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The Amgen Tour: Fighting for equality for women cyclists

Watch Amgen Tour of California cyclists race through the Sierra

Stage 2 of the 2019 Amgen Tour of California took the bicycle race from Rancho Cordova to South Lake Tahoe. The mountainous route breezed through Placerville before hitting the Sierra on Monday, May 13, 2019.
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Stage 2 of the 2019 Amgen Tour of California took the bicycle race from Rancho Cordova to South Lake Tahoe. The mountainous route breezed through Placerville before hitting the Sierra on Monday, May 13, 2019.

Sabrina Brennan doesn't think women cyclists should get only three days to race when the men entered in the Amgen Tour of California get seven. Brennan, who last year lobbied state officials to help pave the way for equal prize money in surfing, now is using similar tactics with the cycling event, which began last Sunday in Sacramento.

She has asked state department of transportation officials not to issue public highway permits for the country's biggest road race next year because, Brennan says, the event violates the Unruh Civil Rights Act by having an unequal number of race days for men and women.

"We have to keep fighting the same battles over and over again," said Brennan, San Mateo County Harbor District president.

In the race, male contestants pedal more than 777 miles to showcase their sport. The women, in contrast, ride for 177 miles in their three-day event, which runs jointly with the last three days of the men's race, ending Saturday in Pasadena, Calif.

Brennan's push for parity is part of a broader effort in professional cycling, where women athletes historically have faced discrimination in pay, opportunities for racing and live television coverage. International Cycling Union officials plan to introduce minimum-wage and other workplace benefits such as mandatory maternity leave for the women's WorldTour next year.

In recent letters to Caltrans officials, Brennan made a pitch for the agency to withhold permits if men and women are not treated equally. She cited the Unruh Act, which outlaws discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, sexual orientation, citizenship and other categories for all California businesses. Brennan and women surfers made similar arguments last year, when urging the State Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission to reject permit applications by the World Surf League to hold the Mavericks big-wave contest near Half Moon Bay.

World Surf League officials announced a few months later that they would pay competitors equally in all their events – a move they maintained had been planned all along.

Brennan is now working with Kathryn Bertine, a former professional cyclist from Tucson, Ariz., to lobby for a change in the 14-year-old California race that has attracted Tour de France winners.

Bertine said she appreciates the direction cycling officials are headed. But she added, "We're still in a system where people will talk, talk, talk and we will not see action. We have to keep our foot on the gas of activism and not feel thankful and grateful when one tiny step is made."

Brennan, who lives in Moss Beach, Calif., said in an interview that in response to her letters, she had been told by a Caltrans representative that the agency did not control the events it allows to use the roadways. Her reply, she said, was to ask if the agency would "permit a race with seven days for white men and three days for black men."

Brennan said people often don't recognize gender-based discrimination because it is socially ingrained.

"There is a history of sexism in pro cycling, and we seek to end discriminatory practices and move the sport towards equality, inclusion, and equal access," Brennan wrote in a letter to Caltrans. "Sadly, many of the professional women in cycling bear the burden of not being able to speak out and call for change because they fear being dropped from their team (and their paycheck) for questioning discriminatory practices."

In a statement sent to this news organization, Caltrans officials said the department limits itself to determining the potential impact an event will have on the highway system before issuing a permit.

"The decision of the races' length was made by the organization prior to the application, and it is outside the department's purview in this and future sporting events to determine discrimination," the statement said.

Brennan, who co-founded the Committee for Equity in Women's Surfing with some of the world's best big-wave riders, has received national attention for her work. The success with the surfers' competition led two California lawmakers to introduce a bill this year that would require equal purses for all athletes competing on state property used for recreation. While initially supportive of the bill, Brennan has asked the co-authors to amend it to outlaw discriminatory practices such as unequal racing days.

Brennan has no plans to lobby the owner of the Amgen race, Anschutz Entertainment Group, the global corporation of billionaire sports owner Philip Anschutz. She said she doesn't want to force change by challenging every individual sports promoter when a state law or state agency edict can establish a precedent for all events.

But Canadian Olympian Linda Jackson, the founder and owner of TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank, one of the 16 women's teams entered in the Tour of California, said she worries about pushing too hard.

"To push brutally on with 'You can't do this without equal situations for women' is naive," she said.

Jackson, who lives in Pescadero, Calif., said none of the women want to complain too loudly because they need high-profile races such as the Tour of California, the only WorldTour event to simultaneously hold men's and women's multi-day stage racing.

Even at three days, Jackson said the tour offers one of the best opportunities to attract more sponsorship for women's events, with NBC Sports broadcasting the race live.

Seven of the nine top-ranked women's teams are entered in the California race, with star riders that include defending Amgen tour champion Katie Hall of Saratoga.

Because the men's race runs at the same time as the Giro d'Italia, the world's second biggest cycling event behind the Tour de France, the men's rosters aren't quite as impressive as the women's.

The two Amgen events are the only first-tier international road races in America. Anschutz Entertainment Group launched the California event in 2006 as a men's-only weeklong race. Within two years, women were included, but for only one day, in a lap race known as a criterium. In 2014, after six years of single-day events, organizers created a two-day race. Then for the next two years, they offered women four days of racing.

The tour is not profitable, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the race's operations since its start.

Because of a lack of sponsorship, the men's race was trimmed by a day in 2017 and the women's competition lost a stage last year. But in 2018, organizers highlighted the strides they had made toward gender equality by offering prize money equal to that offered men on each day that the women raced. Like the men's champion, the women's overall winner also received a Lexus. The overall prize purse was not the same because of the men's four additional days of racing.

AEG spokesman Michael Roth said the organizers have created "an international platform to showcase women's cycling."

He added, "To properly promote women's cycling while showing parity with our men's race, we believe it is important to offer not only equal prize money to all participants but also equal accommodations, amenities and other elements offered to our men's competitors."

The California race is the fifth-longest of the 23 events on the women's WorldTour calendar this year. The Tour de France has scheduled only a single-day women's race during its three-week extravaganza.

Owners of the Colorado Classic have gone a different route in their race's third year of existence. They dropped the men's competition this year to run a four-day women's-only race in August. And they are offering a $75,000 prize purse for women, after giving the men a $70,000 purse last year.

The race received a second-tier designation from international cycling. But it still could attract top teams because riders can earn points toward qualifying for the Summer Olympics next year in Tokyo.

"What change can we affect? What is the Billie Jean King moment?" Lucy Diaz, a senior vice president for the Denver events group that puts on the race, said they ask themselves. "Our vision is equality, whether that is prize money and equal pay or something else."

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