When Belgian cyclocross racer Sanne Cant took first place at last month's Trek CX World Cup Race, she also took home a check for 5,000 euros — a cool 60 percent more prize money than the previous female World Cup winner.
The first-place male finisher, Dutch racer Mathieu van der Poel, also took home 5,000 euros, marking the first time in the history of cyclocross that male and female racers were paid equally for a World Cup race.
The sudden and significant raise for female cyclocross racers comes as the result of Wisconsin-based Trek Bikes' decision to offer equal prize money at the annual World Cup race hosted at their headquarters.
Women and men race the exact same course in the sport of cyclocross, a mostly off-road discipline of cycling in which riders cover terrain including grass, dirt, gravel and occasional pavement. Races are generally one hour, around a 1.5 – 2 mile loop, which typically includes obstacles and barriers like boulders, logs, ramps (called "flyovers") and steep hills which require many riders to dismount and carry their bikes to the top before re-mounting as quickly as possible. Because cyclocross is a winter sport, mud and snow are frequently the icing on the cake.
“Athletes are athletes,” said a press release from the company. “Gender, race, size, shape, and ability do not determine a person's value. Desire, ambition, goals, dreams, and heart are not defined by looks. Every person should have equal opportunity to fulfill their potential, and should be equally rewarded for doing so. Trek is proud to host the first World Cup in cycling's history to offer equal payouts to the men's and women’s fields.”
UCI, the sport's governing body, dictates a prize amount of 5,000 euros for the first-place Elite Male racer at each of the ten World Cup races per season, while race organizers are only required to pay the top female finisher 2,000 euros.
Not only is UCI’s required payout for women 60-percent less than their male counterparts for racing the exact same course, but while the top 40 male racers all go home with prize money, only the top 20 female racers do.
At the Sept. 17 Jingle Cross World Cup Race in Iowa City, Iowa, for example, 40th-place men's finisher Jeremy Durrin took home the same 300 euros in prize money that 11th-place women's finisher Emma White did, and the 12th-place women's finisher took home nothing at all.
While this pay discrepancy has been the norm in cycling (and skating, and surfing, and pretty much all professional sports), Trek "wanted to be on the right side of history," said the company's brand manager, Eric Bjorling.
Trek announced in June they'd pay all winners, regardless of gender, the UCI-mandated prize amounts for men.
American cyclocross racer Ellen Noble, who took third place at the Trek CX World Cup, took to Instagram with her support of the decision: "Equal pay at World Cup … sends an important message. The message that, as female athletes, what we're doing is valuable – EQUALLY as valuable – as our male counterparts … It's never been about the money – it's what the money signifies."
Adds Katie Compton, 13-time cyclocross U.S. National Champion, "I’m really proud of Trek for stepping up. It's a been huge discrepancy between what the men get and what the women get … I’ve been frustrated for a long time.”
Not everyone was as pleased with Trek's announcement according to Bjorling."There was speculation and feedback in the race-organizer community, some more vocal than others, that it could make other race organizers uncomfortable or feel pressured to do the same."
So far, none of the other nine World-Cup race organizers hosting races in the 2017-2018 season have announced plans to follow Trek's lead, and UCI has shown no signs of updating their prize-money mandates.
But the pressure has to start somewhere, and a sponsor as visible as Trek taking a stand certainly asks an uncomfortable question of other stakeholders in the industry. "I really hope in the future it’s not even a discussion anymore," said 2016-2017 cyclocross World Cup Overall winner, Sophie de Boer. "We have to keep moving forward."
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