Women find a place in Tour of California time trial

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. -- In its five-year ascension, the Amgen Tour of California has become the most prestigious men's cycling race in the United States, and among the largest on the world stage. The high-speed, multiple discipline event at the Tour of California runs May 15-22 and covers an 800-mile trek, from Lake Tahoe to Thousand Oaks.

But the popular men's event has largely proven futile as a viable women's race. A planned stage race three years ago was canceled because of insufficient funding.

Tour of California organizers have publicly reiterated that event sponsors aren't interested in women's racing, but many women racers believe sponsorship opportunities are possible, citing national events such as the Tour of the Gila, the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic, and the Cascade Bicycle Classic, all of which have men's and women's pro divisions. But the Tour of California has tried to incorporate women's single day or multiple day divisions over the years.

This year, 13 female invitees will compete on May 20 in the Amgen Tour of California Women's International Time Trial Challenge. Held in Solvang, Calif., the race will cover the same 15-mile course where the men will ride an hour later in the sixth of their eight stages.

After scrapping a heavily criticized plan to pay the women based on how many men's time trial times were surpassed, the race directors decided that the female entrants will instead compete against each other for a traditionally distributed $10,000 purse.

Controversy occurred when the original format was dubbed by some as a "battle of the sexes." Andrew Messick, president of race owner AEG Sports, was surprised by the adverse reactions, include accusations of sexism, and the idea quickly fizzled. While the prize purse format has changed, many wonder why just 13 women have been invited: most premier stage races offer up to 10 times as many female entrants.

The women invited to this year's Tour of California, however, are the world's elite cyclists. The leading entrants include Kristin Armstrong, the reigning Olympic gold medalist and former world champion; Emma Pooley, the defending world champion; former world champions Amber Neben and Judith Arndt; current U.S. Champion Evelyn Stevens; and the current U.S. national series leader, Janel Holcomb.

"I don't remember the controversy when it unfolded, but I think it kind of boils down to the fact that we're all part of the same sport," said Holcomb, winner of the recent four-day Joe Martin stage race in Arkansas and last month's Sunny King Criterium in Alabama.

"Whether you're a woman or man, we're professional athletes. It's not a men-versus-women thing," she said. "We all have this competitive nature, and we all work really hard at what we do."

Mike Engleman, a former pro rider and women's cycling advocate and coaching consultant, is simultaneously critical of Tour of California organizers, and realistic about the sport.

"Anything that is productive for women's cycling, I'm for," said Engleman. "I'm certainly not against the time trial at all. I think one of things I've been doing for a number of years is to push [race organizers] to do more." But Engleman questions the extent to which the race directors of the Tour of California have invested themselves in promoting women's cycling.

"I don't really feel like they dedicated themselves to the criterium last year, but that's old history. I don't want to come across as negative. The one thing that's frustrating for me is that no one is really working together," he said. "I don't think the gang at the Tour of California ... well, I just wish they communicated more."

Armstrong, who returned to cycling this season following the birth of her son, embraced the original concept of competing against men's times. But when the format was changed, she was equally pleased. But it was Holcomb, a third-year pro on the top-ranked Colavita-Forno D'Asolo team, who defined the pending time trial.

"The women competing in the time trial thrive on good, hard competition," she said, adding that the results could be the impetus for more women's events at future Tour of California editions. Perhaps 2012 will bring the much-awaited women's stage race for the Tour of California, but in the meantime, all eyes will follow the exceptional women's field at Friday's time trial.

"I am honored to be one of a handful of cyclists invited to this world class event," said Armstrong. "This is a great opportunity to showcase women's cycling in America's premier race."

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