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Women's Cycling Association takes proactive approach to advancement

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Robin Farina (NOW and Novartis) shows off her stylishly matching nail polish.

Robin Farina (NOW and Novartis) shows off her stylishly matching nail polish. (Image credit: Jonathan Devich)
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Mara Abbott (USA National Team) takes over the maglia rosa

Mara Abbott (USA National Team) takes over the maglia rosa (Image credit: Giro Rosa)
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Jade Wilcoxson (Optum) looking comfortable back in the bunch.

Jade Wilcoxson (Optum) looking comfortable back in the bunch. (Image credit: Jonathan Devich/
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Alison Powers (NOW and Novartis) leading one of todays many chase groups.

Alison Powers (NOW and Novartis) leading one of todays many chase groups. (Image credit: Jonathan Devich)
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Leah Kirchman (Optum) back in the field hoping for a sprint finish.

Leah Kirchman (Optum) back in the field hoping for a sprint finish. (Image credit: Jon Devich)

Long before Amaury Sport Organization chairman Jean-Etienne Amaury announced this week that his group would be open to a return of the women's Tour de France, Robin Farina had already seen the writing on the wall.

The 2011 USA road race champion said last week that there was no way the organization that owns the Tour de France could simply ignore a petition from current world champion Marianne Vos and former world champion Emma Pooley calling for a return of the women's race in 2014.

Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour de France, had previously dismissed the petition by swatting the air with the back of his hand and telling reporters the ASO had nothing to say. But the riders' petition, in operation since July 12, has already attracted the support of nearly 70,000 people. Amaury, like many others, has realized women's cycling will not be ignored.

"Obviously there's a lot of momentum," said Farina, who has ridden with the Now & Novartis for MS team for the past three seasons. "The director of the Tour is going to have to take it seriously and at least answer the questions, if not make plans to have one."

In the US, Farina is part of a new group of female riders who are determined to raise the profile – and financial viability – of their sport. The fledgling Women's Cycling Association is the brainchild of Farina and Janel Holcomb, the Optum-Kelly Benefits Strategy rider who topped the National Race Calendar individual standings in 2011.

The group met for the first time after the 2013 Philly Cycling Classic, just one week after the women's US Pro Road championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, marked the first time the women's races were held at the same time and place as the men's. The 2013 US pro championships were also the first to award equal prize money.

Holcomb and Farina joined about a dozen other riders, including 2013 US Pro road race champion Jade Wilcoxson, Alison Powers, Lauren Hall, Leah Kirchmann, Kathryn Donovan, Lex Albrecht and Jamie Bookwalter – along with Optum director Rachel Heal – to discuss how riders could lead their sport to a higher level.

"Women's equality is such a big hot topic right now," Farina said. "So much has been going on. And finally the women of the peloton just decided that it was time that we took action instead of waiting for someone else to do it. How can we raise the bar and have equal prize purses, have a minimum salary for the women's peloton and gain more media exposure? Those are our top three platforms that we've been working toward."

Since that first meeting in a hotel lobby the WCA has developed a website, started a membership drive and begun hammering out mission statements and committee assignments. A second meeting in the living room of a host house at the Cascade Cycling Classic last week in Bend, Oregon, drew about 25 riders in person and more via internet streaming.

"Representatives from every team came," Farina said. "They voiced their opinions and concerns, and we kind of even more dialled in what we wanted to focus on moving forward."

Farina said the group wants to educate and mentor younger riders as well as fight for prize parity and a minimum wage by engaging national and international governing bodies along with promoters and the media. The ultimate goal is for the group to go global with international representation.

She pointed to the prize purse for Mara Abbott's recent win at the Giro Rosa, considered the most prestigious women's race on the calendar. Abbott reportedly took home €450 Euros [$595.26] for winning the eight-day race, or roughly $29 per hour. By contrast, 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome earned more than $7,000 per hour in prize money alone for his winning ride earlier this month.

"That's a tragedy, right," Farina said. "That is appalling. The Giro Rosa is the premiere race for women in the world, and that's not even enough to by breakfast for everyone in the morning, probably."

Abbott, who is not a member of the WCA, said the prize disparity was so "ridiculous that you almost have to laugh at it."

"That's the way it is for now," she said. "And hopefully it's something that will improve."

A statement on the WCA's website says the group intends to build "a coalition of women cyclists across the globe who support the advancement and success of Women's Cycling on both sporting and business levels. The association will represent the interests of women in the sport through cooperative advocacy with governing bodies as well as professional business development for both teams and individuals."

The group's high hopes are matched by the members' energy and movement's momentum, but Farina said she's prepared for a protracted struggle. The idea for the cycling group was loosely based on the Women's Tennis Association, started 40 years ago by Billie Jean King to try and secure equality in that sport.

At the time, women in tennis were also making significantly less money than the men. Farina said it took nearly 40 years for the tennis group's efforts to pay off when Serena Williams brought the issue to the surface in 2007 and successfully led the charge for equal prize money. Farina sees the WCA as the first steps in an uphill – but ultimately winnable – battle.

"By no means do we think it's going to happen overnight, but it's a start," Farina said, adding that she hopes the men's peloton will embrace the effort. "If we grow, cycling as a whole is going to grow, and more fans will mean more media. We're just trying to get that ball rolling and get it off the ground."

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Pat Malach

Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.