Professional cycling represents more than just elite athleticism. Cycling represents movement and freedom. Around the world, bicycles can make the difference in a young girl getting to school, a woman transporting her handmade goods to market, or villagers getting to a polling station. In Afghanistan, the recently formed National Cycling Team represents mobility, confidence, and equality, notions that were shelved for women during decades of war.
I can relate to how empowering sports are for a young woman. I remember my first time watching elite women athletes on television. It was the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and I would watch the swim heats on our old tube TV in the den. The athletes looked like me: young, blonde, thin teenagers. I used to stand in front of the TV and move my arms as if I was swimming in the lane next to Amanda Beard.
For most of my adolescence, we did not have health insurance. When I turned thirteen, my mother got a job with benefits so I was able to finally participate in organized sports. When I hit high school, I quickly became a top swimmer and water polo athlete. I also was one of the only ocean-qualified women lifeguards in my region of California. My burgeoning athletic abilities fostered a sense of confidence in me that I never had before.
Those early sightings of accomplished women athletes is what drove me to keep going during early morning swim practices and to keep my spirits high while shivering on the pool deck, awaiting a race or match.
It wasn't until my early twenties that I discovered the intoxicating, yet relaxing sport of cycling. I was stationed in Alaska and before night shifts I would ride 30 miles along paved trails, passing moose and worshiping the majestic mountain ranges in the distance. Pedaling was enjoyable, though it was the whole experience of the movement and site seeing that was both exhilarating and confidence boosting.
Last year I saw the charming Saudi film Wadjda, about a 10-year-old girl whose eye is set on a new green bicycle. Though cycling is not viewed as good for a woman's virtue, Wadjda triumphs in raising the money for the bicycle and shows her neighborhood pal Abdullah that she is not a girl to be pushed around.
This week is the last stages of the three-week long Tour de France, the seminal stage race for cyclists. Let's be clear: male cyclists. There is no women's division in the TdF, or in any of the other Grand Tours, the Vuelta d'Espana and Giro d'Italia. For over three decades, supporters have tried to institutionalize a full women's race, but have run into legal battles, logistical problems, and pushback from the Tour's organizers with regards to safety concerns related to hosting a concurrent race.
By not institutionalizing a women's division to these elite races, not only are the female riders being ostracized, but the media and sponsors are missing a major opportunity. It only takes a quick Google search of tennis pro Maria Sharapova to see the massive marketing potential of sportswomen. Just imagine the number of schoolgirls around the world asking for a bicycle and pair of riding shoes for their next birthday after watching ponytailed riders conquering the climbs in the Pyrenees and whizzing along the Champs-Elysees. Professional women's sports provide a source of healthy role models for both women and men.
Luckily, on Sunday before the men ride into Paris to finish the Tour, there will be a criterium race for 120 women cyclists titled La Course. The race will be a great way to build a presence for women cyclists outside of the summer Olympics. The success of this stage will be instrumental in determining the appetite for expanding and establishing similar women's divisions in the Grand Tours. Keep an eye on the peloton for Americans Carmen Small and Shelley Olds. Watch the race with your daughters, wives, and friends. If you own a restaurant or bar, tune your TVs to the event. Get the word out. Boys and men have benefited from decades of professional sports; let's give our sisters and daughters the same encouragement, inspiration, and role models. Vive le Tour!