Working to Ride: The Economic Challenge of Being a Woman in Pro Cycling

By Megan Flottorp

We hear a lot about the problems that professional athletes encounter when they find themselves suddenly rich at a young age. The controversial shenanigans of emerging superstar athletes are something sports media just can’t get enough of. But this is not the case for everyone in the world of professional sports, and it is time we talk more about the other side of the spectrum.

In addition to riding, over 50 per cent of professional women cyclists works another job in order to support themselves. 2018 saw an increase in men’s minimum salary, which is now up to 38,115 EUR for World Tour teams and to 30,885 EUR for Professional Continental teams, meanwhile, there are still no regulations stipulating that women need to be paid anything at all. Many pro women riders work multiple jobs, go to school, and even take out loans or borrow funds from friends and family in order to keep racing.

A love of the sport keeps most of them going despite the troubling pay discrepancy, but in some cases, it simply isn’t possible to keep riding for free.

Sara Olsson is a Swedish rider whose passion for racing comes across in her eager grit at events and her support for other competitors. She told We Love Cycling that she took to riding shortly after learning to walk and has been racing since she was a kid, yet although she is still at it, she has decided not to ride for a team this year.

She explained that she has been working and “focusing on getting a balance in life since you can never truly get that if you always have to worry about money.”

Although she loves the thrill of competition, she was often sick and felt that the stress of financial strain on top of the pressure to perform was taking a serious toll on her body. “I needed to get some financial stability,” and explained, “and doing things my way this year has sure helped.” Sara works at IKEA half the year and uses the money she makes during the winter months to spend the summer riding. She said she has never felt stronger but that finding peace with the financial limitations of professional cycling hasn’t been easy.

This is the reality for many women on the circuit. Hardly the plush lifestyle that people outside the industry believe professional athletes to be living; a survey released last year by Cyclists’ Alliance found that 50 per cent of women in the sport still earn only 10,000 EUR or less per year, 17 per cent get no salary at all, and a little more than half work second jobs to make ends meet.

Sara Penton, a rider for Team Virtu Cycling who won the Swedish National Road Championship in 2017, explained to us that it is passion keeping these women going. “I don’t think any of us riding at this level are doing it for the money.” She has been racing for a pro team since 2013 and just started to get paid last year. Although she is grateful for what her team can offer her, she said it’s “a salary that can keep me afloat, but just barely.”

She lives in a small apartment with her boyfriend and another couple in order to share the cost of rent and other items. She is making it work and although she is enjoying her life as a professional cyclist, she knows that she “can’t do it forever”. Echoing Penton’s statement, Olsson said that even when women do get paid, it is “more of a symbol than something you can live from.”
Despite the hardships, most women riders are optimistic and exude a contiguous enthusiasm when talking about the future. Asked about what improvements are happening, Olsson said that although the sponsorship dollars may be in short supply, the riders continue to improve and outperform themselves. She believes that with the help of better marketing, interest will grow. “We need the chance to show how incredible and beautiful our sport is. Our races are shorter than men’s, and therefore more intense. They are very fun to watch.”

It is true that coverage is on the rise, but the fact that women riders who barely make a liveable wage are considered lucky is a problem. These women have all shown their determination to persevere, but as Olsson’s statement laid bare, you can’t have balance in your life if you are always worried about how you’re going to pay rent. If a person, man or woman, chooses cycling as their career and is competing with the world’s best, they are professionals and should be paid accordingly.

Considering these women are able to accomplish such impressive feats of physical prowess working with shockingly limited resources, we can only imagine what will happen when they get what any working professional is entitled to – a proper living wage.