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For most female professional cyclists, their story starts something like this: Girl meets bike. Girl loves bike. Girl gets fast. Pro team likes girl. Pro team offers small salary. Girl must work and race simultaneously. Boy, that's tough. Here's how girl does it.
Mary Zider of Team Colavita came to cycling the way most U.S. pro riders do: through a background of non-cycling-related sports.
"At a very young age I was always being dragged by older sisters to run the track or do some crazy workout in our yard," said Zider, who grew up in Barre, Vt. She never resisted, and the sibling workout sessions instilled in her an early passion for soccer, basketball and lacrosse. After a soccer career at Boston College and qualifying for the Boston Marathon, Zider -- who'd grown used to a schedule of training and competition -- craved an athletic outlet to fill the void.
"I started riding with some friends and joined a local cycling group called the Crack O Dawn, which trained at 5:45 a.m., and quickly realized this was my next competitive adventure," Zider said. As Zider completed her senior year, majoring in human development focusing on human resource management, she knew she wanted to cycle at a high level. She knew that to do that, she'd need a flexible schedule or a unique job. Zider took positions at Boston College's graduate school admissions office and at Beaver Country Day School in nearby Brookline, as well as at a boutique fitness studio.
"I was able to work jobs that provided some flexibility, but the hours within my day became so structured that any error such as an unexpected appointment or a traffic hold-up could be detrimental to my training," said Zider, who acknowledged that pro cycling training often requires upward of 20 hours of workouts a week. "[Work] became very stressful, and training for a long-term race wasn't something I couldn't sustain with the few hours of sleep I was getting. I was quickly burning out."
The dream of racing professionally was worth it, despite the physical toll, and Zider had the will to find a way to make it all happen.
"My determination and work ethic kept me in sight of my goals," she said. "It has taken years to find that right job situation, but I can now proudly say I am very fortunate to have a job that supplements my racing profession and allows me to pursue my love and passion for cycling."
Zider, who signed on with Team Colavita this year, took a customer- service position with Eastern Mountain Sports that allows her to work remotely. This aids her demanding physical training by lessening the time she spends standing or sitting for work.
"I only work about six or seven hours per day, with no commute. This allows me to train the hours I need during the week and get those few extra hours of sleep that really make a difference," she said. "There is still a lot of juggling of schedules to make this whole racing thing work out, but for me it's been worth every minute."
While creating a chance to race professionally is an incredible achievement, especially now when a tough economy has made it difficult to secure sponsors, there are still hurdles. In women's cycling, the U.S. has fewer than seven fully funded pro teams. Only a select handful of cyclists earn a decent living from a combination of salaries, prize winnings and endorsements. The majority of U.S. female racers earn well below the poverty-line income of $11,170 for a single-person household. Couple that with any unforeseen setbacks, and the dream of racing professionally becomes extremely fragile.
For Zider, whose income from EMS and cycling was intended to supplement her household, a crisis arose when her boyfriend became unemployed.
"At that time, his salary was pretty much our primary source of income," she said. "This period of life was very challenging and stressful. It would have been very comforting to know that, as a pro racer, I would have a regular salary that was comparable to other female pro sports or to men's cycling base salaries, but unfortunately that is many years away."
Like Zider, other pro cyclists have found a way to merge their careers with their athletic passions, but working two careers is far from ideal for any athlete. Former U.S. time trial champion Alison Powers, who races for NOW/Novartis for MS, uses her experience to guide other cyclists at her training company, ALP Cycles Coaching. While Powers can work from home, the time and focus on others required still hinders her training and racing schedule.
"As much as I enjoy coaching, it would be nice to not have to do it. It can get a little overwhelming dealing with bikes and training all day long, day after day," Powers admitted. "Even when I am at races, I have to take care of my athletes while they race. Sometimes, I'd rather sit on the couch, turn off my brain and watch TV. But that doesn't happen. It doesn't happen for many women in sport."
Nicky Wangsgard, a 13-year veteran of pro cycling who currently races for Primal/MapMyRide, is also a professor of special education at Southern Utah University who works 30 to 40 hours a week. While SUU is supportive of Wangsgard's racing, her previous employers at another university were less than enthused. The pride of being an elite athlete was traded in for secrecy and fear of losing her job.
"At the college I taught at before Southern Utah University, I was told that my colleagues would think that I'm not a scholarly educator if I'm a bike racer," Wangsgard said. "So I kept it a secret. I'm lucky SUU is so supportive. My colleagues love reading my race reports and seeing photos of the finish or race action. If I need a class covered, there is always someone willing to help."
Even with the support of her department, a 30-to-40-hour week is a difficult physical demand on Wangsgard.
"I've noticed that I do not get as much down time to recover [from workouts and races] as I would like. At times, I have to work out early in the morning right before work, which means I'm on my feet all day right after a hard workout. Or I'm on my feet all day and then working out tired and not feeling as strong as I could have felt," Wangsgard said.
Most female road cycling pros race from February to October, with the majority averaging 30 to 50 event days per year. For those competing internationally, the number of races can double. For Zider, months away from home were the norm.
"I found myself traveling on the road with very limited time at home between events, sometimes just long enough to do laundry," she said. "Once, we left for a mini training camp in the end of April, then it was off to the races, literally, until the end of July."
Yet despite the global growth in both strength and numbers for women's pro cycling, there is still no minimum salary for racers. In men's cycling, the neophyte pros on the UCI continental teams are guaranteed a base pay of $29,000. (For top men's professionals on the higher-ranking UCI WorldTour teams, the average salary jumps to $331,500).
"If the top American female cyclists, let's say just 50, were paid half of the salary that the top 50 American men are paid, women could possibly work part time or not at all," said Wangsgard. "Most of my teammates who decided not to work have a hard time paying their bills. They are dependent on race winnings, which leaves them stressed and worried. Most of the female cyclists I know race because they love the sport, not because they are making a good living."
Zider and Powers agree.
"It would be nice to see a minimum-salary agreement for all UCI women's teams," Zider said. "This would guarantee a rider a minimum salary in which [women cyclists] could plan and build a life around."
Powers notes that small steps like having male cyclists recognize and champion the rights and accomplishments of female racers goes a long way in bridging the equality gap. Until the day comes when cycling salaries are equal, most female racers find that a positive outlook helps keep everything in perspective.
"I decided long ago that happiness is more important than money," Powers said. "Therefore, I have only worked jobs that have provided me freedom to ride my bike."
For Zider, and for most women on the pro circuit, the decision to race despite the obstacles of income eventually comes down to love. "There are times when I stop and ask myself, 'Is it worth it?' But when I look at the memories, the friendships and the experiences I've been able to have because of cycling, it becomes crystal clear why we do what we do. I love the feeling of pushing my body to its limit, always striving to be better and stronger. I ride and race my bike to enjoy the adventure."
As female riders continue to voice their opinions, rise through the ranks and strive for equality, change is inevitable. Luckily, the heart of the story will ultimately stay the same: Girl meets bike. Girl loves bike. The end.