Giana Roberge: Back in the thick of world-class cycling

'Women's cycling is a feel-good sell, but it's still a hard sell'

Anyone involved in professional bike racing in North America in the late 1990s to the early 2000s will know the name Giana Roberge, and her notorious reputation as one of the toughest general managers in men's and women's cycling during her tenure under the powerful Team Saturn.

Evaporating from the sport altogether - perhaps uncharacteristically - after Saturn folded in 2004 (aside from a brief stint with team Twenty12), Roberge said goodbye to bike racing and immersed herself in equestrianism with an equal amount of success. But a recent need to move away from the financially-oriented sport of show jumping back into the more merit-based sport of cycling was met with a timely offer from Cylance Pro Cycling owner Omer Kem. It was the call she needed to get back to world-class bike racing as the team's new general manager in 2017.

"Omer remembered me from working with the Saturn men's program and reached out to me, asking if I would be interested in working with his program, Cylance," Roberge told Cyclingews.

"The timing was right because I was at the point where I wanted to get out of show jumping, and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do next. There are two things I know; horses and cycling. I feel very grateful that someone was willing to take a risk by hiring me to be part of a new team."

Few, if any, would consider hiring Roberge as a risk. Her credentials make her one of the most experienced team managers and directors in the business. A former bike racer, she competed in the first women's World Cup in Sydney, Australia in 1998, and later directed the former women's team Timex at the same event in 2000.

She took over the women's program almost entirely when Timex and Saturn sponsors formed one team under Tom Schuler's management company, Team Sports, Inc. She directed Team Saturn for four seasons and through their transition under title sponsor Quark.

In addition to directing, Schuler entrusted Roberge as his assistant general manager. In that role, she handled funding, sponsors and marketing for the cycling teams and for the Timex Multisport Team.

"I spent time directing the women's team and the men's team, and Tom had a series of other teams too," Roberge said. "I was his assistant general manager and was involved with all the teams on various levels, from marketing to ROI audits, budgets, a lot of Excel spreadsheets. I was Tom's right-hand woman."

She will fill a similar role as general manager under Kem at Cylance Pro Cycling. She will also direct the women's WorldTour team alongside Manel Lacambra and work with former Australian sprinter Hilton Clarke in running the men's Continental team.

"I've had a nice welcome back from both industry people and riders," Roberge said. "I feel like I must have made an impression on people back when I was directing Saturn.

"It's all very exciting. There is something so attractive about this sport and what we are all blessed to be able to do; to compete on a bicycle, to be part of making that happen, and to provide opportunities for athletes is very rewarding and it feels good. I'm helping make athletes' dreams possible and, in the end, that is what I really enjoy."

Reputation

New faces emerge every season in the sport of cycling and Roberge will be facing almost an entirely new generation of riders at Cylance, compared to her time at Team Saturn in the early 2000s. As one of the most successful directors in the sport, Roberge has a reputation for being tough.

She has worked with some of the top riders in the world including German sprinters Petra Rossner and Ina Teutenberg, and Canadian Olympians Lyne Bessette and Clara Hughes. On the men's side, she directed brothers Frank and Mark McCormack, Chris Horner, Harm Jensen, Nathan O'Neill and Ivan Dominguez, among others.

Roberge says that the riders under her guidance at both the women's and men's Cylance teams should expect that same tough approach next year.

"I'm dating myself when I say this, but some of the younger athletes on the Cylance team said they had to Google my name because they didn't know who I was," Roberge laughed.

"My email used to be K A Roberge because my nickname was ‘kick ass'. That's how I raced my bike. I learned from the best riders out there to be aggressive, and I directed that way too.

"I also held people accountable to what we hired them for. Yes, sickness and injuries happen, but I was always clear with my athletes of our expectations, our contracts and our business deals. My toughness was more understood by the men back then, and the women were a little put off by it, but this is what it means to be professional. And I will take the same approach into my year with Cylance.

"This is a sport; it's supposed to be tough, aggressive, hard, fast, exciting and also fun."

She says having Kem support her strong disposition, in the same way that Schuler supported her, is empowering and adds to her confidence as a team director and manager.

"I felt like I always had upper management that had my back," Roberge said. "Tom Schuler always had my back when I was the assistant general manager, he believed in me, and I believe that Omer does too. 

"It gives me confidence that I have someone who backs me up if I need help, advice or a mentor. Omer understands that I have a history with sponsors, race organisers and athletes. I've also made mistakes along the way that I've learned from.

"As far as the athletes go, I've directed some of the best riders in the country and the world. I'm confident in my ability to work with our riders next year because I have that history behind me."

Cylance Pro Cycling Women's WorldTour team meet for a November training camp ahead of 2017

Women's WorldTour team unite in Irvine

The Cylance Pro Cycling women's team recently concluded a four-day training camp near title sponsor headquarters in Irvine, California. There were no bikes involved, meaning it was strictly a get-to-know-you event that included bonding exercises like high ropes climbing, hiking and whale watching off the west coast.

Cylance Pro Cycling already announced signing sprinter Kirsten Wild, who took the silver medal in the women's road race at Worlds. Also on the team are former Canadian champion Joelle Numainville and Sheyla Gutierrez, who were eighth and ninth, respectively, at Worlds. The team also announced signing Dani King from Wiggle High5, Malgorzta Jasinkska from Ale Cipollini, and Willeke Knol from Lotto Soudal Ladies. On Thursday, they announced the rest of their team to include Kaitie Antonneau (Twenty16), Rachele Barbieri (returning), Krista Doebel-Hickok (returning), Rosella Ratto (returning) and Marta Tagliaferro (Ale Cipollini), Erica Zaveta (returning) and Alison Tetrick (returning).

"I came on board so late, and most of the roster was already complete," Roberge said. "Manel is a genius at finding great riders and signing Kirsten Wild is great for us because of her wealth of knowledge and her ability to be a mentor. It's really exciting for some of the younger women on the team to be able to work with Kirsten - what an opportunity for all of us. She is so approachable, friendly and open.

"But we also have some athletes who have so much experience, like Dani King, who is still young. So we have a mix of fresh new faces and wisdom on our team."

Roberge said the team would primarily focus on the 2017 Women's WorldTour calendar, which will include 21 events next season. The UCI added four new events to the series including stage races; Boels Rental Ladies Tour in Netherlands and Ladies Tour of Norway, and two new one-day races; Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in Belgium, to complete the trio of Ardennes Classics alongside La Flèche Wallonne.

Cylance Pro Cycling Women's WorldTour team test out the high ropes at training camp

'Women's cycling is a feel-good sell, but it's still a hard sell'

Roberge is aware of some of the major equity issues surrounding women's racing, such as the needs for more media coverage, along with salary, prize money and event improvements.

But her return to the sport following a nine-year hiatus brings perspective. Roberge acknowledged - perhaps reminded - that women's cycling has come a long way since she raced the first women's World Cup, and later directed Tracey Gaudry, a former racer who was then the first woman appointed as vice president of the UCI in 2013. As such, Gaudry has made strides to improve the stature of women's racing during the last three years. She is responsible, along with the Women's Commission, for helping to implement the new Women's WorldTour and gave it a half-way review and end-of-season review.

"Women's cycling is a feel-good sell, but it's still a hard sell," Roberge said.

"Personally, to see what the women's calendar has become is amazing. I directed Timex in 2000 with Tracey racing on our team. I remember her and I having discussions about women's cycling back then. Now, to see what she's gone on to accomplish is incredible.

"I know that there are many frustrations within women's cycling. But for me, I have more perspective, and when I think back to what it was and what it is now, it has progressed so much, and it's exciting. To be able to race the full Ardennes, wow, we are doing it. We are making progress.

"There are still a lot of inequalities, especially when comparing men's and women's cycling in terms of funding, salaries, media coverage or in anything that would generate ROI, which a sponsor is going to want to look at. Women's cycling is still a hard sell on the business side of things. But we do now have a really good group of sponsors that are committed to supporting women's cycling, which didn't exist before, and that bodes well for the younger generation that is getting into the sport now."

Cylance Pro Cycling Women's WorldTour team riders on the high ropes challenge at an early training camp in November ahead of 2017

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