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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Friday's one-off time trial at the Tour of California put 15 top women cyclists in a strange yet familiar position. They are not exactly beggars, but they aren't choosers, either. They have only a handful of opportunities to occupy the spotlight in the United States, and if those opportunities are imperfect -- as this one was -- the women feel obligated to balance expressions of gratitude and frustration.
The women's race was sandwiched between a field of amateurs who donated to charity, and the 112 men still left in the professional field. With road closure permits reserving the course for the event only so long, organizers elected to send the women out at 30-second intervals rather than the usual minute or two. They clumped up in twos and threes on the narrow roads and in some cases, found themselves braking or altering their line to avoid the amateurs.
With technical sections and a punishing climb to the finish on a breezy, sunny day, the time trial still gave the women a fine stage to display their athleticism. Yet they all keep wondering when they'll get a bigger one, and whether the pages of their calendar will ever flip forward rather than back and forth. The Exergy Tour, a women's stage race in Idaho that debuted last year to rave reviews from athletes and spectators, was canceled this year and several races in Europe this season have been discontinued or shortened.
"You can't complain -- you have to embrace what the opportunities are," said Evelyn Stevens, the 2012 Olympian and national champion who was fastest on the 19.6-mile course in 55 minutes 49.82 seconds. "We have coverage, we have people here, we want to put on a show. But to not have a women's [stage] race alongside this one blows my mind. I've never seen the financials, but it doesn't make sense.
"On the start line, it fires you up as a professional. We ride the same bikes, we train just as hard, we take it just as seriously as the men do."
What she left unsaid, but is understood by any follower, is that the women have to have the same nerve to take on the risks of the road. Stevens is back racing after a frightening crash earlier this spring that required 40 stitches and extensive dental work to put her face back together. Former time trial world champion Amber Neben broke her hip and two ribs after losing control on a curve, swerving into a small ditch and bouncing hard off a natural rock wall.
Kristy Scrygmeour, general manager of Stevens' Specialized-Lululemon team, echoed her rider's sentiments.
"It's hard -- [the time trial] is just one day, and it takes a lot to get here," she said. "But we want to keep supporting this in the hopes that it grows into something more. We have to remain positive. It's a fantastic race in a beautiful part of the world and I'd love to bring more [riders] here and get more exposure for women on TV.
"Once an event is in place, it doesn't cost that much to put on a women's race every day. If they really want to do it, they can do it."
This is the third straight year the Tour of California has held a women's time trial during the men's race. The race added a women's criterium to the event several years ago in Santa Rosa on the closing circuits of the men's course. Tour of California executive director Kristin Bachochin said that another criterium-style women's stage would be the most likely next step for an expanded women's event. "It's a controlled environment and we have a captive audience," she said.
But Bachochin, also a senior vice president for AEG Sports, the Tour's parent company, said a time trial is currently still the best vehicle for showcasing the women to fans and potential sponsors. (Bicycle parts manufacturer SRAM sponsored the women's time trial.) "We have a continued commitment to the women's race," she said.
Stevens was brought onto the awards podium with men's stage winner and overall leader Tejay Van Garderen, and the two appeared at a joint press conference.
Two-time Olympic time trial champion Kristin Armstrong, now retired and an online commentator for Friday's race, said she thinks skepticism from broadcast media has been an obstacle to adding women's races to existing men's events, but added that the bottom line is sponsorship. "I see how stretched [organizers] are already," she said.
Van Garderen, whose wife Jessica Phillips is a former racer and race organizer, interrupted his remarks to say how glad he is to see the time trial take place, but like many of those who took part in it, he said he hopes for more now that he has a newborn daughter.
Stevens, 30, a latecomer to the sport after a brief career on Wall Street, said she is making it a personal goal to push for more women's stage races in the future even if they don't benefit her personally. "By the time I retire, I want to see a women's race with every major men's race [in the U.S.],'' she said. "I've not had a good explanation for why not. I'd like to see the numbers.''