Rochester's First All-Women's Cycling Team

The cold of an early spring morning fills the air, broken only by the heat radiating off of their bodies. Cheers and cowbells ring in the distance. A tiny purr warms up to a steady whir, as the riders turn the corner and a rush of wind follows. They head up the hill.

The group moves swiftly, together, like a pack of wolves. Pulsing, breathing, moving in sync until the click of a gear signals a breakaway. The entire muscle mass advances on their prey: two lone riders keeping their pace. The pack of men encompasses one cyclist, moves past her, and continues up the hill. The next victim doesn’t escape as easily. He is pushed off the road, his bike into the dirt, and narrowly avoids a crash.

Members of the pack turn around to yell at the woman, ridiculing her for not moving over. “What are you doing!? “ they yell, “Make us some room!”

This was Andi Balland’s first cycling race.

But the behavior she experienced wasn’t uncommon. Newcomers to the sport can expect to feel unwelcome and be immediately dropped by the men. “It’s like they make it their job to try and drop your ass,” says cyclist and former professional triathlete Danielle Ohlson. “They don’t want to see a woman doing what they can do, and god forbid faster.” Understandably, many women don’t come back for a second ride.

Currently, USA Cycling reports that women make up only 15% of licensed members. Last year, women made up only 14%, but there were 9,510 female members, and that number has dropped to 9,333 this year.[1]

Yet local race coordinators ask themselves why retention rates are suffering; why more women aren’t staying in the sport. Race director Rick Dalton posed this question on Facebook: “Can any female bike racers provide any specific feedback on what they are looking for in a USA Cycling road race? I have equal payouts and fields for the Bristol Mountain Road Race, Sunday May 15 but yet only 17 women pre-registered compared to 91 men pre-registered?” One of the most common responses to the post was that family obligations and finding a babysitter still falls to the women, and they were unable to register until they had a more definitive schedule.  

Balland knows this challenge well. She has three kids and balances cycling with parenting, helping with their schoolwork, and getting them to extracurricular activities. For her, riding has become an escape from the chaos of raising kids, working a part time job, and maintaining the house.

Although she rode with the Rochester Bicycling Club (RBC) in the past, she notes that she didn’t really feel like she fit in. “The club seemed to be made up of competitive racers, men who liked to hammer it like they were racers, or older folks with mountain bikes… I didn’t identify with any of them. I ultimately spent the last two seasons riding by myself whenever I could carve out some time.”

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But in January 2016, she found a new way to enjoy the sport. Balland was invited, along with seven other women, to be a part of a whole new team: CycleweRx of Rochester, which would be the city’s first all-women’s cycling team. The indoor training center that sponsored them set out to address some of the issues surrounding the sport, stating that their goal was “promoting a group of women together as a team, not an afterthought.”


 

Like many bike shops, owners Steve Stanziano and Jason Quagliata discussed the possibility of sponsoring a team in an attempt to grow their business publicity. Both had noticed a lack of support for female riders in the area. “I felt there wasn’t really an avenue for women to feel comfortable and to participate within maybe their own community rather than always being stuck or positioned on a men’s team,” says Quagliata.

With that in mind, the owners introduced the idea of starting a women’s team to their morning employee, Rachel Pikus. They challenged her to find a minimum of five women who would be interested in starting a team, without any other set expectations. Pikus reached out to those she knew from past workshops and races. Within a few weeks, eight women gathered in a dark warehouse space – where CycleweRx is located - to discuss their future as a team. Most had never met, and there was an uncertainty about what the training and racing commitments and expectations would be.

“I was nervous, I was hoping everyone would find the place and show up… we all came from different backgrounds and different experiences but it all seemed to mesh really well, so right from the get-go I had a really good feeling about the people in the room,” Pikus recalls of that meeting.

From there, the team began training together every Thursday night, setting up their bikes and tracking their progress on a screen. 

The significance of this team being the only one exclusively for women in Rochester means a few things – for one, it guarantees that more women will be at local races competing. The 2016 Bristol Mountain course ended up having 36 female registrants, doubled from the 18 that signed up in 2015. Five of those women were members of the new team. “Knowing that you’re going to have peers to race against brings out more people,” says Pikus. Already, more women have expressed interest in joining the team. 

Higher attendance also provides hope for the inclusion of more race categories, which is one of the factors influencing low turnout numbers in women’s fields. According to a study done by Daniel J. Larson of the University of Oklahoma, the top constraints from participating in races women cite are not enough time, not knowing how to start, and lack of beginner level races. The International governing body of Cycling (UCI) reported that in 2015 for the cyclo-cross division of racing, “a new Women Under-23 category was created to allow female competitors aged 17-22 to compete in separate events from Women Elite.” Women’s participation in the event increased that year by 23%.

Women’s cycling is growing on an international scale as well. Women’s UCI-registered professional teams now outnumber men’s teams, 39 to 37. From 2011 to 2015, there was a 23% increase in women’s participation at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships. 2015 also marked the last UCI Women Road World Cup, however it was replaced with the UCI Women’s WorldTour, which was created to increase the amount of time racing by 60%, a big step towards equality with the men’s professional races. 18.5 million people watched the event, which had 151 hours of broadcast time. [1]

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On the personal level, the team means something different for each member. For Danielle Ohlson, it is the next challenge in her lengthy athletic career. Ohlson previously competed as a professional triathlete, but was mostly training on her own. “While that built mental toughness, it got to be very lonely. All of that time alone made me realize one of the things I value most about sport – forming meaningful relationships with people who share a similar passion.”

Balland expresses some of the same sentiments about the team: “I started out mentally competing with everybody when we were training inside and I soon realized that it wasn’t about what I could do against these women… it was what we could collectively achieve.”

Together, the women of team CycleweRx are changing the direction of the sport. They bring a new, supportive attitude and are paving the way for younger generations to come.

[1] “UCI 2015 Annual Report,” http://www.uci.ch/mm/Document/News/News/17/69/80/UCI-2015-RAPPORT-ANNUEL-EN_English.pdf.