Women Who Make a Difference On and Off the Bike
U.S. women are continuing to make their mark domestically and internationally, both on and off the bike. In honor of International Women’s day, USA Cycling would like to highlight some of the impressive women who continue to inspire us, proving over and over again that they can, they will, and then some.
Alise Willoughby has taught us how to unleash our inner “beast” in the best way possible. The Olympic Silver Medalist, who has had the nickname “The Beast” since she was a young rider, entered into 2018 after marrying Sam Willoughby on New Year’s Eve with a rainbow jersey on her back. She captured another U.S. title, winning gold at the 2018 USA Cycling BMX National Championships as well as standing on the podium at four World Cups. After an unfortunate crash in the finals of the 2018 UCI BMX Racing World Championships, Willoughby burst into 2019 winning every C1 race she has entered so far.
"Women’s cycling has already progressed leaps and bounds from when I first turned professional, and I hope this trend continues for many years to come, so that more and more women are able to make a career from cycling," said Alise, "With equal prize money and both men and women competing at all stops on the circuit, BMX racing is pushing for gender equality as a sport, and I hope the riders of tomorrow do the same! Barriers have been broken, and we have equal opportunity for representation at the Olympic Games, equal opportunity to work hard and embrace our competitive side, and equal opportunity to inspire others through sport. I am excited to see what the future holds for the many women of cycling!"
Her passion and dedication for the sport year after year has made her a household name in the BMX community, making young girls at BMX tracks around the country say “I want to be like her.”
Ayesha McGowan has shown us that representation matters. McGowan is on a mission to become the first African-American female pro road cyclist. Along the way, she has engaged our community in conversations about inclusion and inspired women of all colors to get on a bike.
She writes often on her blog “A Quick Brown Fox” and is a contributor for several publications. Through her writing, Ayesha inspires us to do better and to continue growing into an inclusive community where all are welcome and encouraged.
Coryn Rivera showed us that perseverance pays off. Rivera, who started racing at age 11, racked up National titles almost as soon as she started competing, continuing through the junior ranks, into collegiate cycling and then turning pro, where she currently is one of the top riders on the World Tour racing in Europe with Team Sunweb. Since turning pro in 2015, one specific title had escaped her: USPro Road Race Champion. In a sprint finish this year, Coryn won that elusive title earning her 72nd National Title and the right to wear the Stars and Stripes jersey for the year.
“When I look back at women's cycling and think about the growth, I can say that I am proud of where we've come from and the direction we're going,” said Rivera, “I hope for more opportunity and exposure in the future and I believe we are going in that direction. It's an honor to be a small part of this impactful generation and I hope that female cyclists can learn from my story that anything is possible with enough passion and determination. Opportunities are there and growing and we live in a generation where it's possible to even make your own opportunities."
Kate Courtney proved that she doesn’t ride well for a woman, she just rides well. The 2018 UCI World Champion became the first American to win the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships since Alison Dunlap in 2001. Through Kate’s social media, she documents her training, riding through rough terrain, dropping off ledges and doing insane cross training sessions where she manages to balance on a ball while juggling weights, proving that World Champions aren’t made on race day, they’re made the other 364 days of the year.
“One of the special things about cycling is that it not only provides an opportunity to compete and improve as an athlete - but to explore the world around you,” said Kate, “My bike has opened up the world to me and given me a new sense of freedom and confidence. I hope women’s cycling continues to move towards equality - not only in terms of pay and broadcasting, but in the way athletes are respected and appreciated based on their merit rather than gender. I hope to be a leader in this change and in teaching young racers that they are strong, capable and completely badass - and not just “for a girl”.
In an Outside Magazine article, Kate says, “Yes, we still have a way to go. Women are still largely underpaid as professionals in cycling and other sports. Girls still drop out of sports at a higher rate than their male peers or don’t get the chance to participate at all. But if cycling has taught me anything, it’s that progress is jagged. We often stagnate or step back before we step forward, and in order to improve, you must keep moving and celebrate the victories along the way. Subtle changes in perceptions of female athletes may seem like a small step, but the implications represent a greater victory and an opportunity to keep moving.”
Katie Compton showed us what it was like to fight through setbacks and win. After struggling with illness during the season, it looked like this might be the year a new National Champion could be crowned. As she passed Ellen Noble going through the chicanes on the first lap, we all quickly realized that Katie Compton was on her way to her 15th consecutive National Title and adjusted her crown as Queen of American Cyclocross.
Compton also continued to show us how to encourage and inspire the next generation of cyclists. Earlier in the season, Compton competed with the US National Team at the AMGEN Tour of California. After the first stage, 5-year-old Fiona came up to her, telling her she drove from Seattle, Washington to Sacramento, California with her parents to meet her idol. Compton spent 10 minutes talking with Fiona, signing hats and encouraging her to ride her bike. After the event in an Instagram post, Compton said, “I love seeing young girls riding bikes and getting excited about a sport they can enjoy for a lifetime.”
Jennifer Valente showed us to get back up no matter how many times we fall. At the 2019 UCI Track Cycling World Championships, Valente competed in four events. After suffering a crash at the end of her second event, the Scratch Race, she lined up the next day for the Omnium, an event consisting of four races. After winning the third event of the Omnium, the elimination race, she began the Points race, the final event of the Omnium. Towards the middle of the race, she collided with another rider once again crashing. After rejoining the field, she put her head down and scored enough points to capture the bronze medal in the event.
The eight-time World Championship medalist said, “I learned to focus on one race at a time and not letting the ups and downs get to me. Just keeping focused on the process and staying in the moment.”
Joan Hanscom has proved that if you love something, you should make a career out of making it better. From directing the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross and the 2013 UCI Cyclocross World Championships, to Vice President of Event Services at USA Cycling to her current role of Executive Director of the Valley Preferred Velodrome, Hanscom has made her mark on cycling across the U.S.
“I’ve been really fortunate, I think, that since I got into this sport I’ve been able to learn from other women. And I think that’s important. I learned to race a million years ago from a woman named Evelyn Egizi. And I firmly believe that if I hadn’t been given such a great introduction to the sport I wouldn’t still be playing the game. Similarly, I learned the craft of putting on bike racing from two other women - Alice Armstrong and Robin Morton. Robin in particular is like a personal hero. You could write a book about her firsts in this sport (somebody! Write that book!) But I feel like she showed me how to do things well, how to do what you believe is right,” said Hanscom, “I feel like I’ve also benefited from working with people who demanded equality. When Bob Stapleton was running the T-Mobile program he insisted that the women get their own races and equal T.V. time. I’ve tried to carry those lessons into what I do today on and off the bike. From the U.S. Grand Prix of Cyclocross days where we went full depth of field with prize parity for women, to focusing on growing our women’s participation even if it meant losing out some entry fees.
I hope more women feel empowered to jump into the fray - on the bike or off. I’m super excited about what we’ve got planned for the track this summer. We are launching Women’s Wednesday’s. It’s not racing - at least not to begin with - but it’s about giving women the chance to have their own time to get on the track with other women, learn and hone skills, train and be social. It’s being lead by Kim Geist - and I think it’s absolutely amazing that we have the opportunity to do a program with a coach and athlete of her caliber. So I think it’s really cool another case of women supporting other women. And learning. It’s so cool. So if there is ultimately a goal I have for myself is that I could be a Robin Morton to somebody else - or an Evelyn. And that’s how I hope we just keep growing and getting bolder and welcoming more women into our sport, bringing more diversity to our sport.”
Angela Irvine, Lea and Sabra Davison founded Little Bellas in 2007 to get more little girls ages 7-16 on bikes.
“We felt the status quo of sports at that time created an environment where teenage self-esteem tends to decrease in girls and increase in boys,” said Sabra on Little Bella’s website, “We needed an environment where support and respect were keystone values. A community of all women set the tone for encouraging participation. Following suit, the inaugural program consisted of twelve Sunday sessions led by female mentors. We realized early-on that an empowering environment consisted of mentors not coaches, instructors, or counselors. This was not to be solely a skills-based program. Little Bellas would encompass confidence building by empower young girls through sport. It would promote food and nutrition as a source of fuel. It would be centered on fun, and it would, of course, encourage skill development on and off the bike.”
Today, Little Bellas has seen over 2800 girls come through their programs and have chapters throughout the U.S. Other female mountain bikers like Kate Courtney, Erin Huck, Chloe Woodruff and Haley Batten have joined the program as ambassadors.
Perris Benegas proved that women can fly when she led Team USA’s Women’s BMX team to a medal sweep at the 2018 UCI Urban Cycling World Championships in BMX Freestyle, which will be a new event at the 2020 Olympics. The former martial artist stood on the top step of the podium alongside teammates Angie Marino and Hannah Roberts who placed second and third respectively.
“For women’s cycling in general, but specifically freestyle BMX, my hope would be continue to earn more of the spotlight in a once-male dominated sport,” said Benegas, “Women are progressing at such an alarming rate these days. Because of that, the stands are full and the cheers are loud when we ride. It’s an amazing feeling and huge departure from as little as 2 years ago. With the addition of our sport into the 2020 Olympics, I’d love to continue to see growth and progression in the woman’s category as we are seeing now. Hopefully this will inspire other women to step out of their comfort zone and try new things, whether it be freestyle BMX or any other discipline within cycling.
If I could teach female cyclists anything, it would be to believe and to be confident in yourself. We all need to understand it’s a process - there are setbacks, injuries, mental battles and times you will question it all. As long as we remember to have fun, build the best possible team or support group around us and never lose sight as to WHY we’re doing it, that’s what motivates me to continue on this Olympic path.”
Sorella Cycling, the 2018 USA Cycling Club of the Year for Women’s Cycling, has shown us the power of community. The club, based out of Atlanta Ga. has a mission to foster a supportive and open environment for women of all ages and abilities to ride their bicycles for fitness, recreation and racing. Their riders and racers conduct women's cycling clinics including skills, safety, and maintenance while also mentoring club members. They have used their love of cycling and passion for service to make an impact on and off the bike.
Thank you to all of the women in our lives who inspire us. From our moms who bought us our first bikes and fixed our scraped knees, to our friends who stopped and sessioned a rough patch of trail, our co-workers who took us on our first group ride, and our she-roes that we’ve watched win World Championships making the impossible seem possible: you are paving the way for the growth of female cycling.