A few years ago, during one of my first elite cycling races, I recall studying the jersey pockets of the woman in front of me. Cycling was still new to me, and the colors and logos of team kits transfixed my attention like a toddler drawn to a teletubby. I read the emblems, curious about the vast sponsorships and partners who supported women's cycling. Some logos were easy to recognize, like food products and bicycle companies. But I also saw logos I didn't recognize, but seemed to hint at charity connections and nonprofit alignments. In fact, the more jerseys I studied, the more of these organizations I saw.
After a few years in the peloton, I was educated on a wonderful truth: While women's pro cycling isn't a sports-media giant with multi-million dollar athlete contracts and household names, just about every professional team on the circuit is committed to giving back to society. Here are a few of the leading teams, and how they go about bettering our sport through charity.
Supporting everyone's Right to Play
One of the top-ranked women's cycling teams in the world, Specialized-lululemon, has won more than 65 races in 2012 and is sending 10 of its 13 members to the Olympic Games. This international powerhouse boasts national, world and Olympic champions, but perhaps far more impressive is what the team does off the bike. The women have committed to raise a minimum of $100,000 for Right to Play, the international humanitarian organization that uses sport to improve health and life skills for children and communities in countries affected by war, poverty and disease.
For Kristy Scrymgeour, the owner and manager of Specialized-lululemon, partnering with Right to Play isn't just about what her athletes can do for society, but also for the life lessons she wanted to impart to her team. "As a pro athlete, you're given a lot and you are well looked-after. The pro athlete life can be kind of selfish, but that's how it has to be when your priority is training and keeping yourself in top form. Giving back is one way that athletes see that what they are doing can also help someone else."
Scrymgeour has seen the gift of giving go both ways. While her athletes raise funds by leading group rides and holding auctions for Right To Play donations, the emotional act of selflessness comes back twofold through inspiration.
"Cycling is a pretty hard sport, it's really tough," said Scrymgeour. "Sometimes you think, 'Why am I doing this?' So for the athletes, knowing they are doing something good can be a huge inspiration. Clara Hughes [six-time Canadian Olympian and six-time medalist] once said to me that she probably would have given up the sport years ago if she didn't realize she could help affect other people's lives in positive ways. When athletes get to that stage where it's 'Oh, it's just another hard day ... ' then I can say, 'Hey, you don't have to do it for yourself, you can do it for someone or something else.'"
MS awareness and women's cycling, in tandem
The message of using sport to help others has been adopted by countless teams in various manners, but NOW-Novartis Pro Cycling created a unique way to raise funds and awareness for multiple sclerosis. The team has taken the figurative approach to a charity partnership and given it a physical vessel: the tandem bicycle.
"Each rider does several MS bike rides where we captain a tandem with a rider who has MS," said Robin Farina, the 2011 national U.S. road cycling champion and member of NOW-Novartis. "It's a powerful opportunity to give an individual with MS a chance to participate and achieve a goal of completing a very meaningful ride. The connection you have with someone on a tandem is huge, and crossing the finish line together is a feeling like no other. Any chance that we can help someone living with MS feel that MS does not define them or limit their aspirations is a success."
NOW-Novartis' owner and director Phil Keoghan, host of the Emmy Award-winning hit reality series "The Amazing Race," saw the connection between women's bike racing, MS awareness and his own personal philosophy, No Opportunity Wasted (NOW), which is about living each day as if it were your last.
"It's about letting go of the handrails, swerving off that predictable road and sharing life-changing experiences -- an urgent call to live life NOW," said Keoghan.
Farina couldn't agree more.
"The most rewarding part for me has been traveling all over the country and running into people or family members of people who have MS and them telling us what an impact we are having on raising awareness for MS," she said.
Relief via bicycle
While many riders race for great causes indirectly related to cycling, the members of Team Optum Pro Cycling Presented by Kelly Benefits Strategies and Team Exergy Twenty12 give back to World Bicycle Relief, where the bike itself is the center of the charity.
World Bicycle Relief is a nonprofit organization that first started with SRAM, a company which manufactures bicycle components, to help provide aid in response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2005. After its success in Sri Lanka, the World Bicycle Relief got to work in sub-Shaharan Africa. They have donated more than 105,000 specially designed, locally assembled, rugged bicycles to health care workers treating HIV/AIDS patients. By giving bicycles to impoverished communities, individuals have used this simple mode of transportation as an opportunity to access health care, education and economic development.
"Our team is a huge supporter of World Bicycle Relief," said Team Optum's Carmen Small, the double bronze medalist of the 2012 national road and criterium championships. "We have a goal of raising $67,000 [500 bikes] by the end of the year. Every teammate has contributed in their own way."
For Small, the impact of helping young women through WBR is large.
"You can just image how some of these young ladies feel when they are given a bike and have opportunity to go to school, to make something of themselves," she said.
Whether or not a team aligns directly with a nonprofit or charity, many riders are finding creative ways to donate their time, talents and in some cases, even trophies.
Theresa Cliff-Ryan, the reigning U.S. national criterium champion who rides for Exergy Twenty12, supports the Special Olympics of Michigan by donating her awards, so they can be refurbished and reused by the organization.
Cliff-Ryan, an inline speedskater who began competing as a toddler before switching to cycling in her 20s, amassed hundreds of trophies, plaques and medals over the years. "It was the best feeling in the world knowing how excited and proud all the kids were when they were presented a massive trophy," Cliff-Ryan said.
Jerseys, too, are a popular fundraising item. "I recently donated a USA Cycling jersey that I had a few of my USA teammates sign, including Kristin Armstrong, Evie Stevens, Carmen Small and Ally Stacher," Cliff-Ryan said. "It was auctioned off to raise money for CAWES' partner IM ABLE foundation, which supports disabled athletes by providing them with hand-cycles and other modified equipment."
Giving. It's in our DNA
As the sport of professional cycling grows stronger for women each year, so too does the exposure for the charities they represent. Men's cycling is also well-equipped with nonprofit partnerships, and foundations like Livestrong pull in millions each year. But for female athletes, the desire to give back may just be deep-rooted in our DNA.
"It's often within a woman's nature that there is a nurturing feature, and a lot of women have, in the past, traditionally not participated in sports or fulfilled their own goals because they were caring for children and family," said Scrymgeour. "That's different now, but I think giving is built into our nature. It is really inspirational for women, especially in a team or group, to get together and do something for a good cause."
That may be too many words to fit on a jersey, but rest assured, every charity logo represented in the women's pro peloton reminds us that no matter how many competitors we face in cycling, giving back is our mutual teammate.