title IX. You can’t increase women’s participation by reducing their opportunities to race.

Rather than raising the fist of either party in victory, I’d suggest that both are right, but that the solution lies outside of Chris’s weekend crit series. Bike racers are lucky to have Chris Lotts in their backyard, promoting races for over a decade both on the weekend and, until this year, during the week as well. If the decisions he makes keep him in business, then more power to him. If the decisions he makes reduce racing for any given category, well, go organize a race and see if you can get people to attend. It’s not as easy as it looks, and it looks fiendishly difficult.

The bigger problem of “Where are all the women racers?” is affected by Chris’s decision somewhat, but I’d maintain that it’s not his job to solve the problem all by himself. As Title IX proved, increased participation and development of women athletes takes time, mentoring, and money. Especially money.

So where’s all the money?

I’m agog at the number of women cyclists in Southern California. Some local bike shops have entire squads of hobby cyclists composed exclusively of women. One of them, the PV Biker Chicks, has over 150 billion regular riding members.

Racing squads like Helen’s and LaGrange also sport large contingents of women riders, and the unaffiliated women riders who you can see at all hours of the day in all the usual cycling venues testify further to the strong financial support that underlies women’s participation in cycling.

What all this doesn’t translate into, though, is women bike racers of the 1-3 categories. Leaving aside for the moment that blowing snot rockets and farting on the bike at 30 mph while bumping bars through a turn doesn’t fit the traditional definition of feminine, it seems to me that the problem is no different from the problems faced by women’s collegiate sports before Title IX.

What if, instead of pounding away at Chris (which I’ll admit is fun), those interested in expanding women’s racing fully funded two or three new women’s categories in the CBR crit series? The venue’s already there. The organization’s already in place. The teams and clubs already have the riders and the budgets.

Best of all, it would be much cheaper and easier to integrate additional women’s categories into an existing, established race than to go out and promote a new one. This, of course, is where the rubber meets the road. Where money talks, and bullshit walks. Where cliches are so numerous they have to queue up in order to get mentioned.

If the people and entities who vocally support women’s crit racing  want to see it grow, they should offer to fund some of these races within the CBR framework. The worst that could happen is that it would fail for thirteen years in a row rather than just twelve.

The best is that, with some real skin in the game (cliche, check!), the clubs and organizations would start pushing harder to develop their riders and get them to show up and enter races. It would be…(cliche drumroll…)

A win-win!

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