This story forms part of our North American week on Cyclingnews.
American professional cyclist Coryn Rivera, 28, is one of the nation’s most decorated female cyclists with an illustrious career that includes 72 US national titles over a racing career that began when she was 12 years old.
A lot has changed for women in cycling in that time, and in an interview with Cyclingnews, Rivera touched on some of the biggest steps forward for the sport since she turned professional in 2014 with UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling and after her move to European-based Team Sunweb (now Team DSM) in 2017.
Ask and listen
Rivera highlighted the work of The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA) as the most progressive women’s riders’ association in the sport. TCA, co-founded by Iris Slappendel, gained notoriety for being the de facto union for women's cycling because of the positive work it has done to develop women's cycling since it launched at the end of 2017.
The association equips female athletes with contract and educational support, career advice, legal and retirement assistance, and resources related to abuse in the sport.
"I was teammates with Iris at UnitedHealthcare when she began her work in starting The Cyclists’ Alliance and I think it’s really great to see what she’s done and how far she’s taken TCA," Rivera said.
"What has really been noticeable are their surveys and having more direct contact with the riders. They ask us questions and they really listen to us to find ways of improving our sport. The surveys have shown some very interesting results and point out things that we can improve on each year."
The UCI introduced a new two-tier teams structure – Women’s WorldTeams and Continental Teams – as part of the reforms for the Women’s WorldTour that began in January 2020. Increased financial requirements for the top-tier of teams included a minimum salary along with social insurances and benefits such as maternity leave.
The Women’s WorldTour salary schedule, published on the UCI website, currently shows a base salary of €20,000 (employed) or €32,800 (self-employed) in 2021 and a jump up to €27,000 (employed) or €45,100 (self-employed) in 2022, but the overall goal is for the minimum salary to equal the men’s ProTeams in 2023. The minimum salary for ProTeams is currently €32,102 (employed) or €52,647 (self-employed) per year.
"Minimum wage was a big deal for newer and younger riders who are signing their first contracts," Rivera said. "Normally, you’re pretty grateful for any opportunity that comes your way but sometimes teams can take advantage of that and get you at a pretty cheap and low price. Having that minimum wage solidifies what it means to be professional for women in the sport of cycling. It’s a huge step forward."
Rivera, again, pointed to the work of TCA for their work in helping athletes navigate tricky and oftentimes convoluted rider-team contracts. A TCA annual survey revealed 77 per cent of riders sign their contracts without any legal advice or agent review.
The women’s association then launched a Contract Management Platform that includes contract health checks and a new 'stamp of approval' for rider agents, who can also help athletes with contract negotiations.
"There’s been an increase in safety measures in terms of background checks and contract checks in the sport," Rivera said. "These things are important because sometimes we sign away a lot when we are signing a contract and the majority of us don’t understand what it is we are signing. To have another set of eyes on it and to go through the contracts is really important. You can see if something ... is irregular or unusual and generally keep a higher standard for all team contracts, to be more fair and level."
The Women’s WorldTour launched in 2016 and part of their reforms included a requirement for top-tier events to offer 45 minutes of live broadcasting, in addition to the post-race highlight packages and broadcast reels. The UCI mandated this to help raise the level of viewership and the professionalism of the races and to meet the fast-growing demands of fans interested in watching the top-tier women's cycling on live platforms.
"Live broadcasting of our races is one of the biggest improvements. Holding races accountable – like the Giro Rosa that is no longer WorldTour because they weren’t able to provide that broadcast – it’s a big deal to show that they [UCI] are taking responsibility for the changes that they want to see happen," Rivera said, referencing the Giro Rosa because the 10-day race in Italy was downgraded to 2.ProSeries for 2021 after it did not offer live broadcasting of its event in 2020.
Rivera also pointed to The Women’s Tour, organised by SweetSpot, as a race that is stepping up their game by committing to live broadcasting for the next five years. The Women’s Tour has been applauded as the most progressive and popular event on the Women’s WorldTour, increasing its prize fund in 2018 to equal the men's Tour of Britain and both pelotons raced for a total amount of €90,000. In 2019, the peloton competed for €97,880 across six days of racing.
"The Women’s Tour [in Great Britain] is an example of a race that creates a lot of hype around their event and women’s cycling, and to back it up with some TV is a big deal,’ Rivera said. "Initially, they had preferred to give equal prize money over TV but personally I think that TV is more important, and more prize money will follow once we get that exposure and more interest."
Going above and beyond
There are women’s races that are not part of the Women’s WorldTour that have gone ahead and offered live broadcasting even though it is not a requirement to do so, such as the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under, Brabantse Pijl and even criterium events across the US.
"I find it interesting the smaller races around the world are able to have live coverage from start to finish, as opposed to some of the WorldTour races, and I’m not sure if it costs that much more to be at the top level that live broadcasting is tougher to [afford]. I’m not sure what the disconnect is there, but for example, Brabantse Pijl had the best live race coverage of the calendar and it’s a smaller race. I wonder what the figures are in the end, but if a smaller race is getting more exposure than I think that it’s a better race to be a part of for the sport in general," Rivera said.
"I don’t know all the politics behind it but I would think that a smaller race that is doing a really good job and promoting their event and offering a live stream of the race is doing a really good job by going above and beyond what is expected. In my eyes, it’s a positive thing, and maybe showing some missteps of some of the higher-level races whereby it’s costing so much to be part of the top level."
The implementation of the Women’s WorldTour has raised the level of professionalism for women’s cycling by creating more structure, minimum salary and live broadcasting but the sports governing body has also made improvements to the structure of its Ethics Commission and the Code of Ethics. All women's teams must now sign a Code of Conduct declaration at the time of registration, aiming to raise awareness of harassment.
Combined with the two women’s riders associations TCA and CPA Women, and the new teams association UNIO, stakeholders are working together to raise the professionalism of women’s cycling.
"The sport itself has become more professional. In the past, it was just like we threw everything we had together to put on a bike race but now, on all different fronts –from the races, teams, riders – are stepping up and acting professional, taking this seriously, and wanting to make things move forward," Rivera said.
"We are no longer trying to just put a race on. Before, we were putting a race on because we love cycling – which is also good because we do love this sport – but to make it a professional sport and to grow and gain some interest in it, it’s now gaining momentum professionally."
It’s hard to find progress in the American road racing scene right now, largely because so many events were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Rivera views it as an opportunity for the sport to restructure itself in the future.
She would also like to see the return of top-level women’s races such as the Liberty Classic and the women’s Tour of California, but pointed to a criterium focus as a good way to start rebuilding.
"This subject kind of bums me out. When I was a junior, racing in the US was really large, teams like HTC-Highroad and T-Mobile would miss some of the Spring Classics to race events like Merced, San Dimas and Redlands. I grew up doing those races and against those teams," Rivera said.
"It’s taken a bit of a hit. Things are starting to re-set with COVID, and maybe that’s good and it can restructure itself on what modern American cycling should be. I don’t know how everything will start up again but the revival of American crits could be something to look forward to because that’s how I know American cycling and it is, maybe, a better form of cycling in the US, as far as watching and participating. Not everyone is a crit racer and so you can’t please everybody. When I think of American cycling, that’s what comes to mind for me.
"I would love to see a revival of races like Philly and for it to be a WorldTour race again. I last raced it when it was a World Cup, but it would be great to have a WorldTour block of racing in the US. I miss the Tour of California as my home race, too. I really only have US Nationals Championships now, so to have races like Philly and California come back would be progress."
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