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Jonathan Coulter doesn’t mind doing it the tough way, in fact you get the sense that he gets a perverse pleasure from doing things that others would consider too difficult, even impossible. Take women’s cycling for example – lack of funding, the challenge of finding sponsors and the omnipresent uncertainty about whether there will be a team to make it through another season.
Most wouldn’t last long. It’s too hard. But Coulter, the co-owner and sports director of the American-based Hagens Berman Supermint women’s cycling team, thrives in it and his persistency and passion make him one of the driving forces in the development of women’s cycling.
Not an obvious path for a boy who grew up in Brisbane, Australia, and raced the domestic circuit.
“My parents had some land in Brissie and I’d do laps around the acreage and try and beat my time,” reminisced Coulter. “Pretending that I was a Formula One driver on a bike really.”
“By the time I was going to University I was already doing NRS (National Road Series) type races. It wasn’t the NRS back then, we had the Queensland Cup back then and of course the classic races like Grafton to Inverell.”
Coulter was never a world-beater on the bike in terms of talent but as an athlete, he formulated a philosophy of continual renewal and improvement, which still applies to his current job as sports director.
“I was never the most talented – a top 20 here or there, or a fifth at the state championships – and at the time you think that’s crap but you look at the riders you are riding with, Commonwealth gold medallists, Olympians, guys on pro teams. You are a part of that,” he said. “Everything I did went into getting the best out of myself.”
Intro to women’s cycling
In his riding career, Coulter was very aware of the presence and importance of women in cycling, as he looked up to many in his local club and state who were going overseas and achieving great things.
“The whole time I was riding we had Australian women that were dominating on the world stage. From the very start the ‘pros’ from my club were females, so that always stays in my mind, that there were always those top riders there,” said Coulter. “The Queenslanders like Sara Carrigan, who ended up winning a gold Olympic medal, Kim Shirley, Juanita Feldhahn … Liz Hepple was the head coach and she podiumed at the women’s Tour de France. All these women were very accomplished athletes and those exploits at the time were very impressive, when I was just a youngster.”
Coulter made his way overseas and saw an opportunity to continue his career in cycling – as well as use his degree in exercise physiology – as a soigneur for the US-based men’s teams, Bissel Pro Cycling and Fly V Australia. It was during the 2010 edition of the Cascade Cycling Classic when Coulter had a moment of realisation.
“I was working for a men’s team, everyone was getting reasonably well-funded and then you’d see the best riders in the world with very little,” Coulter recalled. “I remember Cath Cheatley and Mara Abbott going up a hill at Cascade and they were just battling, going head to head. I’d been in the media scrum for the men but looking at the women, there was far less for them and I remember thinking that there just wasn’t the respect for women that they deserved. I was on the side of the road watching an epic battle between two of the top riders in the world and I just knew that more could be done.”
“I knew I was helping the teams that I was involved with, but anyone could step into that role. By really creating and nurturing a team of riders, eight or nine riders get to experience the top ranks who otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Taking charge of the women’s Vanderkitten team, a squad that Coulter helped found in 2008, he immediately set about growing the team and providing more opportunities for the riders involved.
And it didn’t take long before it was back to Coulter’s mantra of constant improvement and step by step the Vanderkitten team became more prominent in the US and overseas.
“When you’re in a small pond, you always want to get to the top. We were doing all the Californian races and everytime we got an invite to somewhere the big teams didn’t want to go, we took it,” he said. “Somewhere like El Salvador, where we raced three times. It gave the riders good international racing and it meant when they came back to the US racing they could find their way through the peloton a lot easier.”
It was an impressive program of racing for a relatively small team, made even more impressive by the shoestring budget that the team operated on for that season.
“That first year we ran Vanderkitten on $30,000 USD ($39,000 AUD), I’m not entirely sure how that was possible. I honestly don’t know,” Coulter said. “You look back now … we had some young New Zealand riders come over and they’d sleep in the van and we’d drive from race to race and stay with some host families. It was very old-school, just scraping by and getting to the race, maybe winning a bit of prize money.”
“The sport itself is inherently hard, whether you are male or female. You can get your nose in the wind, end up in the mud, you can crash, there’s all these hard things about it. I look back with fondness and remember the hard parts but being able to deal with that makes it all the better later.”
The goal with the smaller team was to see riders advanced to the point where they outgrew the team and got picked up by bigger squads.
“With Vanderkitten, one of the end goals was to make sure riders progressed, there was really a gap at that Under 23 women level or women new to the sport, giving them support. So it was really a thrill to see a rider go to a bigger squad and thrive there when they arrived. I think there’s been some, like Emily Collins, Ruth Winder that made the move and we viewed as a big success for the team.”
Australian Lizzie Williams also credits Coulter for giving her a leg up in her career.
“Jono gave me the opportunity to demonstrate to the cycling world what I was capable of. The exposure I received whilst on Vanderkitten gave me the pathways to then move onto Europe and then be professionally signed the following year,” she said. “He gives opportunities to the unconventional athlete and provides a different environment to that from the institutes and systems that not all people suit.”
A minty fresh new team
Jump forward a few years and you can see how far Coulter’s vision for supporting female cycling has progressed. No longer a minnow of the peloton, he joined forces with Lindsay Bayer to create the Supermint team.
“We’ve had a great group of people we’ve worked with, people who believe in us and the project through its various incarnations. Lindsay was very adamant last year that each rider gets a salary. We try and pay for all the little things and make it a better experience for the riders. It’s not much and the riders still work (other jobs) but it’s just that little bit easier for them,” he said.
While pay and exposure by itself is already more than most team’s offer, what Coulter gives goes far beyond a dollar value, said fellow team owner Lindsay Bayer.
“There is no way to quantify everything Jono has done for women’s cycling. From the grandest perspective – directing several professional women’s teams and providing dozens of riders opportunities to pursue their dreams – to the smallest detail – offering a struggling rider support and kind words after a tough race. His presence has been felt around the world in women’s racing. There a lot of racers who wouldn’t be where they are now without his help,” said Bayer.
“Jono has inspired, motivated, pushed, taught, and supported so many women on and off the bike and has given everything he has and more to our side of the sport. He literally gave me the shoes off his feet one time. Women’s cycling exists and grows because of people like Jono who care so deeply and commit so much.”
Bigger team, bigger expectations
Of course, a bigger team does come with a new level of expectation on the riders and team management to get results rather than being satisfied with being a stepping stone or making individual improvements.
“Now, with a bigger team, there’s a lot more pressure for the athletes to be successful,” Coulter said. “We’re a team that a lot of the smaller teams look to be, one of the more successful teams. Our sponsors want us to achieve certain goals and we need to have everything in place to achieve them.”
That increased pressure hasn’t resulted in a drastic change in Coulter’s philosophies, however, he remains staunchly loyal to his riders and is committed to see them improve along with the team.
“We offered every rider on our team from last year a contract for the next season. It is a learning process, there are very few riders that can come in immediately and succeed,” explained Coulter. “Making sure there’s a process, so the riders can develop over a number of years rather than sink or swim, that’s important.”
For teams like Hagens Berman Supermint, the uncertainty of the future of the women’s racing scene means that it can be hard to rely upon consistent funding and even at the WorldTour level, money is scarce. It is just a small part of the equation in women’s racing with levels of promotion, broadcasting and public knowledge not comparable with the men’s side of the sport at this stage. Coulter is optimistic that women’s cycling is on the rise.
“We’ve set this up as a long-term thing. We think the racing in Australia and the US is good and we want global cycling to be better at all levels; publicity, media coverage and more money for the athletes. Five years ago, I said ‘I hope this happens in my lifetime but we probably won’t see it’,” Coulter said.
“You look back and gradually it’s improved over the past five years. Having said that, when I was growing up there was already the Women’s Tour de France and those sort of things. In the areas that matter I think we need to keep working as the job isn’t finished.”
*Additional reporting by Anne-Marije Rook