Part II Interview with Women's bike industry expert Stephanie Kaplan
If you missed Part I, check out what Stephanie Kaplan, CityMD Women's Racing Team co-founder turned product developer at Specialized, had to say about her transition from cyclist to industry guru and the current challenges and opportunities in the Women's bike industry.
TBD: Where do you see the strongest growth opportunities for women’s cycling? Recreational / Gran Fondos / Road Racing / Cyclocross / Fat Bikes / Spinning etc?
SK: This is a great question. As a racer, I’d love to say that the strongest growth opportunity is coming from competitive racing, but truthfully it’s not a huge growth driver for the industry. There is an inherent risk that we are willing to take as racers, and the majority of cyclists just aren’t willing to take that risk and give up other parts of themselves to put racing at the center of their life. That doesn’t mean that women don’t want performance and only want to ride casually. I think women still demand performance and great products to give them an experience that I honestly don’t think differs all that much from what men want.
I see a lot of opportunity in Gran Fondos. When I think back to how I got introduced into sports, it was with events like watching the NYC Marathon and watching the pro runners compete...but then seeing all the amateurs slogging away trying to complete the distance. If you go to a bike race, it’s pretty intense, everyone is fairly athletic and going fast. It’s hard (as a beginner) to imagine yourself in that racing situation -- we’re lucky CRCA has annual race clinics, but most places don’t have this kind of support. I think what a “Gran Fondo” or “Charity” style ride provides is an opportunity to get into the sport without the intimidation of racing -- there are so many different types of people doing the ride, you can challenge yourself to do a distance that maybe you’ve never ridden before with the full support of mechanical staff, food, water, etc.
What I would love to envision is a day when a common goal shifts from “I want to run the a marathon in my lifetime” to “I want to cycle 75, 100 miles.” And obviously, a person could start at Gran Fondos and transition up to racing if they so choose, but I think an experience like mine -- where I pretty much went straight into road racing -- isn’t the most realistic way to draw people in. Road racing is somehow simultaneously the most amazing thing in my life and the hardest thing in my life. There is no other sport that I’ve ever participated in where one day I can feel amazing/strong/confident and a day later feel like absolute crap about myself. It’s just such a hard sport -- on your body, time, relationships (esp. If your spouse doesn’t ride like mine), and your confidence. I’m not naturally a talented cyclist, so I have to work at it...and it can be pretty brutal if you have days where you feel bad getting dropped or just lose your mojo on the bike.
I personally see a lot of potential in the sport of Cyclocross. Firstly, I think it’s an amazingly family friendly event. The races usually take place in a park where kids can run around and play, the races are short so you don’t have to be there all day, kids racing is available, there is food and entertainment, and the risk of injury is fairly low. Honestly, what better way to spend your afternoon than the whole family racing, enjoying the culture and environment, playing, riding through the mud. You can choose to be competitive and gun for the podium or just complete the race for fun. You’re never perceived to be ‘dropped’ or ‘last’ -- you often don’t even know where you are in the field. You’re just pushing yourself hard and having an absolute blast. I think it’s such a perfect gateway into the sport. Plus, who doesn’t want to be given permission to ride through mud?! It’s painful...absolutely...but it’s just so much damn fun.
I also got the opportunity to do a lightweight bike-packing trip recently, and must say, for those that are a bit more adventurous, you would be so surprised how easy and safe it is, and how much fun it can be. You will fall in love with your bike again by riding it from point A to point B and seeing the world from an entirely different point of view. I could see this opening the door for getting more people excited by bikes.
Is there a discipline that ‘gets it right’ on women’s riding? That other disciplines should look to emulate, be it structurally, culturally or otherwise?
Wow...I think all of the cycling disciplines have a ways to go in a lot of respects. Although, as I said, women in cycling (and in other outdoor/sporting industries) have been finding their voice in recent years -- the emergence of incredible sites like Pretty Damn Fast, Ella Cycling Tips, Misadventures are great examples.
The running industry has always been a great example where equality and parity has been ahead of cycling. One area within the cycling space that we look to often is in triathlon. That’s where I got my start (and most of my teammates -- as I said before, we all met through our triathlon club), and where many women have dipped their toe into cycling. Much like cyclocross and sportif riding, it’s more about competing against yourself and pushing your own limits, rather than how you measure up in a pack. So, it ends up being a great ‘gateway drug’ into cycling. Triathlon has done an incredible job of reaching out to women and getting them involved in the sport, putting their male and female athletes on an equal playing field, and providing a great overall experience for women (and men). It’s something we as an industry should pay attention to.
I think you are seeing a pretty big movement happening within women’s professional road racing. Bigger teams, bigger budgets (albeit SLOWLY), but the racers are banding together and becoming vocal about their rights and the UCI and other organizations are taking notice and trying their best to support women’s racing. They have a LONG way to go though, and I think a lot of the ‘establishment’ is so old school. It’s funny considering that women’s racing was so huge 30-40 years ago, and it somehow just disappeared off the map. I hope it can get back to that original hey day at some point soon.
I think CX really does a great job. Structurally, CX races generally have all the women’s fields you could dream of, and it’s currently one of the only disciplines that consistently sell out their race fields. You can’t wait and sign up last minute. Women really love it and are signing up and coming out.
Having MTB’ed a little bit in the Northeast I never felt out of place or odd participating in MTB races on the East Coast scene. Whether the fields are packed or not, race directors continue to offer the fields and I found the ‘culture’ at a MTB race really fun and chill, very similar to CX. People are just stoked to be out there and enjoy hanging out, drinking beer, and riding bikes. It’s pretty awesome. That’s not to say that the MTB industry doesn’t have it’s issues at times - those have been well publicized - but in my personal experience the atmosphere was super rad and the welcoming people I met on the East Coast made it a really inclusive experience.
More broadly what are the biggest hurdles to generating faster growth in women’s cycling? Do you think the industry is taking sufficient leadership in promoting the growth of women’s cycling (versus say organizations like USAC)?
There are so many hurdles. I think the industry is still catching up with the men in a sense, and as the women’s cycling community grows, their purchasing power grows, and they will demand more from companies. I came into the industry with such a blind passion but I am learning more and more that like any other business companies have to earn money. With this in mind, women’s products, and women’s spending, just doesn’t come close to matching the men’s purchasing power. For this reason, it can be hard to make a genuine business case for the support of women’s-specific products. It’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg dilemma, but personally, I’m of the “Field of Dreams” mindset: “Build it and they will come.” That’s my passion talking in a lot of ways, but I don’t think women can ask for what they don't see, and they want to see their needs incorporated into products -- not fabricated marketing -- but genuine technologies that make them feel like they’re considered when products are being designed.
The industry must take a broader leadership role to help grow women’s cycling. USAC is a race-focused organization and as much as I wish every single woman would try racing (I love it and it has positively affected my life in so so so many ways), the reality is many women (and men for that matter) just don’t want to race their bikes. They want to push themselves, explore beautiful places, accomplish things they never imagined they could, and see the world in a whole new way, and that’s just as valid as the person who wants to race their bike. I think by showing more sides to cycling than white men racing their bikes is key to showing that this is a sport for so many people. I don’t know about you, but from the second I got on a bicycle, it literally changed my life. Some of my absolute best memories have come while on two wheels, some of the best friends I’ve ever met have come from cycling, and some of the most amazing places I’ve seen have been while rolling on two wheels. This passion is so strong for me that all I want to do is share it with other people and get them out on a bike. I think all of us can relate to this feeling -- this amazing feeling that you wish everyone could experience, and I am convinced that if they do, they will love it.
Basically, I think bike companies need to do a better job of sharing stories and showing off women as a part of their brand. I also think that having more women involved in the industry, advocating for the needs of women, and moving into leadership positions will only improve the scope and quality of products and improve the industry as a whole.
Are women being adequately served/represented?
This is a difficult question to answer. Certainly in the time I have spent in the industry women are better served and represented than they have ever been. And as women become more and more present in the narrative of cycling as we discussed earlier, it will be harder and harder for the industry to ignore them.
The key task is to continue introducing women to the sport. Introducing female voices into the narrative of cycling is the first step but ultimately we need to ensure that the sport appeals to and welcomes women whether it’s for weekend club rides, a gran fondo or racing as part of USA Cycling.
Marketing is certainly part of it, and thankfully that female voice is emerging. But strong role models are also essential. Everyone in the industry is familiar with the ‘Lance effect’ and the boom years that followed. We don’t need to replicate that specific experience, but having strong and successful women in the sport is really important. Thankfully social media helps tackle this task as young girls and new riders alike can follow along as riders like Ellen Noble or Chloe Dygart pursue their passion for cycling.
Likewise, the innovation from small and independent brands is important. Women’s cycling is not a ‘niche’ sport but it’s definitely a smaller piece of the cycling pie so it’s exciting to see some of the agile startups really go after this population, whether it’s on the industry side or on the media front where Ella Cyclingtips is highlighting amazing stories from a perspective that was not as visible a few years ago.
Do you think the continued success and visibility of US women on the global cycling stage in a variety of disciplines changes the growth dynamic for domestic women’s cycling?
Absolutely. This is something that was so helpful to other sports, like US Women’s Soccer. Luckily this past year the US fielded an incredible group of talented female cyclists in Rio. I only hope that the visibility of the sport continues. Personally, I believe that women’s racing is equally as exciting to watch as men’s. Sometimes their shorter races create a more dynamic and active race - unlike the men who may race 200 miles where often a predictable breaks get away for 60% of it and then only the last 30 miles becomes an exciting race.
As an example, the Women’s World Championship race in Richmond was awesome to watch and that finish was easily one of the most nail biting moments of the week -- equally as amazing IMHO as Sagan’s victory. Plus, the crowd and energy in Richmond was just unbelievable and it was right here on US soil, so I can only hope events like this fuel the sport’s growth further each year.
The US has now hosted two World Championships in just a few years - from your perspective in the industry does the visibility and success of those events accelerate the growth of the sport in the US?
I do think it has some impact, although I would argue more so locally in the area where the race occurs. Yes, the events are broadcast on TV, but I think it’s mainly attracting a group of people that already love cycling. But, for example, in Richmond, I would not be surprised at all if the entire World Road event didn’t raise awareness and participation in cycling.
There is so much potential for growth though. What other sport (for the most part) can you pay absolutely nothing - or next to nothing - and camp out along the course and see some of the greatest athletes in the world compete?! What a welcoming sport for spectators. While in US sports like baseball and football tickets get more and more expensive, I think cycling has a great opportunity to become bigger without the same barriers for spectators.
Is the science - fit / geometry in particular - underlying the industry sufficient to appropriately address the needs of women cyclists? Or is the industry still learning?
As with many of these questions there is no clear answer. First and foremost the industry is definitely still learning, particularly with the advent of digitized fitting technologies that allow a whole new scientific approach to bike fit.
But as things are continuing to evolve the answer as it stands today is really “it depends.” Yes in many instances you can simply adjust components to get to an appropriate fit. Like a bell curve, this can probably get to a reasonable fit for the majority of body types, but for me as a shorter person I absolutely would not have been able to participate as well in the sport without women’s specific bikes. So women’s specific product can definitely have a tangible benefit for some portion of the cycling community.
I also think it’s important to recognize that the rest of the outdoor industry has women’s products - even items as simple as hiking poles. So as the female population of cyclists continue to grow hopefully the cycling industry can replicate some of those successes with products that are tuned for women.
What is your favorite bike you’ve helped bring to life and the best ride you have ever done?
The Amira - I have test ridden a ton of models and have spent a lot of time on fit, but the Amira just feels better than any bike I ride. I quite simply haven’t been able to replicate the level of comfort on any other bike. It’s like putting on a glove.
The Dolce Evo is also close to my heart because I helped launch it. It’s not the lightest or highest performance bike but it reminded me how much I loved cycling - it allows you to do anything on a bike.
Best ride: Bikepacking from Vermont to Maine. Not even sure I could pick a day, maybe the one with a mosquito infested swamp, which sounds odd as a favorite ride day but I am just remembering the whole experience of riding from point A to point B as incredible. Definitely a favorite. It reminded me to look up while riding. Even a bad day on the bike can leave you with a smile on your face.