So, you may remember that a few weeks ago Sarah and I mentioned on the podcast the interesting story of Carmen Small racing with the men at the North Star Grand Prix this year. We thought it was an interesting story, particularly in terms of the race not being able to find enough women to ride this year and a creative solution to an unusual set of circumstances.
I thought it’d be interesting to get in touch with the race organisers to find out a little more about how this all came together and what it means for future editions of the North Star Grand Prix. Thanks to our mate Chris Rivera (who’s a big advocate for women’s cycling and a volunteer at the North Star Grand Prix himself) I was able to get in touch with David LaPorte, the Executive Director of the North Star Bicycle Festival and Promoter of the North Star Grand Prix to ask him a few questions.
ProWomen’sCycling: There’s been a fair bit of attention on the North Star Grand Prix and particularly on the fact that Carmen Small raced with the men. This is a marked difference to previous years when there was a separate women’s event. How has the response been so far?
David LaPorte: We knew that cancelling the women’s race would raise a lot of questions, particularly since women’s racing is what we’re known for. There’s an explanation on our website, which we updated after Carmen was registered for the race.
PWC: Given that the primary reason the decision was taken to not run the women’s race this year was due to a lack of registrations from riders, were there additional commercial aspects of this decision (i.e. was it harder to get sponsors with few racers? What were the reasons for fewer registrations? etc.)?
DLP: There really were no commercial considerations. Women’s racing has always been our #1 priority. We want to make a difference in the sport. We’ll never be the top men’s race, since they have California, Utah and the USPro Challenge, but we could be the #1 women’s race, since the HP International Women’s Challenge ended in 2003.
There is a local Tuesday night crit series at our State Fairgrounds. The women’s division gets 25 riders. The North Star Grand Prix had only 17 registered women’s, less than the local amateur crit series. And we’d been working desperately on recruiting women for weeks. Two weeks after the deadline for applications, it was still stuck at 17. UnitedHealthcare’s women’s team (their title sponsor is HQ’ed in a Minneapolis suburb) and Amber Neben’s Visit Dallas squad. Quality riders, but far too few of them.
The primary reason that promoters shy away from highlighting women’s races is that they’re afraid of getting small fields. We’ve been getting fields of 80 – 130 riders since 2003. If we went ahead with a race that only had 17 participants, it would have confirmed the worst fears that these promoters have.
We get a great deal of media coverage. I’m compiling it now and already have over 250 placements. Most with photos and a fair number with video. Many of the cycling websites list full results. This has helped us promote women’s racing in the past, when our fields averaged over 100 riders. If we went ahead with the women’s race this year, with only 17 participants, this level of coverage would have generated many concrete reminders of how small our women’s field was this year. We felt that cancellation was the better of two bad choices.
And that would have been 17 starters. By the time we got to the last stage in Stillwater, it would have been less than that. And Stillwater is such a brutal criterium course that only 30% of the starters finish the full distance. We would probably have had 5 or 6 women finish that race.
PWC: So how did the plan for Carmen to race with the men come about? What were the considerations and thoughts that went into it? Was it daunting? Was there a fear that you’d be seen to be doing a gimmicky type thing?
DLP: It was actually Jesse Anthony’s idea. Jesse was our 2011 men’s champion and is a close friend of Carmen’s, since they both raced for Optum a few years ago. Ben Spies of Elbowz had called Jesse in search of a rider to replace Ryan Trebon, who was apparently ill. Jesse told him that he had no suggestions, but when he got off the phone, he thought of Carmen and gave her a call. She was tentative, but Jesse talked her into it, then called Ben back and suggested Carmen and talked HIM into it.
The first that I heard about it was when Carmen PM’ed me on Facebook on Saturday evening, 3 days before the race, asking if it would be legal and if I’d support it. How do you say “no” to your 2014 women’s champion, particularly when you feel badly about having cancelled the women’s race? That, and I thought that it was a great idea. I responded that I definitely thought that it was legal. There’s no such thing as a “men’s race”. There are women’s races and category races. Women can always race their categories. In fact, under USA Cycling rules, they can race a category down (e.g. a Cat 2 woman can participate in a Cat 3 race).
It wasn’t daunting at all. It was thrilling. I knew immediately that she’d be a crowd favorite. She’s an amazing athlete but also very engaging. The crowds loved her. Even when she was off the back, they cheered more for her than they did for the winners. People admired her courage and perseverance.
I also felt that Carmen could be a factor in reestablishing our women’s race. We still support women’s racing, even if we didn’t have enough registrants to put on a separate race for them this year. Our message to the women’s teams is now “Don’t make Carmen race with the men again!” Here’s a quote from an interview that Carmen did on what it was like to race with the men:
“When I contacted the promoter Dave LaPorte to see if it was even possible for me to race, I realized he’d get a lot of press out of it as well. And if I can bring any kind of media to look at the race and see that it’s really good, they’ll see that there needs to be a pro women’s race here and that women need to show up and participate. It’s a great race, and it’s a huge hole in our NRC calendar.“
PWC: How did fans and the other riders react to the situation?
DLP: I saw a couple of negative Tweets, but people acting out on the internet is nothing new. Carmen is a very likeable person and was no threat to the men. A few of them were jealous that she got so much attention, but I think that even they respected her courage for racing with them.
The only negative backlash that I saw was from another rider. The fans loved her. if there were any negative comments from the fans, I never heard them. All that I heard was the roar of the crowd when she was called up.
The comment from the male rider was about the “First Women Over the Line” crowd primes that our announcer John “Bird” Beckman came up with at our three criteriums. (As you probably know, “crowd primes” are cash prizes donated by the fans at the race.) There was only one woman in the race and the crowd knew that. The announcer really worked the crowd to put money into the hat. He occasionally slipped up and called them the “Carmen Small primes”, but the crowd already knew that. He raised a little over $100 in Saint Paul, the crit on Wednesday, our first day. Minneapolis gets a much larger crowd and he challenged them to “beat Saint Paul”. Which they did, raising over $500. Stillwater, our last day, has a smaller crowd than Minneapolis, but they’re largely bike fanatics. They donated over $600. So Carmen went home with over $1,200.
The guy who complained on Twitter thought that it was bogus. But the fact was that the crowd WANTED to reward Carmen for her courage and to support her aspirations for Worlds and the Olympics. It was THEIR money and they wanted Carmen to have it. The guy might have had a point if the money came from the race organizers, but it did not. It came from the fans. Were they real primes? No. They were gifts from the fans to Carmen to thank her for racing with the men.
And she did a lot more than that. She was very approachable. Many families brought their girls to meet her and get their photos taken with her. Carmen was proof positive that women can do amazing things and that was what these families wanted their girls to understand. Carmen is the quintessential champion in every sense of the word.
PWC: Where does this leave North Star for 2016? Are there plans to have a women’s race again? What needs to happen in order to make it happen?
DLP: Absolutely. Our new sponsors have told us that they’ll renew, so there shouldn’t be the doubt that swirled around our race this year, which appears to have been responsible for the low turnout of women. We’ll be polling the teams to see if they plan to come back in 2016. If they tell us that they will, then we’ll apply to be on the USA Cycling National Racing Calendar for both men and women next year when the bids are due in August. If we can’t get commitments from them, then we probably won’t apply for the women’s calendar, which would be very disappointing. Cancelling our women’s race this year was a blow to women’s racing, although not as big a blow as it would have been to go ahead with 17 racers. Cancelling it two years in a row would be worse.
It’s really up to the teams. If they want us to have a women’s race and are willing to attend, then we’ll have one. It’s what we’ve wanted all along.
Like Carmen said above, “women need to show up and participate”.
PWC: If, for some reason, you couldn’t get the registrations from women again next year would you run the men’s race with a small field of women included if you felt that was the best way to go?
DLP: If you mean as one race, probably not. Carmen is an exceptional athlete and struggled to make the time cuts. Women who don’t have her athletic abilities wouldn’t have made it. If enough women asked us to do this, we’d discuss it with them, but I don’t think that this is a very good idea.
PWC: Ok, thanks for your time and considered responses David, do you have any final thoughts or comments?
DLP: A number of the women who had registered told us that they were disappointed when we cancelled their race, but also told us that they agreed with the decision. We’ve taken some heat, but very little from riders or the teams that were eligible to participate. And most women, once they know how hard we tried, have been supportive. Tayler Wiles Tweeted ” Thank you very much @NSBikeFest for the answers/explanation. We will rally the women’s teams for 2016! @blueallez @smallsunday @CRcyclist”, which makes us optimistic.
Thanks again to David and Chris for the time and assistance in setting this conversation up. David proved to be a very thoughtful and considered interviewee and I was really encouraged by a lot of what he had to say. Most importantly, I really appreciated his openness about the challenges the North Star Bicycle Festival and Grand Prix have faced, and that he’s optimistic about the future. I wish him and the organisation every success in 2016 and beyond, hopefully with huge fields of women’s teams ready to race.