Interview with Women's Bike Industry Expert: Stephanie Kaplan
Stephanie Kaplan, co-founder of the CityMD Women's Racing Team and long time friend of TBD, started her bike racing adventures in NYC before getting the job of her dreams heading Women's road products at Specialized in sunny California. We caught up with Steph to get her opinions on the state of women's cycling as both an industry insider and a woman with a passion for all things bikes. She had so much to share we are presenting two parts to her insightful interview
[[Read part two here: PART II]]
TBD: You entered into the sport of cycling while living in NYC - what was your athletic background prior to racing and how did you come to call yourself a cyclist?
SK: My athletic background is fairly diverse. I grew up playing multiple sports, but focused primarily on soccer throughout high school. When I got to college, I joined the crew team my freshman year, and rowed crew for one year. I also started getting into rock climbing and worked at a local rock climbing wall throughout most of college. The first week of college my prized mountain bike was stolen, so from that point on I didn’t really have a bicycle. I never really rode bikes as a sport or thought much about them, other than as a means of transportation.
In 2006, I decided to leave my job at an advertising agency in NYC and join the Peace Corps… a perfectly rational decision. Bikes were reintroduced into my life while stationed in Burkina Faso, West Africa. They were program-issued Trek hybrid bikes and it became one of the most useful things I had there. I would ride around town, ride 60km into the nearest city, or ride out to the fields. It was a great form of exercise, but more than that, it was essential to my daily living.
When I returned from the Peace Corps in 2008 I vowed to continue to make cycling a large part of my life and maintain the independence that the bike gave me. So I went to a bike shop and bought my first road bike. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I figured it would be more fun to ride a road bike in Central Park.
My boyfriend (now husband) at the time didn’t ride so I figured the best way to get acquainted with riding would be by joining a club. I started with the Asphalt Green Tri Club and at the NYCC Cycle Club Special Interest Group (SIG) program. The SIG program was the most influential thing I ever did - my husband jokes that it was what opened the ‘floodgates’ to my love of cycling.
As you progressed into the sport were there key individuals that influenced your evolution as a cyclist?
There are so many people that were influential to my cycling life -- each coming in at different stages to push me to the next level.
NYCC SIG Program -- I can’t talk about this program enough. It was amazing in the way it showed me what riding in the city meant, and what riding with a group really involved. Participating in the NYCC SIG program allowed me to learn critical cycling skills in the most supportive and non-judgmental environment. The coaches taught me essential bike handling skills, like how to navigate the treacherous hairpin turns on the George Washington Bridge (the main route out of Manhattan for cyclists) and helped me discover an entirely new world outside of the city. The SIG also introduced me to many of the cycling friends that I still am close with now.
Asphalt Green Tri Club -- namely a coach there, Mike Galvan, who for whatever crazy reason decided to pluck 6-10 girls out of the club that he said, “needed to learn how to ride their bikes.” On entirely donated time, Mike met with us every Friday and had us do a rotating paceline around the main 6-mile loop in Central Park -- barking (kindly, most of the time) orders on shifting, cadence, body position, descending. This pushed me forward in my handling skills and comfort on the bike immensely. I can’t ever thank him enough for initiating this group and for somehow selecting me to take part in it.
“X6” -- The self-given nickname for our original gang of 6 women who would paceline on Friday mornings with Galvan. The ladies from this group are still some of the best friends I have to this day, and they were the ones who convinced me to join the Asphalt Green Cycling Team in December 2010. It was one of those, “Well, I’ll do it if you do it” moments, and 6+ years later, we’re still doing it.
Paul Weiss/Asphalt Green - I can’t forget to mention the amazing teddy bear of a man, Paul Weiss. He established the AG Cycling Team and was the one who ultimately convinced me to join the cycling team. He told me that if I didn’t like it he’d give me a refund, so I figured why not! Paul gave up his life to coach us nonstop that entire winter of 2010-2011. He provided us everything from strength training sessions, spin classes, and eventually outdoor training rides once the weather improved. He was our Yoda. We all trusted him entirely and he knew just how to get the best out of us and to make us feel like we could accomplish anything. I can’t ever thank him enough, and still rely on him as a coach and shoulder to cry on. He’s an amazing mentor and friend!
Similarly were there other established organizations that were particularly important to your education and progression as a cyclist not mentioned previously?
The Century Road Club Association (CRCA), the umbrella bike racing organization for NYC cyclists, proved to be an indispensable resource for new racers such as myself. The CRCA provided a means for women to race locally, a wonderfully run race clinic, and free coaching sessions that allowed me to grow my skills, meet other killer women racing their bikes, and race at 5am in the morning for fun!
As a sport, do you think the support structure to bring cyclists, women in particular, into the sport is adequate?
I haven’t been involved in the cycling community for that long, so I’m sure a good portion of women have dealt with less structure than I have and I think it also depends on your location.
Living in New York City (regardless of the actual ride conditions and the safety aspect) provides so much opportunity to race and train right at our fingertips, for men and women! We have the absolutely amazing NYCC, with their completely free SIG program. We have one of the most well established racing organizations in the country with the CRCA. We have women’s race clinics offered by the CRCA -- including free coaching as a part of the club. There are organizations like WE Bike NYC, programs run by local shops like Bicycle Habitat, and so many others. It’s quite amazing how much is at our fingertips as riders to introduce us to the sport and to give us an environment to learn and grow as cyclists.
I think with racing, it’s a bit more difficult. I was lucky in that the first cycling team I joined just happened to house a women’s development team. From there I was able to learn, ride and race with other girls who shared my same level of experience. Too often in New York, the established women’s teams only want girls who have an experienced track record with race results, which doesn’t make for a friendly or welcoming environment for new riders/racers. As we later discovered, the Asphalt Green Cycling Team was one of the few teams in the NYC-area that offered a full developmental program for female riders.
I think we could all do a better job of providing that development side to racing that really allows women not just to race a clinic but to join a team and ‘give it a try’ without feeling so committed. I know a few teams like that have popped up since I moved out of the NY area, but I think that is so important to grow women’s racing. We can’t keep it so exclusive.
As you transitioned from a racer to a career in the cycling industry, which rightly or wrongly gets perceived as a male dominated industry, what were the biggest challenges you experienced?
Having been in the racing scene for a while -- something that’s also male dominated -- I wasn’t too concerned with adjusting to a similar environment when I started working at Specialized. Something that really struck me when I visited Specialized for the first time was the exuberant and infectious passion for bicycles that every single person (male or female) in that building had. We may not be the same gender, but we all were consumed and obsessed with bikes and the riding lifestyle and that was the most impactful thing for me. I remember leaving and thinking, “I’ve found my people.” It was amazing.
That said, like many other business industries, the cycling industry is driven by profit and as such it can often be difficult to make a case for women’s products. The reality is that women make up a minority of the riding population, and thus sales, so to grow the women’s business you have to help and guide people at the company to look toward the future and see the potential. For me, it was about looking at the problem from a new angle - not just demanding women’s products “because we deserve it” but authentically digging into what riders (men and women) want and need from their products and from the brand. Harnessing my passion for bikes, and redirecting that passion in a better and more focused way was a challenging thing for me in the first few months.
Businesses don’t always run solely on passion and will, and I have definitely learned that the hard way.
For the industry more broadly, what do you think companies get right when it comes to women’s cycling and where are the biggest opportunities for improvement and education?
I’ll be honest, there are a lot of companies with room for improvement -- though in the last few years it has progressed quite a lot. I think some companies really understand and see the opportunity. There are moments where you think, “YES, they get it!” -- this happened for me looking at the execution of the Specialized-Lululemon team. Liv has a really interesting thing going on at the moment. I think brands are really beginning to understand that they need to work at a grassroots level and help build the community and awareness that’s necessary to make women feel welcome into the sport.
I think what companies are starting to get ‘right’ is that they are realizing that women want products that provide a real benefit, and they don’t want to be fed a bunch of BS. As these companies start to see the women’s market growing, they can make more a of a business case to step in and support it with product. In particular, we’re seeing some great improvements in apparel, such as bib shorts designed for ‘nature breaks’ and women’s-specific chamois’, etc. There are finally some functional yet beautiful items emerging from mainstream brands like Specialized and Rapha and smaller independent brands like Ten Speed Hero and Machines for Freedom. It’s pretty incredible actually.
I think the biggest opportunities in the industry lie within making women and diversity an industry-wide initiative. From an industry perspective, this means getting more women and diverse populations into the industry. Let’s be honest, when you look at cycling, it mostly looks like an affluent Caucasian male sport. We need to change the face of cycling and reveal the broader groups of people that are participating. Companies need to start making it a priority to highlight and share the stories of the full population that is using their products - a simple sounding solution that needs to happen more broadly. At the same time, the industry needs more women and individuals with diverse backgrounds moving up into leadership roles and introducing fresh ways of thinking - a transition that is vital to the survival of the industry.
Are there any challenges in being positioned in women’s cycling in a male dominated industry?
Yes, of course there are challenges, going back to the simple fact that the cycling community is overwhelmingly male and ultimately the industry is a business focused on generating profit so energy is focused on the biggest sales pools. But there are important changes afoot in recent years.
Women are more and more moving to the center of the narrative for the sport. Whether it’s via women’s racing at the highest levels capturing the imagination of the US cycling community (Mara Abbot in Rio, the success of Evie Stevens and Megan Guarnier on Boels-Doeman, etc.) or through female owned or operated brands creating storytelling around recreational and adventure focused cyclists, we’re definitely starting to see a shift in the narrative.
None of which is to suggest that the industry has anywhere near perfect equality, but women are now part of the narrative and they have a real voice that is being heard, so progress is being made.
Coming soon: Interview Part II...
Stay tuned to see what Steph has to say about the growth of women's cycling and her favorite bike she helped design!
[[Read part two here: PART II]]