A Dolores-based program seeks to aid U.S. women’s cycling

After negotiating the ruts and puddles of the spring melt in the muddy streets of Dolores, you are prepared for the maze of a garage that is the current home of the U.S. Women’s Cycling Development Program.

You duck below the black-and-white, carbon Giant road-bike frames hanging from the rafters, and try to avoid backing into the stack of wheels leaning in a corner. Your options for sitting are the black leather seats of a sleek-looking motorcycle or a Genuine Scooter Company motor scooter.

Michael Engleman, director of the USWCDP, dashes upstairs to his loft-style apartment, brings down a chair and returns to fabricating a part for the motorcycle.

“That one is for pleasure,” Engleman says, pointing to the motorcycle. “The other one is for work.”

After a career in cycling — two years on the U.S. National Team and 12 years of professional road cycling — Engleman’s work has shifted to supporting the development of professional female cyclists.

“I saw a need to help really talented athletes who are also really good people,” Engleman said in succinct explanation of why he founded the program.

With networking being a major focus of the USWCDP, the sand and gravel balance beams that serve as shoulders for the roads around Dolores may seem like a surprising place to base it. But Engleman is pleased with the location.

“I like small towns,” said Engleman, “and the area has a good cycling infrastructure.”

Placed between the major cycling ports of Durango, Colo., and Moab, Utah, the quiet of the river town is ideal for training, Engleman says. He hopes the program will add to the “good feel” of the town.

USWCDP rider Rebecca Much plans to spend part of her spring in Dolores training to race for Webcor Builders Women’s Professional Cycling Team.

Much, the 2004 Junior World Championships silver-medalist, described Dolores in a USWCDP journal published on www.cyclingnews.com this way: “Dolores is pretty rad… By the time I left I felt like Dolores was home with the hospitality that everyone showed me.”

Engleman hopes that the USWCDP can eventually establish a facility in Dolores where riders can come to train or seek other services — perhaps even partnering with area businesses to offer part-time jobs to young cyclists.

The need for the program is partially driven by a lack of developmental opportunities for female cyclists. USA Cycling, an arm of the U.S. Olympic Committee that oversees national cycling teams, has received considerable criticism for its minor commitment to women’s cycling.

In March, Katheryn Curi-Mattis, Webcor rider, told VeloNews’ Fred Dreier, “I know we will never have parity with the pro men, but it seems like women are an afterthought with USA Cycling at times.”

The USAC runs the men’s USA Cycling National Development Team for U-23 riders with the goal of getting one a year signed with ProTour teams. The team lists 32 riders on its web site. There is not a U-23 development program for women.

Ben Sharp, junior programs manager for USAC, said the development opportunities for women are not as extensive. “It’s a much smaller sport (women’s cycling), with fewer next steps, so it becomes a chicken-or-theegg kind of thing.”

But Engleman disagrees. “The reality is that the U.S. women stand out in the world just as much as or more than the men and the USAC, for one, should be so proud of them that they find the money for them,” said Engleman.

Whether they are the chicken or the egg is open for debate, but the program tries to fill some of this development void for women cyclists. It offers support for elite female athletes and the teams they ride for. The program does not serve as a team itself, but rather as a neutral network dedicated to supporting women’s cycling in many facets.

The USWCDP’s services are extensive. The program coaches some athletes, including 2007 U.S. Road National Champion Mara Abbott, who signed with Team High Road and will race internationally in the 2008 season. The program found medical care when U.S. Olympian Kori Seehafer of the European Menikini-Selle Italia team broke a collarbone. USWCDP even stepped in to help finance Amy Dombroski’s trip to Treviso, Italy, to represent the U.S. National Team at the 2008 UCI World Cyclo-cross Championships this past January.

Although not an issue for the top cyclists of the men’s ranks, money is a major obstacle for both the women pursuing the sport and the USWCDP.

Engleman describes cycling as two different worlds for men and women.

Professional male cyclists who compete in major races like the Tour de France need agents to help them negotiate large contracts and obtain lucrative sponsorships because of the marketing value of their name.

Meanwhile, Andrea Dvorak, a USWCDP rider who is competing for the Colavita/Sutter Home presented by Cooking Light cycling team, postponed a career with a law firm and accepted a meager $6,000 contract to race her bike.

The reality of women’s professional cycling is that money is scarce and many of the riders are preparing for, or already pursuing, a second career. Eight of the top 10 cyclists working with the USWCDP have college degrees, while on the men’s side of professional cycling, a college degree is not as common.

After a year and a half of competitive cycling, the USWCDP helped Durango rider Kristin McGrath connect with cycling-team directors and land a spot riding for the Colavita cycling team. But in order to pursue a professional cycling career, McGrath chose to put acceptance into medical school on the back burner.

“Each of these endeavors requires 100 percent dedication, but obviously I don’t have 200 percent to give,” says McGrath. Figuring medical school will always be there, she wants to ride while her body is up to the physical demands of the sport.

Compared to many men’s cyclists, McGrath is giving more than 100 percent to be in the sport. The pay for women’s cyclists, and even the prize money, lags far behind what the men receive. Like many other developing riders, McGrath has to juggle the time required to work a job outside of cycling, train full-time and travel for races.

Engleman is impressed with how many of the professional women can make a commitment to an extremely demanding sport while keeping depth in their lives and personalities that goes beyond cycling.

Amber Rais, a mentor for the USWCDP who races for Team Tibco and is a U.S. National Team member, has established Elemental Action, an environmental consulting and marketing service geared toward helping athletic teams and individual athletes establish practices that are environmentally sustainable.

“Do they do that because that is how they are or because their options are limited?” Engleman asked.

As with most elements of women’s cycling, finding sponsorship is a challenge.

The USWCDP is registered and functions as a non-profit. With a $175,000 projected operating budget, it continues to look for a major sponsor to help cover the costs. It has yet to secure enough sponsorship to meet the budget.

Much of the USWCDP’s operating income has come from modest sponsor contributions. For instance, Giant Bicycles donates several bikes. The bikes are used for race support, some are given as cycling scholarships for young riders, and others will be sold at the end of the season to fund operations for the next season.

When Engleman talks about the tactics of racing, or the potential of the cyclists he works with, he lights up, but when the business side comes into the conversation his hands fidget with the buttons on the sleeves of his flannel shirt. It is like he is looking for the handlebars he spent so many years holding on to.

“I’m good at seeing and working with talent,” said Engleman, “but not so good at finding the money.”

He believes if sponsors can hear the stories behind the women’s cyclists, they will buy into supporting the sport, and he is confident that the right person will eventually hear the story.

Much of a professional athlete’s career hinges on luck. A lot of luck rests behind being discovered, developed, and even sponsored. Engleman walked into a bike shop when he was 27 and could no longer run competitively; he ended up with a career in cycling that saw him race for Coors and the U.S. Postal Team. But this is the exception, and for women it is even harder to make such stories come true.

That is why Engleman has tried to bridge the gap for women’s cyclists with the USWCDP. “It takes a little too much luck to get noticed.”

Now some of the elite athletes he works with are getting their turn at the top of the sport. The seven women who will be representing the U.S. Cycling Long Team at the Beijing Olympics are associated with the USWCDP as cyclists, mentors, or advisers.

Author C.S. Lewis could have been describing the Dolores-based program when he said, “We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

From April 2008.