Kathryn Bertine: Tour de force
The inequality Kathryn Bertine encountered when she fell into pro cycling pissed her off so much that it has become a cause that has dominated her life. Tim Heming discovers what drives her and how she’s lobbying for change for the next generation of pro cyclists
Picture the Champs-Élysées a decade from now. Standing room only on a Parisian summer’s evening as the sans pareil of women’s cycling whip past on the final lap of eight, elbows sharpened, grip on the handlebars locked as they jostle for position in the sprint for glory. This final stage of the Tour de France will see a woman step on the podium with the headline writers affording her as much kudos as the man in the yellow jersey. Somewhere in the crowd, the trailblazer who made this possible will be looking on…
If anyone can make this fanciful notion a reality, it’s Kathryn Bertine. Her experience as a pro cyclist riled her so much that she wrote, directed and co-produced a documentary to highlight the issues. She lobbied hard for a women’s race at the Tour de France, which resulted in La Course in 2014, a one-day event preceding the final stage of the Tour de France. And, in her latest project, she’s creating a support network for developing professional athletes who can’t survive on the women’s pro salary.
Even as she pieces her body together after a horrific bike crash, it’s clear she’s not finished yet, and it’s this infectious passion to redress the inequalities in women’s cycling that makes you believe that “women will have a three-week Tour de France in the future.”
Legendary back story
Growing up an ice-skater in New York, Kathryn turned to rowing, running and triathlon, became a writer and found an editor at ESPN madcap enough to set her the challenge of qualifying for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The challenge was simple. Kathryn could pick her sport, ESPN would pick up the expenses, she just had to get there.
The quest led her to bike racing and the potential back door entry of representing St Kitts and Nevis – a decision that would have far-reaching consequences for both her and women’s cycling.
While she started to collate qualifying points in races in the USA and her diaries made for a riveting read in her book, As Good As Gold, there would be no trip to China. She had, though, learnt a few valuable lessons.
First, she had developed a strong endurance base and shown enough talent to be part of a fledgling women’s professional bike racing team (whatever the term ‘professional’ meant).
Second, she’d landed in a sport mired in such inequality that it became a cause that would dominate her life, providing enough material and provocation to write three books and direct a movie: Half the Road: The Passion, Pitfalls & Power of Women’s Professional Cycling.
Now officially retired from riding, the 41-year-old is undeterred in her quest to improve the lot of professional women bike riders and continues to battle with the UCI – the governing body of world cycling – in an effort to effect change. And to do so at pace.
Kathryn wants the issues of paltry prize money, disparate racing schedules and podium girls addressed at the speed of a racing peloton, not a Boris Bike in gridlocked London. In failing to reply to a request for comment from the UCI for this article, we sense they could use a little of her vitality.
“I fully believe change has to come from the top down,” she says. “When you are valued from the top, the rest of the journey will fall into place, which is so much better than women having to prove they are equal and all the energy that goes into fighting for awareness.”
There has already been progress. In advocating root and branch change, Kathryn’s immediate attention was fixed on the jewel of the racing calendar, the Tour de France, with a very public campaign in 2013 to ensure that a women’s event should run concurrently with the men’s.
With cyclists Emma Pooley and Marianne Vos, and four-time world Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington, Kathryn formed a fearsome and fearless foursome, collecting 100,000 signatures of support within a few weeks. They were rewarded with the inaugural “La Course” in 2014, a one-day event preceding the final stage of the Tour de France. Change? Yes. Satisfied? Not by a long chalk. Three years on, the women will move to the mountains for 2017, but it is still just one day of competition compared to three weeks for their counterparts.
“It’s very much time for growth,” Kathryn argues. “There are plenty of week-long stage races for women already and that is the business model. That’s what we believed when we started and that’s what we are pushing for now. We hope that ASO [the race organisers] and UCI see it as entirely beneficial, both morally and financially.”
The latter holds the key. For all the progression towards gender equality, it is money that talks, and the entrenched belief that cycling is the fiefdom of males is one Kathryn is keen to address. “Whether the obstacle is logistics or sponsorship, we will focus on finding the solution,” she continues. “In the US, for example, more women than men buy tickets and merchandise for giant ‘men’s’ sports like football and baseball. If cycling marketed more toward women they would see growth on both sides.
“I want young girls to receive a bicycle for Christmas and see the opportunities that exist. Look at Holland, where men and women have been racing bikes for so long together. From there we have the amazing Marianne Vos winning races – and she’s been into cycling since she was six.
“We have to make sure the UCI aren’t putting off these changes. There are so many races where there is either no women’s field or it’s shortened without any media coverage, or the prize money is so different it’s a token gesture. I believe women will have a three-week Tour de France in the future.”
Closer to home
If Kathryn is used to lobbying higher powers to make decisions, her latest project could hardly be more of a contrast. The Homestretch Foundation is a support network for developing professional athletes – a grassroots venture in Arizona where her energies can be channelled with complete autonomy.
It will begin as a 12-berth residence in Tucson, with the favourable climate making it a desirable location for athletes to train during the off-season.
The concept was borne out of Kathryn’s own disillusionment of entering the world of professional women’s cycling.
“Once I got to that level I naively assumed I’d made it,” she explains. “Not that I was a millionaire, but that I could at least earn enough to compensate what I was doing for a living. It was mind-blowing to realise I had to carry a couple of part-time jobs to make ends meet when the men on a World Tour team have a base salary of around 37,000 Euros.”
“I got my first contract in 2012 and it was so low that I thought it was just a rookie thing and next year it’d be fine. But it wasn’t. In 2013, then-UCI president Pat McQuaid said women don’t deserve a base salary.”
Almost four years on, little has changed, and it’s no surprise that the Homestretch property is already fully booked. “Word of mouth has helped to get the business off the ground,” Kathryn says. “It can’t just be a Band-aid. We are working behind the scenes to eradicate this kind of salary inequity. It starts with the world of cycling, but I’m hoping that other areas of life will follow. It’s about changing the overview for the whole world.”
The funding comes from either tax-deductible donations or from rent received when the property is privately let from June to December. For the first six months of the year, accepted athletes can customise their stay. “The more we can fundraise, the more we can supplement their income by providing stipends for bills or groceries,” Kathryn says.
“We’re not just receiving applications from pro cyclists, but those looking to turn professional. I got one application from a triathlete who keeps just missing the podium and says it’s hard to gain sponsorship and recognition. I want to be able to help people across the board.”
It is not merely about the calibre of the performers. “We also want to know what they’re passionate about away from their sport. Each athlete gives up two hours a week for one of our charity partners. They work with kids or the elderly or whatever they are passionate about. It ties into the bigger picture of ‘Hey, we’re not just a bunch of people riding around on bicycles.’”
Kathryn wants to use the example to educate the UCI into effecting change, and time will tell whether the governing body complies. “I really want to be hands-on,” she says. “How amazing would it be a few years from now if the Homestretch Foundation didn’t have to worry about salary equity but could help juniors become professionals? There are so many areas we can grow. It’s not about helping women cyclists because it’s right, but because it brings organisations a better return on investment.”
It’s evident the passion is brimming over, but being a social activist has come at a price. Her marriage of four years broke down in 2014 and she began questioning everything – her focus, her priorities and her own worth. It would lead to thoughts of suicide, and it was the news of the death of Robin Williams, the actor who was also a keen cyclist, and the outpouring of grief that followed, that provided the jolt to make her choose a different course. She returned to her father and asked for help.
“I will readily admit it has been a much more difficult journey than I understood or expected,” she says. “I feel so lucky that Homestretch gives me something positive to focus on. It was hard. Bicycling magazine came out with an article about just how hard it has been, culminating in a low point in 2014. I feel much better now. Last week I was on a yoga vacation that had nothing to do with cycling and I am trying to make sure I have a little time for myself, especially since the accident. That put a lot into perspective.”
The accident to which she refers was a life-threatening bike crash in a UCI race in Mexico earlier this year. “A woman in front crashed,” she says. “I don’t remember the accident, but I hit her and I landed on my head. I broke two bones in my skull and my clavicle. One thing I will always be grateful to the UCI for is its mandatory requirement to have doctors at races.
“He saved my life in the road by administering something to stop the seizures in enough time before my brain shut down completely. The next two-and-a-half-weeks I was in intensive care in three hospitals from Mexico to Arizona. It’s easy to talk about, as I don’t remember a whole lot.”
“She’s such a fighter,” Chrissie Wellington says, when we ask what it was like teaming up with Kathryn to push for La Course. “I saw first-hand how much fire she has in her belly to truly deliver change, and that fight came to the fore again after her horrific crash. Down but never out, she came back from horrendous injuries to get back on the saddle. Even as she hangs up her racing Lycra, I know the next stage of her life will be devoted to leaving a lasting legacy for generations of female athletes.”
“Eight months on I appreciate life more,” Kathryn reflects. “A random accident could happen to any of us, whether we’re riding a bike or walking down the street. It was the most beautiful thing in the world to see how many people cared. In some ways it took the most difficult situation for me to understand.”