Photo by Tony Allen-Mills
We recently celebrated a pivotal moment in women’s pro-cycling with this blog. Now Sara Headley, a fabulous SF Bicycle Coalition member and professional cyclist, shared some tips on how to overcome barriers to women’s pro cycling.
Read on, get excited and share far and wide. From new riders to professional cyclists, we’re thrilled to help more women get rolling with Women Bike SF!
By Sara Headley
Do you like riding your bike but wish you had something to push you to train harder, ride faster, or get in better shape? It’s not easy to find your way to your first bike race as the barriers to road-bike racing far outpace those for playing soccer, swimming or any other popular U.S. sport. I specify “road bike” here because, as a professional road cyclist, that’s the only thing I feel qualified to talk about.
The number one question people ask me is, “How did you become a pro cyclist anyway?” It’s a good question because I often wonder it myself! As a kid growing up in Maryland, I didn’t even know road cycling was a sport, let alone dream of becoming a full-time bike racer living in Europe. Life has proven unpredictable!
Most professional racers will talk about similar barriers to rising to the top ranks. I tried to sum them up here. My hope is that bringing light to the topic may help break down some of the barriers or prepare someone who is hoping to become a professional cyclist.
8 Barriers to Road Racing (with Tips to Overcome Them)
- Your friends don’t race. But you can make some new friends who do! Find a local club team and go out for its “No Drop” ride. A simple hello to your neighbor may be all it takes to start a friendship. The Bay Area is a melting pot of intellect and culture; you are bound to meet an interesting person who may very well help you on your way to bike racing success.
- Not enough women race bikes. That is true, but it’s changing. The Bay Area is a Mecca for women racing bikes and finding the right club team for you is key. There are races of all categories and a plethora of teams to join. Also, I found that women are usually happy to help you learn the ropes. All you have to do is put yourself out there. Ask questions, keep showing up to race, show that you want to be a part of the sport. You will eventually find friends – both male and female!
- You don’t have a mentor. In 2011, two pro women befriended me when I was racing alone in a Midwest race series. They let me follow them around and gave me feedback before, during and after the race. In 2012 I asked if I could travel with them during another week of races and they said yes! The time with them made the world of professional women’s cycling real to me; they let me see what it was like on the inside. So, my advice is to find a mentor who has raced at a higher level than you. Maybe it’s a pro on your club team or a new mentor on Network for Advancing Athletes. Having a coach who has “been there, done that” can also provide priceless feedback throughout your journey. And yes, you should get a coach.
- Training and racing takes up too much time. When you tally up the hours spent training, driving to races, maintaining your bike, it’s obvious that bike racing can become an all-encompassing sport. You may need to find more flexible work and bring your friends and family with you to race destinations. Pretty soon, you’ll find home is where you, your bike and your partner are.
- Race bikes and cycling apparel are expensive. The best way to save money on your ride is to take advantage of deals offered by sponsors of your club team. You also don’t need the most expensive equipment – for five years, I raced without carbon wheels on an aluminum bike that cost less than $2000. Craigslist can be a great place to find deals as well. Though be sure to check BikeIndex.org to be sure you’re not buying a stolen bike. As long as you maintain your equipment, you don’t need the latest and greatest just to tow the line.
Also – you can use your SF Bicycle Coalition member discounts to save at just about every bike shop in town.
- Crashing sucks. In bike racing, crashing is inevitable. But the more skills you build through clinics and training races with your club team, the less likely you are to find yourself on the pavement, gravel, etc.
- You discover cycling later in life. You are never too old to start something new. I didn’t become professional until I was 28. Some of the best women in the sport are in their mid-to late 30’s and others are winning at a national level into their 50’s. Outside Magazine just wrote about aging and it’s effect on performance in endurance sports. Dr. Stacy Sims also dedicated her scientific work to helping athletes (specifically women) achieve their full athletic potential. Even though this video focuses on nutrition for triathletes, it’s still great information for any racing cyclist.
- The bike saddle hurts and bike doesn’t fit! Even pros have this problem. Saddles are not one size fits all. Get a saddle that fits the width of your sit bones. Make sure you wear a chamois (bike shorts with the pad in them). Santini makes a bib short that does not require a “breaking in” period; it’s comfortable on the first ride. There are so many other great companies out there, too.
Please get a professional bike fit before you put in big miles. It will not only help you feel more comfortable, but it will help you push more power and enable you to ride farther than without one.
The main messages are to get a bike, join a club and make friends. Overcoming problems along the way will give you strength, confidence and resilience. Trust me, racing will open up a whole new world for you within cycling and you don’t want to miss it!
Help break more ground for road racing and specifically women’s cycling by sharing this post and getting involved. What other barriers exist? Come to a Women Bike SF Coffee Club or event to share your thoughts, or email email@example.com.