BRECKENRIDGE — Last fall, Littleton sports therapist Robert Carroll walked out of a screening of “Half the Road,” a documentary that explores women’s professional cycling and examines why the sport remains unequal to the men in terms of sponsorship, races and prize money. He was fired up, and he wanted to do something about it.
So he approached Kimberley Johnson and Meg Hendricks, two respected riders in the Colorado women’s peloton, with the idea of starting a team to compete in the USA Pro Challenge. Johnson — a part of the Colorado Women’s Cycling Project — wanted to do the same.
“We both had similar visions for this team,” said Johnson, a 26-year-old professional cyclist from Wheat Ridge who represents the Colorado Women’s Cycling Project and Naked Women’s Racing. “He thought it would be a shame to have this high-caliber race in Colorado without representing the Colorado women. We were connected by a mutual friend and realized we were trying to do the same thing, so we decided to join forces.”
Carroll asked prospective riders simple questions: What do you want? Why aren’t you professional? What do you need to turn pro?
On Thursday in Breckenridge, months of work came together. Six riders, all from Colorado, stood on the stage here to be introduced as a composite team, a collaboration between the Colorado Women’s Cycling Project and SPARK Women’s Racing Ltd., Carroll’s company.
“He heard a consistent story from us: It’s a huge jump from regional racing to the pro level,” Hendricks said. “There’s a lot of costs involved. Travel, the equipment. And it’s so demanding.”
The inaugural women’s USA Pro Challenge begins Friday with 12 teams. The first stage is an individual time trial in Breckenridge, contested on the same course as the men. The race continues Saturday from Loveland to Fort Collins before ending Sunday with a criterium around Golden.
“My goal is to represent women’s cycling,” said Carroll, who spent several years in the Army and has put his own money into this project. “And I’ve gotten the question a lot of times: ‘Well, why do you want to do this? You’re a man.’ And my response sometimes has been: ‘Thank you for noticing, and why aren’t you (helping)?’ “
He purposefully sought out riders he felt could be good teammates, not necessarily those with the most talent.
“In women’s bike racing, you don’t get a lot of those kinds of crowds,” Johnson said after the team was introduced. “To stand up in front of so many fans and people excited to see us race this weekend is pretty amazing. It really exemplifies the growth that’s been happening in the sport.”
Earlier this year, UCI — the governing body for cycling — announced the creation of the Women’s WorldTour in 2016 to replace the existing World Cup structure. The move should result in more media exposure and a 30-day calendar of events that combine one-day and stage races.
All of the team’s riders compete for other elite amateur teams and would otherwise have little chance of racing in the Pro Challenge without the formation of this team.
The team’s budget is minuscule, but Carroll’s and Johnson’s passion is apparent. And they rely on a small group of sponsors.
Carroll said he hoped to continue the team and is working to secure a women’s domestic elite license with USA Cycling, one step below a UCI license.
“Results are not everything,” Carroll said. “I want good representatives of this sport. I want people who are professional, that are going to be good representatives of our sponsors … and that have a high level of integrity. That’s hugely important to me. Part of my selection is based on working on teams in the military — I kind of default to that mentality: Who do I want to go to war with?”
Riders with the Colorado Women’s Cycling Project p/b SPARK Women’s Racing
Sabrina David, 26, Boulder
Gwen Inglis, 41, Lakewood
Kimberley Johnson, 26, Wheat Ridge
Kristen Legan, 30, Boulder
Jen Sharp, 37, Boulder
Meg Hendricks, 39, Denver
USA Pro Challenge: Men’s fifth stage | Women’s first stage
Start: Breckenridge at Main Street, south of Waston
Finish: Breckenridge at Washington and Main streets
Distance: 8.4-mile individual time trial
Women’s start time: 10:35 a.m.
Estimated finish: 12:35 p.m.
Men’s start time: 1 p.m.
Estimated finish: 3:45 p.m.
Description: This is where the overall race will likely be won or lost, with the most opportunity for riders to gain or lose time on each other. The course — which will test all of a cyclist’s skills — starts flat out of town, before turning straight back to ascend the steep Moonstone road in the opposite direction of Thursday’s descent into Breckenridge. Riders will then descend Boreas Pass to head back into town for the finish. All but the final 10 cyclists will push off from a start house every minute, with the first rider being the last-place position in the GC. The final riders — capped by overall race leader Rohan Dennis — will push off two minutes apart. The women will race the same course, with starts one minute apart. Kristin Armstrong will be the final rider for the women.
Daniel Petty, The Denver Post