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Cycling: Women lock eyes on equal prize

The International Cycling Union is making women's cycling a priority but the Gastown Grand Prix is still one of few races that pays its male and female champions the same award.

How much is $13,000 worth? For female cyclists on this continent, the value is its equality.

With an $8,000 prize for first place, last year’s Gastown Grand Prix was already the most lucrative women’s cycling race in North America. Now the storied Vancouver criterium will award the fastest woman the same prize as the fastest man. Both champions will get $13,000.

The benchmark established by the race, which is sponsored by Global Relay, will be continued by the other events in B.C. Superweek, a nine-race cycling series held in seven Lower Mainlaind cities in July. In a step that recognizes equal achievement and will spur heightened competition and perhaps even sponsorship, all races will award men and women equally.

It’s one of several new developments that mark a cultural shift that is being led from the very top. Brian Cookson, the president of the UCI, the international governing body for cycling, said recently what many have known for years. “Cycling is quite a male chauvinist sport, culturally it has been for years,” he told England’s Cycling Weekly.

The UCI founded a women’s commission and appointed a woman to each of its 18 committees. A priority is securing sponsorship and television revenue.

“You’re missing a trick if you just insist that women’s sport is always going to be an adjunct to men’s,” said Cookson.

But 25 years ago back in Vancouver, the women’s Gastown Grand Prix was called off because it wasn’t deemed successful in its own right. In 1989, the organizers cancelled the race for fear the field would be too small. That summer, three national team cyclists were at their homes in the Lower Mainland, including Sara Neil and Alison Sydor, and they were angry about being sidelined.

“We had taken a step back in women’s cycling,” said Neil this week. “We had all worked so hard to increase the numbers for women cycling in Vancouver and it was tough to have this potential No. 1 racing goal for the women cancelled.”

The first women’s race is officially in the books for 1979 when Dawne Deeley took first place. Before then, she and other pioneers raced alongside the men.

One year after it was cancelled, Neil successfully lobbied for the return of the women’s race. In 1990, in an exhilarating breakaway sprint to the finish, Neil won the Gastown Grand Prix in under one second.

As the women’s champion, she earned $1,000. The men’s winner, 7-Eleven team racer Norm Alvis, pocketed $5,000.

Sydor, whose impressive list of accomplishments in road racing and mountain biking includes three consecutive world championships, said her eyes were opened when she left the sport not long after winning the Gastown Grand Prix in 1991. Her male counterpart that year was Lance Armstrong.

“As a young female, that first prize was different from the men than it was for me. It’s never been sensible,” she said.

Sydor represented Canada at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and remembers the male athletes discussing their professional contracts and ambitions to ride in the Tour de France. “When I asked myself ‘What’s next,’ as a woman I had another four years on the amateur circuit to look forward to. It really struck me,” said Sydor.

She soon shifted her interest to mountain biking, where unequal, sexist privileges weren’t fundamental to the sport. 

“I had the good fortune of beginning this sport at the time when mountain biking was just coming onto the scene. As a new sport, a more modern sport, it developed with a totally different sense of equality for men and women in comparison to road racing,” said Sydor, who lives in West Vancouver and is still involved in the sport as a coach and ambassador. “Mountain biking had equal events for the women as for the men. We raced for equal prize money. It was a given.”

Sydor’s first role models were the men she saw competing on television. Then her idols became her peers and the women she competed against.

She applauds B.C. Superweek and the Gastown Grand Prix for recognizing equal talent equally. But Sydor also shakes her head.

“The whole concept of having equal events and equal prize money form women in road cycling, it seems kind of bizarre in this day and age that this should be making a big story,” she said, acknowledging, “It’s great news for the women and it’s richly disserved.”

Leah Kirchmann, the 2013 Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix champion, knows the criterium is one of the most desirable races in Canada. The equal prize money is another significant incentive for women to travel to Vancouver and compete on the cobblestones.

“I really hope that Gastown will help set a precedent for other races by offering both an equal and generous prize purse to the women,” she wrote in an email to the Courier.

Kirchmann, 23, a national team cyclist from Winnipeg who rides with a team sponsored by Optum Pro Cycling and Kelly Benefits Strategies, continues the success of Neil and Sydor.

She had her biggest payday last summer when she won Gastown. Before that, she earned close to $5,000 at the 2011 Tour of Elk Grove near Chicago.

“I do remember that the men’s prize purse was close to double that of the women’s,” she added. “Some of more shocking comparisons come from the biggest international races on the calendar.”

The inaugural Women’s Tour of Britain became the largest stage race for women earlier this month and later this summer when the men in the Tour de France chase mountain peaks and a top prize of 450,00 euro, the women’s equivalent known as La Course will offer the richest prize in women’s cycling, 22,500 euros.

The Giro D’Italia holds the Giro Rosa for women, but the discrepancy in prize money indicates the women’s sport is also in a lower class. Mara Abbott, who won the 2013 Giro Rosa in its 24th installment, was awarded 460 euros.

Kirchmann made it seem simple.

“We train and race just as hard as the men, so there is no reason that we deserve any less,” she said.