GOLDEN • The last time an international women’s cycling race rolled through these foothills west of Denver, it was almost an afterthought.
Sure, crowds lined the streets. And, yes, the riders put on quite a show. But the event clearly was an undercard for what was to come later that day: a men’s race featuring the likes of Rohan Dennis, who weeks earlier had won the opening stage of the Tour de France.
2015 proved to be the final year of the USA Pro Challenge, a bold venture that brought professional stage racing back to Colorado but one that catered almost exclusively to male cyclists. In its five-year run, the Pro Challenge had 35 men’s stages compared with only three for the women.
Four years later, the look and feel of Saturday’s stage in Golden hadn’t changed much from when three-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong secured the first — and last — women’s crown in the Pro Challenge. This time, it was Olympic silver medalist Chloe Dygert-Owen all but securing the women’s crown in the Colorado Classic with her third straight stage win.
Despite the similarities, the overall landscape couldn’t be more different in 2019. The spotlight in the Colorado Classic, now in its third year, belongs to female cyclists. RPM Events Group, which organizes the race, made sure of that last year by announcing it would drop the men’s event.
“This race is a platform for empowering women,” Monument resident and race director Sean Petty said.
It’s also the latest push in a growing movement for equality in sports. Coming off its impressive win in the World Cup, the U.S. women’s soccer team is embroiled in a battle for the same compensation given to the men’s team. In cycling, the pay disparity remains extreme. According to Colorado Classic officials, half of the female riders earn less than $11,000, with many forced to work two or three jobs in order to continue racing.
That’s why RPM is offering a prize purse of $75,000, which is nearly four times higher than last year’s total for women and is $5,000 more than the purse given to men at the 2018 event.
“Having them acknowledge that we are worthy of the same prize purse that men would receive for this effort is huge,” said Hagens-Berman rider Lindsay Goldman, who also owns and operates the team.
The push for fairness hasn’t gone unnoticed. Billie Jean King, who led the fight for equal pay in tennis, took time out of her busy schedule leading up to the U.S. Open to acknowledge the efforts being made in Colorado. The legend tweeted a note of encouragement Wednesday and urged her nearly 500,000 followers to “tune in to support the races (and) women’s sports.”
Pay isn’t the only issue being addressed. Organizers also are offering longer race routes, better start times and more TV coverage.
“Our goal as an event is to make this race the best race in the world,” said Lucy Diaz, the race’s chief operating officer. “But that’s not an ego. That’s not from us. That’s from the eyes of the athletes. And we want to make sure that we’re doing right by them and providing a platform for exposure and advancement for the women’s sport of cycling.”
Providing an equal platform for men and women is hard to achieve in cycling. That’s why the Pro Challenge didn’t include a women’s race in its first four editions. And that’s why the Colorado Classic opted to drop the men’s event this year.
“Doing two is extremely difficult and taxing on the community, and in the end both races end up being a bit compromised,” Petty said. “The women usually don’t get to race as long as they’d like. And the men, same; they’re not happy. They want to race longer, too. Meanwhile, the city’s shut down for the whole day.”
Organizers have made a concerted attempt to minimize the event’s footprint on host cities, often sending riders on multiple shorter circuits that also tend to enhance the spectator experience. And they have looked for ways to engage the fans — before, during and after the race.
On Sunday, Denver mayor Michael Hancock will lead a bike parade in front of Coors Field. The city also will close off eight blocks of downtown to vehicle traffic, allowing pedestrians and cyclists unfettered access to the streets. Finally, a bike and lifestyle expo is planned near the start line.
“Figuring out ways to bring people in to be a part of it in terms of doing it with us is a really big step,” rider Amber Neben said.
“And that’s what Colorado is trying to do here.”