This year’s Cascade Cycling Classic, which concluded a week ago, is likely to be remembered for a controversy involving inequitable prize purses for the men’s and women’s races. The controversy was short-lived, as race sponsors and community members responded quickly to square up the prize lists. That outcome is certainly satisfying, but some may still wonder why the prize lists differed in the first place.
There’s a simple answer to this question that ultimately isn’t an answer at all: It’s the UCI’s fault!
For the first time this year, both men’s and women’s races were sanctioned by the Switzerland-based Union Cycliste Internationale, the cycling world’s governing body. UCI-sanctioned races are more attractive to top professional teams, as The Bulletin’s Mark Morical reported, because they allow participants to earn qualification points for prestigious events like the world championships.
But there are strings. UCI-sanctioned races involve a high level of organization and safety, says Randy Shafer, technical director of USA Cycling. This isn’t cheap. UCI races also set minimum prize amounts for men’s and women’s races, with men’s minimums being substantially higher than women’s minimums. This disparity can prove to be a landmine.
Nothing prohibits race organizers from improving upon the UCI’s minimums and offering women the same prizes as men. But the high cost of staging a UCI-sanctioned race can make this difficult, leaving organizers in an uncomfortable position. That seems to be what happened this year with the Cascade Cycling Classic, and when news of the inequity spread, people responded quickly. Some contributed money, and others offered harsh criticism. One Facebook user responded to a Bulletin story on the race by writing, “Blatant discrimination right here in Bend. I was disgusted ...”
It may be tempting to point the finger at the UCI, which set the inequitable prize minimums. But it isn’t fair to kick around the UCI without at least asking why the minimums differ. The organization may have a good reason for adopting a requirement that thrills no one, including the UCI.
Getting an answer from the UCI isn’t a speedy proposition. The organization is in Switzerland, after all. And though email does move quickly, even between continents, I sent my inequity question just as another bike race in France concluded. However, distance and potential distractions notwithstanding, UCI press officer Louis Chenaille did respond Thursday.
Rather than explain the rationale for the disparity, however, the UCI emphasized its commitment “to bring increasing parity between women’s and men’s cycling.” It listed a number of steps it has taken to this end, which include equalizing prize money in the UCI’s own events, such as the UCI World Championships. Chenaille also noted the UCI plans to increase prize minimums across the board.
All of this is laudable. Still, what’s the rationale for the existing disparity in prize minimums? The UCI didn’t say, but USA Cycling’s Shafer, who does not represent or speak for the UCI, offered an assumption. The UCI, he explained, may be looking for ways to reduce barriers for people to put on international women’s races. Cost is a barrier, and one way to reduce it is to shrink prize requirements.
This explanation is consistent with the logic of the UCI’s fee schedule, which the organization posts online. Like prize minimums, the “calendar” fees the UCI assesses for sanctioned races also are inequitable. The fees for men’s teams are substantially higher than those for women’s teams, lending credence to the argument that the UCI wants to encourage organizers to put on women’s races by keeping costs relatively low.
This is in keeping with the rationale for another equity problem that has bedeviled the UCI for years. The organization sets minimum salaries for top professional men’s teams but not for professional women’s teams. Why not require minimum salaries for women’s teams as well? Because, as UCI President Brian Cookson explained this month in the cycling publication Velo News, “You can’t just pass a rule. What the women’s team directors and riders told me is if you pass that rule you will kill half the teams because they cannot afford it. They will re-register as club teams.”
Reduced opportunity, in other words, could be an unintended consequence of forced equity. And that’s exactly what you don’t want if your mission is to grow the sport.
The likely reasoning behind the UCI’s inequitable prize minimums doesn’t make the Cascade Cycling Classic’s initial purse disparity any more palatable. And I know far too little about cycling or the UCI even to pretend to know whether there are better ways to increase opportunity and equity than those favored by the organization.
But I do know this: To dismiss the UCI’s prize disparities flippantly as blatant sexism is to ignore the possibility that the world of professional cycling — like the rest of the world — is more complex than we’d like and less amenable to simple solutions.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.