(This article orginally appeared in the Sacramento Bee on 3/5/03.)
Beyond the yellow jersey, which designates the leader and winner of the Tour de France, the most prestigious attire a cyclist can wear showcase the colors of the rainbow.
The horizontal stripes, usually positioned against a white backdrop, are awarded to world titlists in track racing to cyclocross, mountain biking to road racing.
Yellow or striped jersey, a pro cyclist donning either uniform also benefits from the color of money.
But for a woman cyclist, winning a world title doesn’t necessarily translate into a financial windfall. Rather, it only enhances her hopes of a earning a decent salary.
In short, women’s professional cycling is suffering. Within a few days in late January, the Women’s Challenge in Idaho, and the Women’s Tour de France were canceled. Both events were unable to secure title sponsorships in the floundering economy.
The Idaho stage race, the country’s most lucrative for women, had a 19-year tenure, with long-time lucrative sponsorships from computer and food companies. But a pending 2003 sponsorship failed after several months of negotiations with a food company in Nebraska, and the race collapsed.
The estimated $500,000 in hotel, restaurants and other revenues brought to cities as the cyclists pedaled through Idaho for two weeks in June abruptly disappeared.
“I had a feeling the race (sponsored by Hewlett-Packard) was questionable in 2001,” said Julie Young, the part-time Auburn resident and long-time international rider. “After the stock market crashed, they just seemed to be hanging onto a shoestring budget and hoping the economy would recover. I think it would be hard for them to justify sponsoring an event while laying off so many people.”
The women’s Tour de France, scheduled for its 12th edition in August, did not secure its dates with the International Cycling Union, the sport’s global governing organization. Likewise, the women’s Tour of Snowy in Australia was canceled, and the women’s Tour of Spain postponed its debut until next year.
In Northern California, the most well-known women’s racing occurs at the Sea Otter Classic. With new dates, it will be held beginning April 9 in Redwood City and will progress to its conclusion on the Monterey Peninsula four days later.
Last year, Alison Dunlap of Colorado spoke prophetically about her sport’s status after one day’s race at Sea Otter event on Cannery Row in Monterey.
“I would still have been able to race had I not won a world title, but the support probably would have been a lot less,” said Dunlap, wearing her rainbow jersey as the 2001 world mountain bike cross country champion. “A lot of top riders struggled to find teams, and I probably would have been one of them.”
Dunlap, a two-time Olympian, estimates only 30-40 women worldwide can compete full-time in either mountain biking or road cycling and support themselves without securing part-time employment. Dunlap competes in road and mountain biking. She’s also a five-time national cyclocross titlist, a discipline where there’s little financial reward.
“I raced for five years on less than $10,000 a year when I was on the road (only) from 1992-1996, so it’s doable,” said Dunlap, 33. “But now on the road, top women are making $35,000 to $50,000. On the mountain bike side, the top women are making $90,00 to $150,000.”
Young, who rode professionally for a decade including multiple trips to the women’s Tour de France and World Cycling Championships, left the sport following the 2001 season.
A St. Francis High School graduate who originally attended UCLA on a golf scholarship, Young was a valued team rider who also claimed her share of races. Yet when 2002 season began, the interested teams offered her unsatisfactory contracts.
“I always told myself that I would stay in cycling if there was the opportunity to support myself financially,” said Young, who for the final two years of her career captained a team sponsored by an internet used car web site. “But when that time came to an end, it was time to move on. Still, I was really clinging onto cycling. I loved everything about it to the end.”
While including herself in the top financial echelon of the sport, Dunlap and her husband are nonetheless seeking other opportunities. They’ve started the Alison Dunlap Adventure Camps in Moab, Utah (http://www.westernspirit.com/alisondunlap.html).
“Right now we’re only running the camps in the spring and fall because of my racing schedule,” said Dunlap. “But if I weren’t able to support myself racing, we would immediately start doing the camps year round.”
Despite the cancellation of its well-known women’s stage race, women’s cycling, at least in Australia, is hoping for a resurgence.
A new multiple race series is being planned for early next year as the sport’s best international competitors will begin their Olympic team preparation in warm weather.
“I think women’s cycling can re-gain a stronger position,” said Dunlap. “Sponsorship is always in cycles. Next year it will be better and the Olympic year is always the best. If we look at how we are doing now compared to 15 years ago, there is no comparison.”