Breaking the Glass Podium

Former pro cyclist Kathryn Bertine launched a nonprofit to give female riders a leg up in the sport. Will it make a difference?

Bertine leading a group ride in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. (Tracy L. Chandler)
Arizona

The first alarm goes off at 5 a.m. Anayantzi Guzman Fuerte, 30, leaves her room and heads to the kitchen to prepare breakfast to fuel the day’s ride—a 29-mile climb up Mount Lemmon, outside Tucson, Arizona. One by one, her five housemates follow suit. By 6:30, there’s chicken, quinoa, and kale cooking on the stove.

“Looks like the usual,” says 20-year-old Mackenzie Green, a cyclocross racer from Cincinnati, Ohio. As they eat, the athletes compare upcoming training blocks provided by their respective coaches.

“Ugh, I have four hours today, with one hour of tempo,” says 34-year-old Meghan Grant, who rides for the Canadian national track team.

“You’re screwed,” says Mel Beale, 24, a road racer from Colorado.

Once the meal is over, they wheel their bikes up the driveway and head off to bang out another workout.

This is how a typical day begins at the Homestretch Foundation, a Tucson nonprofit that was cofounded by former pro cyclist Kathryn Bertine last November. Its mission is to provide temporary housing for female athletes trying to make ends meet. From January through May, the foundation puts up between six and eight women (cyclists, primarily, but occasionally runners) for several weeks at a time in its 3,000-square-foot ranch house.

It’s like a writing residency for athletes. “What if all the pro women had an opportunity to do this?” says Bertine, who is 42. “To put all their energy into their careers. The whole sport would move forward.”

(Tracy L. Chandler)
(Tracy L. Chandler)
(Tracy L. Chandler)
(Tracy L. Chandler)

Considering that the Homestretch women (who affectionately call themselves Stretchies) are saving on rent alone, Bertine’s statement could come across as hyperbole, until you consider the dismal state of women’s pay in professional endurance sports. Only one of the program’s over 30 applicants, Bertine says, has made more than $10,000 a year from their sport. “There are a lot of women in cycling with a lot of talent and ambition who wouldn’t be able to make it without something like this,” says former Specialized-Lululemon team owner Kristy Scrymgeour.

The disparity between men’s and women’s pay is acute in professional cycling. A tiny percentage of women on the World Tour, the circuit that includes the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, take home more than $100,000 per year in prize money and sponsorships; most earn closer to $15,000. The top men, on the other hand, make millions, with the average racer clearing around $80,000. What’s more, the UCI, cycling’s governing body, mandates that men on the pro tour receive an annual salary of 35,000 euros (about $39,000) from their teams. There’s no such standard for women.

For the Stretchies, many of whom are just launching their pro careers, the paychecks are even smaller. Most travel during the nine-month race season, and housing is sometimes covered; the rest of the year they’re on their own, paying the rent with second jobs or support from parents or spouses. Grant, the Canadian, just left a position as an emergency-room doctor to pursue pro cycling full time. Green, the cyclocross rider, was a barista at a coffee shop. “I was working eight hours a day and didn’t have time to train,” she says. “Homestretch gave me a reset.”

Bertine’s goal is to pressure the UCI into mandating a minimum wage for women. “We don’t want to be a Band-Aid for our sport,” says Bertine. “Let’s change the system.” She believes that if she can convince the UCI to treat male and female cyclists equally, then the team sponsors that ultimately pay that minimum wage will fall in line.

Not everyone agrees. “Until women’s racing is broadcast, it won’t be possible to have equal pay,” says Scrymgeour. Currently, anything more than highlight snippets of women’s races is a rarity. Without broader coverage, Scrymgeour reasons, potential sponsors won’t be interested. When I asked Bertine about this, she waved her hand dismissively. She chalks up the sponsorship difficulties to a lack of creativity, claiming that teams need to woo brands outside cycling. She points to Homestretch as an example. In December 2015, Tom Bailey, a biotech executive living in Seattle, contacted Bertine to ask for help marketing a new bike company. Bertine, in turn, pitched the idea for Homestretch. Bailey, a rider himself with a young daughter, loved it. A year and a half later, he fronted the money to close on the $500,000 Tucson house.

Bertine, who lives on-site and directs the program, says her days are spent mostly trying to make the business sustainable. She wants to raise enough funds to pay for house maintenance and, eventually, to establish a monthly stipend for the Stretchies. So far, the only other sponsors she’s been able to attract are the training-video company Sufferfest, which provides free motorpacing, and a local doctor, chiropractor, and dentist, each of whom offer discounted medical visits.

This September, the house will have an additional studio apartment, accommodating two more athletes, and Bertine is thinking about buying another place in a cooler climate so she can host women year-round. The path forward remains hazy, but that doesn’t seem to faze her. “Equality is a staircase, and we have to keep stepping up,” she says. “It’s OK for us to be grateful for changes, but it’s not enough for us as a gender to stop pushing. We have to say, ‘Thanks. And…?’ ”

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