- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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Robin Farina was elated when she won the 2011 U.S. national road race title by a wheel, but she is just as happy about the collective start line American women riders will cross in Chattanooga this weekend. This marks the first time the women's and men's championships will be contested in the same venue, with equal prize money and equal designation as professionals.
Farina, 35, who grew up in Nashville playing soccer and other team sports, began riding as a teenager and currently races for the NOW and Novartis for MS Pro Cycling Team. She is also a coach, a co-owner of Uptown Cycles in Charlotte, N.C, with former pro Chris Sheehan, and a passionate advocate for better opportunities for the women's peloton -- a goal she says could be furthered by a riders' union.
Farina spoke to espnW by telephone on Thursday from Chattanooga, where the time trial championships will take place Saturday and the road race on Monday. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Question from Ford: This may seem obvious to you, but why is it better for the women's national championships to be held in conjunction with the men's instead of having a dedicated event?
Answer from Farina: With everybody I've spoken to on the women's side, we're all in agreement that having events and having pro championships with the men is beneficial for us. We are better off when we have bigger crowds, when we have the support and structure of USA Cycling helping both pelotons come together. We absolutely want to piggyback off the media, off what the men have created. We want to grow the sport in general.
We're basically fighting and trying to encourage people to embrace us as much as they have the men. What helps the men grow will in turn help us. U.S. professional women's cycling is still very new. We're trying to make history and grow the sport. I would like to see a women's Tour of California alongside the men's. There's no reason that can't happen. We can benefit from everything they already have in place.
Q: What part do each of these entities -- sponsors, race organizers, media, and the federations -- play in the current economic struggles in women's cycling?
A: That's a very good question. Last night at our team dinner, we were talking about inequality in the sport, what we can do to change things, how do we approach all those entities you just discussed. Everybody's blaming each other, but there's no action actually being taken. The UCI is blaming promoters. Race promoters are blaming the sponsors. Sponsors blame the media. The media blames the audience and the riders, and the riders are blaming race promoters because we're not getting equal prize purse or long enough courses.
Ultimately, I think it starts with the UCI and works itself down. It starts with setting a minimum salary for women [Editor's note: The current UCI minimum salary for men is $46,500] and adding more pro teams. That's what has to be done to start the process. For us here in the U.S., it's USA Cycling. They're slow to make changes and slow to really embrace the women's peloton. They're doing more than they have been, but at the same time, I think they could be doing a lot more. Who do we need to address these things? Clearly, it's all of the above. If the UCI mandated minimum salary and number of pro teams, I think the sponsors would come out, and I think the media would want to join in.
Q: On the sponsor side, there are women in boardrooms and executive positions, women from the Title IX generation who have been athletes themselves. Are you frustrated there hasn't been more support from them?
A: You make a good point. I think it's about finding the right sponsors. We probably haven't gone out and proposed sponsorship to some of these companies that are really female-oriented. Obviously, women have a lot of buying power. It's about using marketing companies, using people who know how to talk to these corporate sponsors. We have to change the thought process. I think they're out there, but it takes time and effort to sit down with these decision-makers.
Q: You come into contact with women who are recreational riders every day as a bike shop owner and coach. Do those riders and consumers automatically translate to a fan base for professional women's racing?
A: Women's racing is definitely helping grow the sport. I see women walking in the door every day who are interested in getting into the sport, they just don't have anybody helping them. In so many shops, women have a little bit of intimidation because [those shops are] not interested in selling women a bike, or the right bike. I see more women gravitating toward a social ride, which we started at the shop I own. It's a Monday night, no-drop women's ride. That has been a big hit.
Women just want to start to get on the bike. They want to do something different, they like the idea, they like the social aspect, but they're also fans of the sport. A lot of them are wives of guys who are involved in the sport. The fan base is growing. They see that women's cycling provides role models for their daughters, a healthy lifestyle. ... I never knew there was actual bike racing for women until I started casual riding, and then because of my competitive spirit, that was the natural progression for me. The unfortunate part is that women's professional racing is not out there enough for people to see it on TV. It's hard to become a fan unless you really know what you're looking for, and that's what we want to change.
Q: When you talk to your counterparts in Europe, what strikes you as the main differences, pro or con, in what they have to work with?
A: I can't say it's that much better over there. The structure is more solid and the history is there. But I think the women in Europe are struggling, too. I don't think there's anything in place that guarantees them their salaries, or that they're going to get to race. I think the racing is harder over there because the numbers are greater, they have more women to pull for the peloton. Is it better? Not necessarily. The team I'm on is very well structured and management does the absolute best it can to make sure we have everything we need to race, with our equipment and logistics. But we could be doing so much better with a bigger budget. The main thing we're seeing is that these teams are having to cut corners and not do things the pro way because our budgets are a lot smaller.
Q: Who are you a fan of among your contemporaries?
A: I'm quite star-struck by Evie [Stevens]. I like her story, her athleticism and her real-world experience. She was an athlete in college and she went into the work force, which so many of us have, and then obviously she found she had this love of the bike and started to want to compete again. It didn't matter that she was in her mid- to late-20s, she's like, "I'm going to go after this and give it everything I've got, I'm going to sacrifice and just see what happens." She's clearly a very gifted athlete, but at the same time, her determination and drive have led her to where she is today. She's phenomenal to watch. She makes me laugh. She's very approachable, very well-spoken. And she delivers. She's a good role model for young girls who want to come up in the sport.
I've had several people come into the shop and they tell me their kids love to come out and cheer for me at races. That means the world to me. If I could help get a couple more girls into the sport and [help them] actually make a living at it and love what they do down the road, that means I've succeeded as an athlete and a coach and as a business owner. Girls like Evie who have done it all -- they're inspiring.