Jessica van Garderen on the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge

Putting women's racing back on the map

Elizabeth Armitstead (on left) is slated to race at the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge. (Photo: DAVID ILIFF/Wikimedia )
Elizabeth Armitstead (on left)

Things are looking pretty good for the men. Between the Colorado Pro Cycling Challenge, Amgen Tour of California, and the Tour of Utah, the professional racing circuit in the U.S. is on the upswing. While the women now have a race of their own in the Exergy Tour, most of the biggest races for men lack an accompanying women’s race. Jessica van Garderen—former professional cyclist and wife of current BMC Racing pro Tejay van Garderen—wanted to change that, and last year she put on the women’s only Aspen race during the Colorado Pro Cycling Challenge. This year, the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge is back, and we catch up with van Garderen on the eve of the race.

How’s women’s cycling looking after Kristin Armstrong’s win in London?
It’s in a really good place right now, but it could always improve. Being an Olympic year, it’s a good year. When people get the chance to see the best women in the world compete, they’re very, very impressed. With the build up from the Olympics, it really helps women’s cycling.

What led you to put on the race?
I’m an Aspen native. When they announced the Pro Cycling Challenge everyone was so excited, but I found myself being less so, and I realized it was because there wasn’t a women’s event. Especially when you talk about the old Coors Classic that had a women’s event as well. You hear people really complain all the time, and that doesn’t get you anywhere. So instead of complaining, I said let’s see what I can do.

And how did last year go?
Last year it went really well. I mean, I would almost call it a grassroots production; we didn’t have any event staff or anyone to really help us. Everyone really loved the courses, and they really loved Aspen. And they were pretty impressed with the crowds on the downtown criterium. Everyone who was in Aspen last year definitely noticed and watched.

And other than solidifying the race as a three-day event, what were your goals for this year?
I wanted more of the top teams to have Aspen on their calendar, which definitely happened. One of the ongoing goals is to get the general population more aware of women’s cycling, and that one is still a challenge. In Colorado, especially right now with the Pro Cycling Challenge, it’s such a big deal. Everywhere you look there’s something about the race. I’d just love for people to be like, Oh yeah, and there’s a women’s event too.

We have the best field. To be honest, I think it helps that I was a cyclist and that either I’ve raced with these girls or for these directors or with them. Everyone really appreciates the effort it took to get this going, so they’re making an effort to get to it.

What happened to the plan to make this a three-day race?
We shortened it at the last minute, because we’re doing this with three people on our own. If we didn’t have every dollar in the bank by August 1 we’d have to make a change. I realize some of the bigger races pay the invoices a few months later. But we didn’t want to risk the whole race coming out of our pockets. We just didn’t have the budget we were hoping to have. We had a lot of promises, but the checks weren’t in the mail. We were about $20,000 under budget, and we didn’t want to risk that.

How was the reception to that news?
The first reaction of it getting cut from three days to one was negative, but we’re really excited about the event we’re putting on. We have more riders, our sponsors are flying in from all over, and we have really big prize money for a one-day race. It’s definitely a few steps above last year.

What’s been the hardest part about growing your event?
Everything has been a big challenge. We’re doing this through a non-profit. Sponsorship is always challenging. Every dollar we raise goes back to the race. We’re trying to put on the best event. We don’t pay anyone to help with the race. So it’s very challenging because you feel one step behind: I wish I had a PR person, I wish I had a media person, I wish I had a Web designer. But we don’t have any of that, and it’s trying to do everything with three people.

There’s a lack of awareness for the women’s event, but that’s partly my fault. I love the Pro Cycling Challenge and they’re very interested, but they have 10 full-time staff. So they can get articles in magazines and newspapers. It’s not as well known, but it’s partly my fault. It’s more like I’ve had to ask people for favors—from different websites and reporters. When you put something in about the men’s race, can you throw something in for the women’s race. And nobody really has.

So lack of attention has been a big problem?
It has been really hard. I would go to bed and be like, I mean to do that, or meant to do that, I should get this article in this magazine, but the deadline was a month ago. I cannot catch up. I don’t want to sound like a complainer, but right now there’s one of the biggest women’s races going in France. You go on to and you cannot even see results. It would be a lot easier if people were contacting me, but instead I’m having to pulls strings and really beg people to write about it or include it. It’s just really, really frustrating.

But the pro men have been some of your biggest backers.
Every day we’re making progress—we just put on a big event in Boulder. TJ—he really has no choice—he’s really awesome. Anytime they ask him to do something for the Pro Cycling Challenge he really says, Only if we can include something about the women’s race. That’s been a huge help.

Is there any hope of officially combining this race with the Colorado Pro Cycling Challenge down the road?
That has been my hope and it keeps coming in waves where it feels really positive. Next year, I think they’ll have a women’s event, but I’m not sure. That is my hope. That’s what Connie Carpenter tried to do for a whole year when Lance went to the governor of Colorado and proposed this race. It used to be the Coors Classic and there was a women’s race alongside the men’s race.

And that’s what Connie was pushing for. I can see where she’s coming from because she did the Coors Classic. I was like, Okay, if that’s not going to happen I’ll start with Aspen. My hopes are still that Pro Cycling Challenge takes it over in some sense, maybe by adding one or two stages. I think it’s really, really doable. Everyone is kind of maxed out right now. You ask about a women’s race, and they’re like we cannot take on a thing.

What’s the plan for next year then?
It’s really just survive this year. With Blue Ribbon being the title sponsors, it’s really seeing how happy they are—if they want to continue or step up.

What would it take to make your race into a bigger event?
It would just take more money. To give you an example, we were hoping for $70,000 to put on a three-day event. I was still cutting corners a bit. But I know for a fact that Boulder has to pay $400,000 for that one stage. If I had enough money to hire a PR firm, I think it would be great. I think you get a lot for your dollar.

The price per value is really, really good with women’s cycling. We have a silver medalist from London coming. We have a lot of top riders. Again, to compare it the men, they get put up in hotels and get every meal covered. That’s just part of the deal. We don’t have the money to do that, which makes it really hard and expensive for teams to fly in to Aspen. It’s a catch-22. I just need money to fall out of the sky or something!

And how should people spectate this year if they’re in town for the men’s race?
Anyone who is near Aspen should definitely come on Wednesday and push my race alongside the men’s race. Come and watch the women, and then an hour later the men come in.  

Filed To: Road BikingSnow SportsWomen’s
Lead Photo: DAVID ILIFF/Wikimedia