Photo: Tracy L Chandler
Retired pro cyclist, activist, author and documentary-maker, Kathryn Bertine, is on a mission to combat inequality in women’s cycling. A driving force behind the launch of La Course, the women’s race from Le Tour de France, and the brains behind the Homestretch Foundation, a non-profit where pro female cyclists can stay and train rent-free, she’s already changing the game. But there’s more work to be done.
Here, Kathryn chats with me about juggling jobs as a pro rider, supporting women at Homestretch, and how she believes a two-tier system with base salary is the game changer women’s cycling needs.
How did your own experience in cycling open up your eyes to wage disparity?
I raced professionally for five years, and only one of those five years did I earn above the poverty line. I came from the sport of triathlon where everything was equal – men and women had the same distance, prize money, all of that. So that was eye opening. When I was an elite racer aspiring to be professional, I thought that the women at the top of the sport would at least be paid enough to live a proper, humble life [laughs].
At what point did you realise the pay in pro women’s cycling was inadequate?
It was before I turned professional, in 2011, when I got a call from a friend in Tucson asking whether I could put up Lauren Hall, a pro cyclist who at the time was the USA’s reigning national track cycling champion. I never got over the shock that someone of her calibre could need a spare bed or a couch to crash on. It got me thinking that it would be great if there were a place where professional cyclists could go, train and live for free to compensate for this non-existent salary.
Was that when you had the idea for the Homestretch Foundation?
That’s when the bricks were laid. But it wasn’t until 2014 having gone through a divorce and finding myself being the one without a home or any form of support, that I started putting the concept of the Homestretch Foundation together. So it came about through both the reality of women’s cycling and also as a coping mechanism for me to get me through a difficult time.
Were you working extra jobs to make ends meet whilst riding as a professional cyclist?
Yes. I turned pro in 2012. Until that point I was also working as a journalist with ESPNW, so I stepped back from fulltime work as an editor to make the film Half the Road, but I was still working as a writer, but this time, for a reduced salary. During the struggle of going through a divorce and supporting myself on both fronts while riding professionally, there were countless times where I took on anything else to make ends meet. You name it – babysitting, waitressing; anything to fill the gaps that journalism and the pro cycling salary couldn’t cover.
Did you ever consider leaving pro cycling because you couldn’t afford to get by?
Yes. The choice was there: either I continue the pro cycling dream and struggle in poverty or I give it up and move into a different career. Many, many women in pro cycling women have struggled with this predicament. The majority of us have college degrees and a huge number have Masters Degrees as well. Every pro athlete should retire because that’s what they want. Not because they have to do it because they’re not being paid an equal base salary in cycling.
Are you aware of women who’ve given up their pro cycling career for that reason?
Yes, I know plenty of women who, when it came to the end of their contract, said they were going to retire because they can’t do another year of being poor.
Event length, prize money, wages – what do we need to address in order to move women’s cycling forward?
There’s a base salary for the men at Pro and World Tour level, but not for women. If the UCI can finally agree and implement a base salary for women at the World Tour level, that would change everything. Especially if they did that instead of raising the base salary for men.
Right now they’re throwing excuses out there: ‘If women were marketable…’, ‘If they brought the crowds…’ it’s all this backward thinking. No. This needs to change from the top down. It’s up to the governing body of our sport to value women equally and create this change.
What my business partner and I are trying to do is lobby the UCI because we believe in establishing a minimum wage for women at the world tour level, as they have this in place for men.
How do you see a base salary working in women’s cycling?
We’re talking about a base salary at the World Tour level which is the equivalent of the “major leagues”, not for the second-tier teams which are still pro, but have more of a “minor league” budget. Which is very valuable. All successful professional sports models have a major/minor league structure, and this helps the entire sport succeed. UCI officials often argue that all of the women’s cycling teams will fold if a base salary is introduced. They won’t. Because here’s the thing: you need a two-tiered structure at the pro level. This is typical of sports in the US, where we have major and minor leagues in just about every sport. Yes, they’re both professional. And sure, the minor league professionals might get lower contracts but they are working toward that top level, where there must be a liveable base wage.
That’s what we want in pro cycling too – we’re not saying all of a sudden that you have to create a $50,000 base salary for every single team, but you do need it at the top. The second tier teams can have a lower salary, and if riders have a part-time job, that often happens in other two-tier major/minor league sports. It’s one thing to struggle during the climb to the top, but it’s not ok for the top rank of pro cycling to be poverty-stricken and corrupt.
A fair base wage and two-tiered team system would also move the whole sport forward because the World Tour teams can then align with one of the second tier teams, which would simplify talent-ID and recruitment. A far more fair and effective recruitment system, rather than the song and dance that goes on now with pro cycling being a free-for-all where everybody’s after a pro contract but even at the top nobody’s getting paid fairly. Right now, women in pro cycling are being seriously taken advantage of both financially and personally, and the UCI isn’t doing a damn thing to fix the salary structure.
Together with Chrissie Wellington, Emma Pooley and Marianne Vos, you lobbied for La Course – what do you think of the decision to cut it to one day in 2018?
Le Tour Entier was a terrific platform for change in 2013. Now in 2018, honestly, it’s a step backward for ASO (owners of the Tour de France and La Course by The Tour de France) to not add more days to La Course. When we implemented the structure behind La Course and the manifesto that we had with Le Tour Entier (the lobby group), we were all thrilled that we had one day in 2014 – for that first year. But we presented a plan for ASO to move it up to three days, and then five days and then seven days to keep it moving it forward. And that’s where they’ve chosen not to stick to the ideas we presented to them about how to grow not only women’s cycling, but their revenue, by investing in women.
It was wonderful to see how many people were vocal and calling out ASO’s poor decision to drop a day this year and how many people were using their voice to say this isn’t right.
How did you feel about La Course’s two-day structure in 2017?
The structure of the second day, which was invite-only for the top twenty finishers of the mountain stage, was ridiculous – taking the top riders of a mountain stage and putting them into a time trial? Why would you put a climber into a TT? I think they thought they’d just pull the wool over our eyes and just say, ‘Oh look, a second day for women!’
Anybody who is knowledgeable and follows sports knows the whole thing was a step backward. And now to even take away that second stage as opposed to adding more days? In my opinion what’s going on is tremendous laziness and sexism. ASO doesn’t seem to care. But we can use our voices to call them out and create change.
Does ASO ever respond to your you or your tweets?
To my tweets, no, not since 2013. I met with an ASO rep in 2017, but he was non-responsive to the request of adding more days. And to me it’s quite a failure on ASO’s behalf that they’re not addressing what’s going on. I hear a lot of people say we should forget the Tour de France and that we don’t need them if that’s how they’re going to be. And I agree with that philosophy, except right now the media has created the Tour de France as the main event of cycling, so that’s why we’ve always targeted it.
If there were another cycling event that were seen as the epitome of cycling then we would be targeting that race instead. But when the whole world has access to that event and they’re not showcasing cycling equally, it’s very important that we keep the pressure on.
Has being the voice of change for women’s cycling been exhausting at times?
Yes! Personally and professionally, it hasn’t been easy. There have been times in this day and age of social media when you think you’re doing something for the greater good of women and equality and it’s amazing how many people don’t uphold that belief and will target somebody in a spokesperson role with cruelty and meanness. I’ve definitely received my fair share of internet idiot responses [laughs]! I’m okay with it because I understand that it’s ignorance rather than a personal attack. Well, sometimes there are personal attacks. Sure, that stuff hurts. But the journey of equality is still worth the fight. While it can be tiring to see those types of comments, but I try as hard as I can to focus on all the people who do stand up.
You manage to remain very restrained and professional despite the trolls…
I received quite the education in social media the very beginning, when we launched the petition for the Tour de France back in 2013. That was very eye-opening and there might have been more aggression back then because change really does scare some people. I was just bewildered thinking, ‘How can people think treating women equally is not a good idea?’
At this point I’ve learned that if we’re only going to see the negative and not acknowledge the positive that would exhaust me even further. Especially when there is so much negativity right now on social media because of the state of the world… at least in America, at the moment. There is so much angst that we need to make sure that yes, we get our point across when something is wrong—let’s stand up and speak out about that – but let’s also provide positivity. Otherwise, we’re all gonna drown in all the negativity. We don’t need that.
You launched the Homestretch Foundation in 2017. Who is it for?
Predominantly, it’s professional female road cyclists we prioritise since they’re the ones facing more inequality in the gender pay gap. The criteria is that we always give first dibs to the professional women – those who have already made it to the pro cycling ranks, but are being paid nothing or very little. Then the second dibs, if there are openings around the pro residency, goes to helping the elites who are on the cusp of turning pro. And then the third dibs, we love helping the men of cycling – if and when the situation works.
The most common misconception we get is that Homestretch Foundation is a [cycling] team, which we’re not. We are a movement. We help and house riders and athletes from every team.
Is a Homestretch stay structured or is the schedule up to individual athletes?
We offer residence on a month-to-month basis, and athletes can choose the number of months they need. Our athletes have their own training plans, coaches and teams, but what I love is that they all might head out on the bike together and then branch off to do their own workouts. It’s created this amazing sibling-hood amongst the athletes where nobody feels alone, yet they never feel tied to one another’s workout.
Homestretch’s tremendous support is echoed by the local community as well, isn’t it?
Yes! A local gym, CrossFit Fixx in Tucson, opens its doors to our athletes, free of charge, so our athletes have a place to go and supplement their training. And the same thing for chiropractic work, physiotherapy work, massage therapy, even medical and dental doctors; they have all said they’re on board to help our athletes, either pro bono or for a very reduced rate, because they believe in the equality mission.
And Homestretch residents are able to give back too, through charity work during their stay?
Once they’re here athletes do their own thing, but the one thing we ask is that they give back a couple of hours a week to community or charity events. They all like that because they enjoy giving back. Athletes can choose anything they’re interested in – working with kids, animals, whatever they’re passionate about on or off the bike.
Currently a lot of our athletes enjoy giving back to the El Grupo Cycling which is the youth cycling programme here in Tucson. They love going down and working with these kids who absolutely love it that pro cyclists visit them.
What are your future plans and goals for Homestretch?
Our biggest hope and goal is that the base salary issue for women will be fixed. Because if that happens and the women at the top level are receiving a salary, we will be able to house up-and-coming pros at the Homestretch Foundation and also allocate our focus to the grassroots of the sport. We would love for that element of the Homestretch to change.
So that’s the idea, and of course we are a non-profit foundation – running a house and keeping everything afloat and having somebody who serves as a manager for the homestretch, all requires funding. So in these first few years of the Homestretch starting up, that’s a focus for us; to make sure we’re doing the fundraising to ensure these athletes can live here for free.
Hopefully, five years from now we’re not housing professional cyclists, we’re housing cyclists who want to turn professional. Ultimately, we’ve got to change cycling at the top, otherwise why are we funnelling all this amazing talent towards a broken and corrupt system? If we band together, we can change this inequity.
If you would like to donate to help Homestretch continue to support female cyclists and professional riders, you can do so here.
Kathryn is also director of Half the Road: The passion, pitfalls & power of women’s pro cycling, which you can watch via Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/halftheroad.
To keep up with Kathryn’s work in women’s cycling and the find out more about the Homestretch Foundation you can visit either www.kathrynbertine.com or www.homestretchfoundation.org. Make sure you follow Kathryn’s Twitter feed: www.twitter.com/kathrynbertine along with www.twitter.com/homestretchFdn.