GOLDEN — The bold move to ditch the men and focus on women for August’s Colorado Classic bike race is the first step toward a long journey that could ferry female cyclists into the realm of their sisters in soccer and tennis.
It isn’t just about a bigger prize purse, which more than triples last year’s winnings for women. It’s about exposure, said Colorado Classic Chief Operating Officer Lucy Diaz. With two-hour broadcasts of all four stages shared nationally and internationally, athletes and team managers can impress sponsors, and in turn create the opportunity for deeper sponsorship deals.
“The women get exposure. The sponsors get exposure. It helps to build the platform and that’s where the business side comes in … we want to create that Billie Jean King moment,” said Diaz, speaking at the kickoff keynote address of the 8th annual Wright Awards in Golden’s American Center. “We want to create that moment in time that says it’s not equal now, but we see a future and we see a vision of equality and here are the different steps we need to work together to achieve that future.”
The first steps involve sharing the stories of women athletes. The Colorado Classic is regularly dropping videos and stories detailing the trials and victories of the professional cyclists who will compete in the Aug. 22-25 race. It’s the only Olympic-qualifying women’s cycling race in the Western Hemisphere.
And what stories they have to tell, said Cari Higgins, a top college athlete who became a 19-time U.S. Elite National Champion bike racer after a corporate career in medical sales. These racers have real jobs — as moms, scientists, teachers and corporate executives — while they compete at the highest level in their sport.
“They are working all these jobs … in order to chase this career and chase this dream of professional cycling,” Higgins said. “If you take that and retire from cycling, you take that kind of focus and drive and competitiveness and put that in the corporate boardroom and put that in a small business, it’s a hard equation to beat.”
Tuesday’s event, part of a three-day series of discussions culminating in Thursday night’s Wright Awards ceremony celebrating innovative businesses, entrepreneurs and leaders in the Intermountain West, focused on the gender equity modeled by the Colorado Classic. The panel of women — former professional cyclists turned business leaders, as well as Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera — shared how the lessons learned from sports often can lead to success in the corporate world and public sector.
Primavera is a longtime proponent and supporter of the 1972 Title IX legislation that required equal amounts of tax dollars to be spent on men and women’s sports. The federal sports-equity law created opportunities for women in team sports from grade school through college. Primavera said that law has opened doors for women in arenas well beyond sports, including many women taking the lessons of leadership and teamwork into politics.
“I was in the (Colorado) legislature for eight years and women had the majority in the house and then in the senate,” she said. “We still haven’t had a female governor and we still haven’t had a female U.S. senator, but I anticipate that will change.”
Pro women’s cycling has struggled to find the same international embrace as women’s soccer and tennis. The sport’s governing body — the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI — last year adopted rules requiring minimum pay and benefits equal to those of male pro cyclists. Now it’s up to the fans.
Which shouldn’t be a problem.
“From the gun, these women are at it. The racing is just so much more exciting and you don’t know who is going to win whereas with the men, you can usually tell ‘oh it’s going to be those two guys,’” Higgins said.
And that spectator-friendly intensity that comes from the women’s courses played into the Colorado Classic’s decision to pioneer the all-women concept.
“The women are out there racing with passion and fire and you can see it in their faces,” Diaz said. “It all relates back to this is a passion in many instances, not a profession for them and you see that on the field of play and it’s more exciting to be a part of that and to be able to tell the stories around that.”