Monday, February 6, 2017

Hot Take: Intense Factory Racing And Parity In Downhill

Intense Cycles announced their 2017 factory DH race team over the weekend, and it was exciting. As someone who follows team selections fairly close, I was thrilled to see the new Intense Factory Racing crew made up of strong, talented racers who all have very bright futures ahead of them and plenty of time to grow.


What I didn't see, however, struck me as both disappointing and really strange -- there's not a female racer on the new team. Now, I understand that the percentage of women who shred a DH track is small potatoes compared to the overall DH market (believe me, I do). But in a rapidly changing market that has struggled to bring in consistent and reliable revenue in recent years, I'm baffled at why the new IFR team is made up of all white dudes.

Are there not enough teams on the World Cup circuit who epitomize the male domination of cycling already? The industry needed another?

Now, I don't want to pick on Intense here. They make great bikes. They're US-based. Hell, they're the alma mater of the legendary Shawn Palmer and have supported junior racing development unlike many other brands across the spectrum. They're still small, and they operate like family... I've always respected the brand and the company that seems to love DH racing.

But when it comes to female parity and equality in cycling, the landscape is dismal. There are few advancement opportunities for pro women beyond their national circuit and, unlike junior men, support and mentor-race program availability for future female elite racers is almost nonexistent. We know this. We've seen this. So why is it still so prevalent? It's not as though the planet has no female shredders capable of representing the Intense brand. It's not as though there isn't a collection of well-known and respected women on the World Cup who race without bike or team support. And in a year where the qualifying standards for women have been raised so significantly, does it not make more sense that there will be more eyes on the women's DH field than ever before? Competition is already heating up: with Miranda Miller on Specialized Gravity, Tahnee Seagrave a whisper away from a win  and an undefeated Rachel Atherton looking to storm the circuit again, not wanting a horse in that race is absurd... And frankly, it's just bad business.

Women are buying bikes and bike equipment at unprecedented rates. The women's mountain bike industry has ballooned so much that we have a behemoth women's-specific selection bubble of growth and more girls on bikes than ever before... And it's not slowing down anytime soon. So why would a DH-based brand with a factory team not onload a badass female rider to represent their interests on a global level?

I've jumped at the jugular of sexism in cycling over the last few years for one reason: it keeps women off of bikes and away from racing. It puts our gender into the focus rather than the fun of just riding bikes. I started speaking out about sexism because I wanted to be able to do my damn job without opening up a magazine and seeing a gross ad or coaching girls who had been told they were less. I've been aggressively pro-lady because I truly believe that women are equal. Different, yes, but just as equal and just as valuable as men.

The saddest part about the Intense Factory Racing not having a lady racer isn't the widespread disappointment, but what the entire team will miss out on because they lack a well-rounded perspective. Gender diversity promotes success because it presents a wider view of what matters. Different people will take different lines down a DH course, and skill isn't limited to gender. A wider range of life experience presents a greater scope of understanding. What sort of team avoids an advantage like that? Outside of a bike racing-specific angle, Forbes and economists across the globe discovered and documented that gender diversity promotes greater success in both Fortune 500 companies and small start ups. Racing is a business. Successful businesses arm themselves with the tools that will give them an edge. At any level, winning downhill races is about consistently occupying that edge, especially as a team that operates both as individual athletes and as a representative entity of their sponsors. Having the added experience and viewpoints of someone with a different background is invaluable -- studies report that companies with women on their boards "outperform their rivals, with a 42% higher return in sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity", according to The Guardian. Unfortunately, the Intense Factory Racing team won't benefit from that.

So why is there only a handful of WC factory downhill teams with female racers? When we get really honest, the problem here almost seems to be that many team managers and companies at large see the female perspective as worthless (or, at the very least, less valuable). The bike industry is still stuck in the mud of women not being seen as having the intellectual capacity or experience to stand with the men and the pervasive opinion that women should be content to stand by and watch. There are so many women on the DH circuit with the experience and skills to help a new team grow, but even more who have left racing entirely because of lack of factory support. Their experience has value, it carries weight and it will lead any team to greater success if only teams start trusting it... Economic science has proven that.

I'm not saying this solely as a DH racer who has observed my share of insanity in the bike industry, I'm saying this as a businessperson who has helped built brands, who has worked with teams to lead successful advertising campaigns and who has studied and slaved away at companies doing it right and at companies doing it very, very wrong. I'm writing this as someone who sees the economic value in Germany's board-parity mandate and who has sometimes been critical of Title IX. I'm sending this to the struggling downhill MTB and wider cycling industries as a plea for gender and racial parity because it is the only thing that will save the bike industry.

We need change, and we need it sooall ner rather than later. Whether that change comes in the form of a UCI mandate requiring that all UCI trade teams have a female athlete on roster in order to register for the season or whether it comes with companies and teams stepping up to the plate and bringing more skilled women to the table, I implore you to find out what it is that you can do, and do it.

If it means not approving that sexist advertisement, do it. If it means adding a female racer to your enduro squad and DH team, do it. If it means promoting a female athlete or women's race heavily, do it.

We need to take the steps as an industry that enable women and girls to be active and involved participants in the evolution of this sport, not passive observers. The bike industry (and yes, downhill racing, too) has to provide a place for future racers to actually go. What's the point in getting girls into racing when they end up without options to pursue that effort? Yes, racing is amazing whether or not it turns into a career, but how can we blame the lack of parity and equality in DH on the lack of women when there is no future in DH racing for women? There are so few spots for female pros right now that enable those athletes to forego full time employment and focus on training and racing year round, and yet we tell these athletes that the lack of opportunity is their fault? Not having enough competitors in the field, not taking enough of a market share, enough getting enough media exposure, not forcing enough attention, not engaging in enough fierce competition, or getting enough support? All of that is solely on the shoulders of these female athletes?

We're asking women to fund their own racing and travel through full-time jobs (often multiple), demanding that they not only run their own nutrition and training plans, but somehow manage their own brands, film videos, build relationships with every photographer and video, and then take the time off of work to travel, race and train at the same level as the top three, full-time athletes, and then we're surprised when they can't take top honors? We're shocked that they get injured and just walk away?

In 2016, there were 44 registered UCI DHI Trade Teams. Of those 44, only 13 teams (29.5%) had a female athlete on squad. Even worse? While there were 177 riders total on trade teams, 89% of trade team athletes were men. Roughly 9% of downhill racers on trade teams were women (16). For every 11 male riders on UCI trade teams, there was one woman.

One woman per every eleven men. 

We don't just need parity on teams, but in board rooms, in research and development, during bike testing, in the bike shops, at the events. We need companies and federations and events that actively seek out female perspectives to round out perspective, and we need talented and experienced women to fulfill those roles. This sport desperately depends on reaching a wide market of perspectives, and we can't do that when only one perspective is presented.

It takes all of us, not just one brand. But it starts with one decision, one step at a time, like including a female racer in a factory team.

Just think about it.

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PS: if you're on Twitter and enjoy useless banter, come hang out -- it's where I let it all hang out (and occasionally thread together something interesting).