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Amgen Tour of California Women’s Time Trial: A Comment

Gavia Over the weekend, VeloNews reported that the Amgen Tour of California would likely run a women’s time trial in Solvang. Sounds good, right? A bazillion people will show up to line the roads for the men’s race, and the women will have the chance to show their talents for a massive audience. So far, so good.

Then, we saw the fine print. The women’s purse would be calculated based on how many men the women beat in the time trial. Yes! Battle of the sexes! Like, what year is this?

Now, I’m not a race organizer, but I do know that the Amgen Tour of California has operated at a deficit since it began. And I also know that sponsors are difficult to find and media exposure for women’s sports is scarce. Unlike Gerard Vroomen, I can’t plunk down my euros and sponsor a team. Really, I wish I could.

But I have words, and I can tell stories. Sometimes, a girl has to make do with what she has. So follow me below the fold, and let’s talk about girls and boys and bike racing, and why the battle of the sexes has so much wrong, it can never be right.

Since this story emerged, the reactions have come thick and fast. Want a sampling? Head over to the Twitter and read @mmmaiko, @AdamMyerson, @yu_kie, and @lacambramanel, among others. Why are so many of us so riled up? I could say something about setting up men as the norm to the diminishment of women. Joshua Hunt has already made this point nicely. Hunt writes rightly that the Battle of the Sexes format represents "an inability to view women in their own context, distinct from males." Yes, this. Women athletes should be measured against other women athletes. Why the necessity to measure women against men? Newsflash! We’re different! Maybe you’ve noticed?

But rather than talk in terms of abstract theory, let me tell you a story, because that’s what I do best. Once upon a time, I was a bike racer, and before I was a bike racer, I was a swimmer. I trained hard. Who doesn’t? And I won races. Because I had the killer instinct and I liked to crush. Winning is good.

I can remember a time when I got a little zing of pleasure when I beat up on a boy. It was fun. Like, dude, I’m faster than you. But then I started to notice something. I started to see clearly the men I beat. You see, they weren’t my equals. They didn’t train as hard, and they weren’t as talented. I was beating the less-talented, less-committed members of the dude pack. I wasn’t beating the men who were like me. So, I out-climbed a guy on the Saturday ride, the guy who has three kids and works 60 hour weeks and just today got to come out for a two-hour ride. I spent almost as much time on my bike — or thinking about my bike, or lying on the couch preparing for my bike — as he did at work. I beat the pro coming back from injury or the sixteen year old who just got his first racing bicycle. Where’s the glory in that?

The answer, of course, is that there was no glory in that. The glory and joy and exhilaration, those things came from beating my equals, the women who went out and trained their hearts out and showed up on race day ready to crush. As an athlete, I lived for those moments, the moments when I dug down deep, laid it on the line, and won something that actually mattered.

So, I trained with men, and I used their strength to make me a better athlete. But I didn’t measure myself against them. The best men, the men who trained like me and cared about winning like me, they were always faster. And you know what? I only ever resented that reality when someone said something stupid. You want to get punched in the face? Tell a committed woman athlete that she’s "pretty good for a girl." Run, run fast if you know what’s good for you. I’m not a man. Why the fuck should I measured against one?

"I love the system! As a time trialist it fires me up to see how many men I can ‘girl’," wrote Kristin Armstrong this morning. Armstrong is an Olympic Gold Medalist in the time trial. No doubt she will beat a number of men in Solvang, if this event runs as planned. But think for a moment about who she will beat. She’ll beat men who’ve been racing for six days already. She will also beat men who are riding for team captains. Maybe they spent the whole day in the wind the day before, or maybe they have to save their legs for the climbing stage coming the next day. Where’s the glory in that? (Maybe Armstrong was supporting her sponsor, SRAM, who is reportedly involved in the event.)

Jim Miller of USA Cycling suggested this morning that perhaps Versus would offer 20 minutes of coverage of the women’s event. If true, that would be huge. It’s rare for women’s cycling to get two minutes of coverage, never mind twenty. Unfortunately, Miller couldn’t confirm the news. Turning down the exposure offered by 20 minutes of television time has an element of cutting off the nose to spite the face. Still, it’s hard to like this idea that women’s racing has to play the circus sideshow to receive exposure. In fact, I think I hate it. It feels like a minstrel show, and not in a good way.

Lyne Lamoureux of Podium Insight has said she will not cover the race if it goes forward with the prize money scheme based on comparing the men’s and women’s performances. That’s a pretty big statement from a site dedicated not only to North American cycling but also to supporting women’s cycling. Lyne is digging for more details, and will no doubt have a more complete statement of her views soon. For supporters of women’s cycling, the Amgen Tour of California has thrown us a painful dilemma. Do we support the riders, despite the unfair circumstances? How do we oppose the Man without hurting the people who are already disempowered by this shenanigan?

Amgen Tour of California, you can make this right. You can make this right so, so easily. The women riders, they want to race. They are accustomed to small pay-outs. You don’t have to offer a huge prize list. The women and their teams, they want exposure. So please, do us all a favor and drop the Battle of the Sexes angle on this thing. Make it a real competition of women against women. Let’s see the top women time trialers in the world battle it out in front of a big audience. Armstrong has a gold medal, and is returning to the sport after having a son. People, please, if you can’t sell that story, really, I don’t even know what to think. As it stands, Manel Lacambra is correct: "The Tour of California don’t deserve us there." But it doesn’t have to be this way. Make it right, Tour of California. Please, just make it right.